Achieving great success as a composer for musicals during Broadway’s heyday, Jule Styne claimed to have written 2,000 songs and had some 200 hits during a songwriting career that lasted over 50 years. He was known for being a great collaborator who could tailor his music perfectly for different scenes and for the vocal abilities of particular singers. “A master of plugging holes, he could sit down at the piano and come up with a song for any dramatic situation at the proverbial drop of a hat,” noted Stephen Holden in the New York Times in 1994, soon after the composer’s death.
Styne was one of the last survivors of the great American songwriters for the musical theater that included Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, George and Ira Gershwin, and Irving Berlin. Although he wrote songs for a number of movies, he much preferred composing for the stage where the music was more of an integral part of the story. While he didn’t expand the frontiers of the musical, Styne struck a chord with audiences with his catchy melodies and dramatic numbers that often brought the house down. “Although his style is traditional, and shows little harmonic or melodic experimentation, his best songs have melodies that often take unexpected turns toward the end,” noted Gerald Bordman of Styne in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music. “Styne’s best songs have reflective, sometimes romantic lyrics, with slow melodies based on repetition of short, distinctive phrases,” added Deane L. Root in the New Grove Dictionary of Music.
Styne often claimed that the lyrics were more important than the music, and he was generous in giving credit to his collaborators and singers for making his songs popular. “You write as well as you write with,” he remarked to the New York Times. He was a tireless workhorse in the composing arena who never let his ego get in the way of his craftsmanship. As he was quoted saying in The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, “I believe in perspiration—not inspiration.”
Some of Styne’s musicals sparked the careers of some of Broadway’s most famous female talents. He helped launch the careers of Carol Channing (in 1949’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and Barbra Streisand (in 1964’s Funny Girl), and provided memorable showcases for the talents of Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, and Judy Holliday. He also provided Frank Sinatra with a number of his early hits in the 1940s, among them “Some Other Time,” “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” and “Time After Time.” One of Styne’s greatest successes was Gypsy, which starred Merman in it’s premiere in 1959 and featured the classic Broadway show-stopper “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Other classics hat he composed included “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Saturday Night (Is
Born Julius Kerwin Stein, December 31, 1905, in London, England; died September 20, 1994, in New York, NY; son of Isadore and Anna Kertman Stein; married Ethel Rubenstein, 1927 (divorced, 1952); married Margaret Ann Bissett Brown, 1962; children: Stanley, Norton (with Rubenstein); Nicholas, Katherine (with Brown). Education: Chicago College of Music; Northwestern University.
Moved from England to Chicago, IL, 1913; debuted as solo pianist with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1914; granted scholarship to the Chicago College of Music, 1914; played piano at burlesque houses and composed first songs while in high school; toured with Edgar Benson’s Orchestra; wrote first hit song, “Sunday,” with Ned Miller, Chester Conn, and Bennie Kreuger, 1926; began playing piano with Ben Pollack’s band, late 1920s; changed name to Jule Styne; became vocal coach for Broadway entertainer Harry Richman; moved to Hollywood and worked as vocal coach at 20th Century Fox, 1920s; formed own ensemble, 1931; wrote songs for low-budget films, late 1930s—early 1940s; hired by Republic Studios and wrote songs for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers; wrote war-time hits “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” and “I Said No” with Frank Loesser, 1942; began long-time partnership with lyricist Sammy Cahn; created score for High Button Shoes, 1947; worked with Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Leo Robin, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, and Bob Hilliard; wrote score for Gypsy with Stephen Sondheim, 1959; scored Funny Girl with Bob Merrill, 1964; composed scores for Hallelujah, Baby!, 1967, and Sugar, 1972; composed music for television and ballet; wrote his final score, for The Red Shoes, 1993; died of heart failure at age 88, 1994.
Awards: Academy Award, Best Song (“Three Coins in the Fountain”), with Sammy Cahn, 1954; Songwriters Hall of Fame; Theater Hall of Fame; John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts honor for cultural contributions to the nation, 1990; New Dramatists Lifetime Achievement Award, 1992.
the Loneliest Night of the Week),” “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends,” and “People.”
Julius Kerwin Stein began his musical career with a dramatic flourish at the age of three when he was living in the Bethnal Green of east London, where his parents ran a butter and egg store. While he and his family were watching a performance of the Scottish entertainer Harry Lauder, the young Stein jumped on the stage and sang a song. Lauder recommended that the Steins buy their son a piano, but they rented one instead to save money, and arranged for their son to take lessons.
By the time the Stein family moved to Chicago in 1913, Julius was a very accomplished pianist. He debuted as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age nine, and soon was performing with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as well. Studies in harmony and composition followed after he was awarded a scholarship to the Chicago College of Music in 1914. Despite his obvious talent, a career in classical music was deemed impossible for him by the time he was in high school because his hands were too small to cover the necessary spans.
As a teenager Stein began frequenting jazz clubs and developed a love for the music he heard there. He began playing piano in burlesque houses and composed his first two songs while still in high school, a pair of ditties called “The Guy in the Polka-Dot Tie” and “The Moth and the Flame.” Around this time he also developed an enduring addiction to gambling, after betting on the horses at a racetrack for the first time. Following graduation he tickled the ivories in various nightclubs and with a number of combos, as well as toured with Edgar Benson’s Orchestra. His parents were not pleased with the shift in his musical interests. “My father wouldn’t like the success I’ve had as a songwriter,” he was quoted as saying in the New York Times. “He said he never paid for me to be a composer. He paid for me to be a pianist.”
Success as a songwriter came to Stein with his catchy “Sunday,” which he co-wrote in 1927 with Ned Miller, Chester Conn, and Bennie Kreuger. This hit earned him a spot with the well-established Chicago band of Ben Pollack, whose members at various times included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Charlie Spivak. Around this time Stein rechristened himself Jule Styne, to make his name sound less Jewish, at the suggestion of an executive at the Music Corporation of America.
Styne continued to play piano in jazz groups and dance bands, and formed his own combo in 1931. He honed his ability as a composer and arranger as his band played at Chicago night clubs and speakeasies. Before long Styne ended up in New York City, where he became a vocal coach for the Broadway entertainer Harry Richman. This connection helped him get a job in Hollywood as a vocal coach at the 20th Century Fox film studio, where he worked with Shirley Temple, Alice Faye, and Constance Bennett, among others. He got his first taste of film composing as a writer of songs for low-budget movies such as Hold That Co-Ed In 1938. After making a move to Republic Studios, he wrote songs for the singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, while also providing music for forgettable films such as Hit Parade of 1941, Melody Ranch, Rookies on Parade, and Angels With Broken Wings.
Teaming up with Frank Loesser while on loan out to Paramount, Styne composed two songs for 1941’s Sweater Girl that became big hits during World War II: “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” and “I Said No,” the former of which recorded by vocalist Helen Forrest with Harry James and His Orchestra. Meanwhile, back at Republic, Styne began the most successful partnership of his career when he began collaborating with lyricist Sammy Cahn. With Cahn he struck gold in the 1940s with songs such as “I’ve Heard That Song Before,” “Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)”, “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” and “I’m in Love.” He also had success writing songs with lyricists Herb Magidson and Walter Bishop. Sinatra helped build his following by singing Styne tunes in various movies in the 1940s, including “Some Other Time” in Step Lively, “Fall in Love Too Easily” in Anchors Aweigh, and “Time After Time” in It Happened in Brooklyn.
Despite his success as a composer for songs showcased in film—he won an Oscar for 1954’s “Three Coins in the Fountain” and was nominated seven other times—Styne never liked writing music for the movies. According to the New York Times, he once said, “I don’t like a director telling me what song goes where.” He found his true love as a composer for stage musicals after World War II, scoring over 20 of them before his death. But success did not come immediately to Styne on Broadway. His and Cahn’s first attempt, Glad to See You, never made it to New York after its brief run out of town. However, the show included their “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” which became a long-time standard on the cabaret circuit. The duo hit their stride in 1947 with their score for High Button Shoes, a musical starring Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabray that became a big hit and ran for 727 performances. Two years later Styne struck gold on stage again with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which made Carol Channing a major star and became a popular film version in 1953 starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.
In 1951 Styne teamed up with the lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green for Two on the Aisle, a revue that featured Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray. The partnership proved a lasting one, and the threesome worked together often over the next decade, ranging from the stage musical Bells Are Ringing in 1956 to the film score for What a Way to Go! in 1964. During the 1950s Styne also worked with Leo Robin, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, and Bob Hilliard. He put on a producer’s hat on occasion, co-producing a revival for Pal Joey in 1952 and Mr. Wonderful in 1956. Styne reached what many consider his peak in 1959 with Gypsy, whose lyrics were penned by the young Stephen Sondheim. Featuring Styne’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”—his personal favorite among his songs, according to the New York Times—Gypsy was based on the memoirs of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, which dealt with her days on the vaudeville circuit as her domineering mother tried to force her into becoming a star. The musical became one of Ethel Merman’s biggest triumphs on Broadway, and it was later made into a film with Rosalind Russell in the title role.
Five years later Styne had another great triumph with Funny Girl, a musical about the life of Fanny Brice with the new superstar Barbra Streisand. According to Kurt Ganzl in The Blackwell Guide to the Musical Theatre on Record, the songs created by Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill for the show “helped lift the piece right to the forefront of that favourite type of Broadway musical, the vehicle for a larger-than-life female start, which Styne had already served so well in Gypsy.” Although the Hollywood version of Funny Girl released in 1968 was much acclaimed, Styne had nothing good to say about the film versions of his musical or any other musical. “The movies destroyed every musical they ever made from the stage,” he said in the New York Times.
Funny Girl turned out be somewhat of a creative finale for Styne, and his musicals that followed had little impact. Minimal runs were tallied for his Hallelujah Baby! in 1967, Darling of the Day in 1968, Look to the Lilies in 1970, and Sugar in 1972. He maintained a high visibility during the 1960s and 1970s despite his advancing age, and often performed his own songs on television or for industry showcases. He also made the rounds at nightclubs on a regular basis so he could hear singers belt out songs from the “good old days.”
Still active at his piano well into his eighties, Styne worked on his last musical, The Red Shoes, in 1993. The show was a major flop, closing after only three days. He died the next year, six weeks after having open-heart surgery, at the age of 88. At the time he had been involved in a revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes being planned for the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. “Born three years after Richard Rodgers and seven years after George Gershwin, he was the last great American songwriter to hark from the era when great American songwriters seemed to give unified voice to an entire nation,” remarked Frank Rich of Styne in the New York Times after the composer’s death in 1994.
High Button Shoes, 1947
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1949.
Peter Pan, 1954.
Bells Are Ringing, 1956.
Do Re Mi, 1960.
Funny Girl, 1964.
Sweater Girl, 1942.
Anchors Aweigh, 1945.
It Happened in Brooklyn, 1947.
My Sister Eileen, 1955.
What a Way to Go, 1963.
Gänzl, Kurt, The Blackwell Guide to the Musical Theatre on Record, Blackwell, 1990, pp. 391-392.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, editors, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Macmillan, 1986, p. 328.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 5, Guinness Publishing, 1995, p. 4011-4012.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 1980, p. 321.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, reviser, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Eighth Edition, Schirmer Books, 1992, p. 1817.
Taylor, Theodore, Jule, Random House, 1979.
Billboard, October 1, 1994, p. 3; March 18, 1995, p. 42.
New York Times, September 21, 1994, Section 1, p. 1;
September 25, 1994, Section 4, p. 17; October 2, 1994, Section 2, p. 6;
New Yorker, October 3, 1994, p. 47
U.S. News & World Report, October 3, 1994, p. 20.
Vogue, December 1993, p. 132.
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