Spotlights on Women Composers in Early Broadway History: Week Three, Clare Kummer

Photo: Clare Rodman Beecher (b. 1874 – d. April 22 1958)

Composer, playwright, adaptor, lyricist, librettist, director, producer, occasional performer, with professional credits over a fifty year period across stage, screen, film and television.

Researched and Written by Sarah Whitfield

‘Why shouldn’t I write? All of my ancestors wrote or expressed themselves in oral compositions, so why haven’t I a right to write?’ — Clare Kummer, 1917

Like Nora Bayes, Clare Kummer had a song which was a huge hit: “Dearie” in 1905, which sold over 1 million copies of sheet music. To put that in context: in 1900, it is estimated that there were about 1 million pianos in the entire US. With the help of Dr. Sarah Browne and student performer, Shelley Marsh, we recorded the song last week.

One thing that quickly became clear was how beautiful the piano accompaniment to the song is, and Kummer’s accompaniment reveals her skills as a pianist. In a rare interview about her compositions, Kummer explained, ‘I have a great reservoir of tunes to draw on, composed at different times and never used, and in writing lyrics I live.’ 

Section of the chorus of “Dearie,” published in 1905.

Unlike the other composers I have covered so far in this series, Clare Kummer did compose several full-length musicals in her own name (in fact, sometimes as composer, lyricist, and librettist): Captain Kidd or the Buccaneers (no surviving music, 1898); Noah’s Ark (Philadelphia, 1907); two one-act musicals Chinese Love (1921), The Choir Rehearsal (1921); and Annie Dear (1924) (composer, lyricist and librettist — billing at the time noted dance and additional numbers by Sigmund Romberg). In her career, then, she went from composing additional music to having additional music composed for her shows.

Kummer became far better known for her playwriting. In fact, one contemporary report even suggests she was meant to have won the Pulitzer Prize in 1917. The New York Tribune reported on the deliberations and noted, “[We] understand that the committee selected A Successful Calamity, by Clare Kummer, as the year’s best play, but for some reason which [we were] unable to learn, the award was not made.” The first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Best Play was not until Susan Glaspell in 1931, who won for Alison’s House.

In addition to her prolific career as a playwright — 18 of her plays were performed on Broadway — Clare Kummer published an extraordinary amount of music. Christopher Reynolds, in his important database of women songwriters’ publications, found 85 separate sheet music publications throughout Kummer’s career. (A full list of her music is available at the end of this article.) Yet, Kummer has been poorly remembered as a composer; indeed, she has no article in Grove Music Online (Oxford Reference). Her compositions have only begun to be reinterpreted because of Maestra and their Timeline of Female Composers on Broadway (for more on this read Doug Reside’s post here) and the work of the Clare Kummer Project, which I’ve been part of in photographing and digitizing Kummer’s plays and musicals. 

Kummer was born into a literary (and fairly wealthy) family. She was the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the cousin of William Gillette, an actor famous for his portrayals of Sherlock Holmes on stage. She received as full a formal education as was achievable at that time; at the age of 12 she studied at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn. In a later interview (which curiously, she wrote as an entire playlet) she remembered, albeit in slightly odd third person, ‘When she was still nobody, in particular, and yet that most important person, a child, she could improvise beautiful music on the piano.’

Kummer wrote a full musical as early as 1898, though at the time it was billed as an opera. Titled Captain Kidd or the Buccaneers, it seems to have been totally forgotten and there is no mention of it again in her lifetime, nor has it ever been explored historically. The show was produced by Charles Frohman as a preview in London, and it even had a license with the Lord Chamberlain’s Office which approved all material that was publicly staged. This means the lyrics and libretto have been preserved, but not the score. Such an early full musical by a woman composer is quite a find, but its relationship to Kummer’s career is completely unknown. One explanation for its absence from public record could be the existence of a second Clare Kummer – but there is none to be found. I looked at the copy of the script in the British Library and the humour, lyrical style, and even the handwriting match. (The manuscript is signed). At the moment nothing has emerged to explain why this show was presented in London or what happened to it. As far as I can tell, she never spoke of it again. 

When I looked at the copy held at the British Library, it revealed essentially a Gilbert and Sullivan style operetta. The lyrics and libretto (though it’s mostly sung) were also written by Kummer and are rather charming. The show is about useless pirates attempting to find lost treasure. In this song, a group of girls become smitten by the pirates.

Oh what charming men, dear girls, 
Really I never
Saw such whiskers or such curls
Or such costumes ever.
([They] go close to pirates.)
Look at this one’s cunning sword
Were he less irate
I believe upon my word,
I could love a pirate.

In my favorite song from the script, a very boring professor explains the latest dinosaur discoveries to those around him. 

The Ichthyosaurus has left no trace,
Of how he wandered from place to place,
And so the conviction upon us steals, that 
The Ichthyosaurus – he must have had wheels. 

It is still possible the music could emerge, and that would give us a window into this very early composition from Kummer, who was only 25 when she wrote it.

Unlike Nora Bayes and Cissie Loftus, Kummer was not a performer, though she did enter into variety theatre in London, to some success. She performed some of her c–n songs in August 1905, when she was described as ‘an entertainer at the piano’ in one British newspaper. But the early part of the careers of all three women have similarities: the uncomfortable association with c–n songs and the inevitable association with Florenz Ziegfeld. Even at the very beginning of her career, Kummer’s music was sold as early as 1905 via sheet music and early cylinder recordings. She wrote many c—n songs including “Take yo’ Name off My Door,” “Sufficiency,” and “A Rich C–n’s Babe.” The latter was curiously interpolated into the London production of Will Marion Cook’s In Dahomey (1903). 

During this period many of Kummer’s songs were interpolated into other people’s musicals, which was still normal practice well into the 1920s. Her song “Egypt” used the form to burlesque Anthony and Cleopatra and was so successful it was interpolated into Chinese Honeymoon (1903) and The Girl from Kay’s (1903). We even have some surviving published band parts for it. She even composed a song called “Popular Songs” about how musicals need songs that reflect the current standards. 

As well as the c–n song material, Kummer wrote more romantic and Edwardian-sounding numbers that were interpolated into Broadway. Her million-selling “Dearie” went into Sergeant Brue (1905). The majority of that show’s music was written by another prolific woman composer, Liza Lehman. Kummer’s song “Miranda” (music and lyrics) was also interpolated into the long-running The Rollicking Girl (1905). 

Kummer’s first US musical, although it was never produced on Broadway, was Noah’s Ark (1907). One record of rehearsals reveals her arriving to an out-of-town trial run and giving notes from the auditorium. The show did not reach Broadway. One song from that show, “My Very Own,” did go on to be used in A Knight for a Day (1907), starring Sallie Fisher. Kummer also wrote several lyrics for Jerome Kern’s show 90 in the Shade (1915), and created music and lyrics for “Lonely in Town.” Notably, this show starred Marie Cahill. Perhaps Cahill brought Kummer with her into projects, but at the moment, it’s sensible to assume both the Cahill connection and a sense of how able Kummer was to connect with popular desires. 

In 1907, the Chicago Daily Tribune, in a sort of beginners guide to paternalism, sternly reported on the women’s chances of ever being real composers, coming to the grim conclusion that it would not be possible.

Although the women may have just as much talent as the men, it is not to be expected that their songs and music numbers ever will become as genuinely popular as are those of the men. The men have this advantage: For the purpose of “plugging” their new creations, they can go where they please, when they please, and stay out as late as they please without shattering any of the traditions of propriety. The women, however, cannot do this.

As ever, the powers-that-be underestimated the ingenuity of women and the professional networks which supported their work. Kummer clearly had strong working relationships with Sallie Fisher and Marie Cahill, whom she composed individual songs for, and then longer shows. She also wrote plays for Billie Burke, Flo Ziegfeld’s wife — which also meant he co-produced them. 

In the traces of Kummer that emerge from interviews, you get the sense of the kind of belligerence that was necessary to forge a career at that point. In one, she says that she pretended the lyrics and music to “Egypt” were written by two people because someone had said ‘it was out of the question that I could do both.’ She went on to add, “I think this desire to do things which I was told I could not do led me to write Good Gracious Annabelle, my first play.” One review of the play explained to readers, again with the familiar note of paternalism of a 1917 theatre critic, that ‘Miss Kummer had sort of grown into playwriting from songwriting. She had written musical comedies, but nobody would produce them because nobody would believe she could write the books for them. So she started out to write a play to dispel that illusion.’ That play was the beginning of Kummer’s popular success on Broadway, as she began to work far more with playwriting than composition. She actually wrote six plays in a row: Good Gracious Annabelle (1916); A Successful Calamity (1917); The Rescuing Angel (1917); Be Calm, Camilla (1918); Rollo’s Wild Oat (1920); Bridges (1921). 

By age 22, Kummer had married playwright Frederic Arnold Kummer, and they had two children together. The marriage was not a success, and they divorced c. 1903, though this was rarely reported in the press. Perhaps because she was not a performer, or because of the higher class status she held, Kummer’s private life was not quite as publicly discussed as Loftus or Bayes. Kummer’s work repeatedly dealt with themes of divorce and unhappy marriages, and she was able to do so without encountering press speculation about herself. 

Her most frequently returned-to hit was the Good Gracious Annabelle (1916) play, which she turned into a now lost silent film (1919), a musical Annie Dear (1924), and a further film, which also has been lost: Annabelle’s Affairs (Fox 1931). It tells the story of a woman who has been separated from a husband for so long she doesn’t recognize him when he reappears in her life. If the play wasn’t still so moving, the premise would be ridiculous. (The excuse given is that he has just shaved his beard off before reappearing and they were only together for a single married night.) However, in what is a real testament to her playwriting, her scripts are often still funny and, perhaps even more importantly, still poignant. Kummer announced in an interview that she did most of her writing in bed, and it’s hard not to admire that kind of honesty. She said about her habit, “[It’s] an unusual place for industrious mortals to work, isn’t it?”

Not content with merely writing, in the 1920s it was reported that she had produced Rollo’s Wild Oat – buying it from the original producers. In the interim between Noah’s Ark and her playwriting, Kummer created a career for herself as a dramaturg; one 1916 newspaper reported, “Miss Kummer has for some years been in demand by managers as an improver of other people’s weak plays and musical comedy librettos.” After the success of Annabelle, her producer, Arthur Hopkins, wanted her to write so much that, one newspaper reported, “he has taken the probably unique course of paying her a weekly salary, charged as up-front royalties,” a plan which apparently freed her of ‘hack work’ and ‘play tinkering.’  

She was certainly able to write, and indeed she wrote a series of further plays: The Mountain Man (1921); The Robbery (1921); Banco (1922); One Kiss (1923); Pomeroy’s Past (1926); Amourette (1933); and Her Master’s Voice (1934). By 1921, it was reported that Kummer had ‘established herself in a profitable position as a ‘play broker.’ She not only places productions, but lends professional advice to her clients and has worked up this agency of her own devising until it pays more than $25,000 yearly.’ This is somewhere in the region of $1.3 million a year in today’s money.

Kummer also worked extensively in film production; by 1933, she worked as a staff script writer for Metro, and by the following year, her agents at William Morris had helped her move across to Paramount. She returned to Broadway in the later 1930s, writing three further plays: So’s Your Old Antique (1939); The Lights of Duxbury (1943) and Many Happy Returns (1945). 

Though she composed far less music in her final years, she published ‘To Love is to Live’ (1936) and ‘I Want to be Loved’ (1944). Her obituaries listed her as ‘Clare Kummer, Composer’ and ‘Composer, Kummer, 85.’ It seems the least we can do to remember her that way. 

MUSICALS:
Contributed music to:

Chinese Honeymoon (1903) 

Additional number (“Egypt, My Cleopatra”  inserted in 1903/04?)

The Girl from Kay’s (1903) 

‘Egypt’ and ‘Sufficiency’ were included in the score. 

Sergeant Brue (1905) music was by Liza Lehman 

‘Dearie’

The Rollicking Girl (1905) 

‘Miranda’ (music and lyrics by Kummer)

A Knight for a Day (starred Sallie Fisher) (1907)

90 in the shade (1915) – this Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern musical also featured several songs with lyrics by Kummer

‘Lonely in Town’ (music and lyrics by Kummer)

Composed:

Captain Kidd or the Buccaneers (1898 – missing)

Noah’s Ark (1907)

Chinese Love (1921)

The Choir Rehearsal (1921) 

Annie Dear (1924)

Lyrics:

One Kiss (1923) 

Lyrics and Libretto:

The Opera Ball (1912 – translation/adaptation of )

Madame Pompadour (music by Leo Fall 1924)

Libretto only

Three Waltzes (music by Maurice Yvain, 1937)

SHEET MUSIC:

DateTypeTitle
1900Sheet music: songOld Love Letters. Song.
1902Sheet music: songA Rich C**n’s Babe
1903Sheet music: songEgypt. [Song.]
1903Sheet music: songI’m a-goin to change my Man. [Song.]
1903Sheet music: songJune. [Song.]
1903Sheet music: songTake yo’ Name off ma Door. [Song.]
1904Sheet music: songDown in Somaliland, etc. [Song.]
1904Piano reductionEgypt, my Cleopatra. <In “The Girl from Kays” [by Ivan Caryll and others]
1904Sheet music: songIn the Dingle-dongle-dell
1904Sheet music: songMiranda. [Song.]
1904Sheet music: songSomali Land. [Song. Words and music by C. Kummer.]
1904Sheet music: songSufficiency
1905Sheet music: song (recording here)Dearie
1905Sheet music: songEgypt. <My Cleopatra.> [Song.] [c. 1905.] A pirated edition.
1905Sheet music: songOn the Rialto. [Song.]
1906Sheet music: waltzDearie and Little Girl you’ll do. Medley waltz. [P. F.]
1906Sheet music: songMy Very Own
1906Sheet music: songPopular Songs. [Song.]
1907Sheet music: songDiana
1907Sheet music: song(recording here)I don’t like you. [Song.]
1907Orchestra partsNoah’s Ark Selection
1908Sheet music: songCheating! [Song.]
1908Sheet music: songI don’t know who wrote “Home, sweet Home,” but I bet it was a single man
1908Sheet music: songI don’t like you. [Song.]
1908Sheet music: songThe Garden of Dreams. [Song.]
1908Sheet music: waltzThe Garden of Dreams. Waltzes. [P. F.]
1908Sheet music: songThe Road to yesterday. [Song.] [interpolated into Tom Jones opera]
1908Sheet music: songThe Witching Hour. [Song.]
1908Sheet music: songWhen Mary wears her Merry Widow Hat. [Song.]
1908Sheet music: songWistful Eyes. [Song.]
1909Sheet music: songFroggie would a wooing go
1909Sheet music: songI wonder if it’s true!
1909Sheet music: songLiebchen. [Song.] Deutsche Worte von Adreas Springer.
1909Sheet music: songSweetheart. [Song.]
1909Sheet music: songTis all I know, etc. [Song.]
1910Sheet music: songBlushing moon
1910Sheet music: songDaisy-time
1910Sheet music: songGoodbye
1910Sheet music: songIn love
1910Sheet music: songIn my dreams of you
1910Sheet music: songIn my garden
1910Sheet music: songThe candy-man
1910Sheet music: waltzThe wave : waltzes.
1910Sheet music: songTurn on the searchlight for Father!
1911Sheet music: songGee! I wish I’d never had a girl. / Words & music by Clare Kummer.
1911Sheet music: songJust a girl and a boy
1911Sheet music: songLoon song
1912Sheet music: songListen to me
1913Sheet music: songJust you and I : (in a wonderful world all our own!) : Waltz song
1913Sheet music: songLover of mine
1913Sheet music: songYou are the one and only.
1914Sheet music: songA wonderful thing
1914Sheet music: songNo place like the U.S.A
1914Sheet music: songOtaki
1914Sheet music: songA wonderful thing [from A Choir Rehearsal]
1915Sheet music: songLonely in town
1915Sheet music: songMadame Ponpon
1915Sheet music: songThe bars are down in Lovers Lane
1916Sheet music: songOther eyes
1916Sheet music: violin, cello, piano, voiceSomebody’s eyes. : Ballad with violin-cello obligato [sic]. / [Words and music] by Clare Kummer.
1916Sheet music: songThat portamento melody. : (You sing it in Wei-ha-wei.)
1916Sheet music: songThe bluebird
1918Sheet music: waltzThe bluebird : waltz.
1920Sheet music: songSunset
1922Sheet music: songI’ll be your soldier [from Madame Pompadour]
1922Sheet music: songThere are some things you never forget [from One Kiss]
1922Sheet music: songYour lips [from One Kiss]
1924Sheet music: song (recording here)Annie Dear
1924Sheet music: songOh, Joseph! [from Madame Pompadour]
1924Sheet music: songWooing. [from Annie]
1924Sheet music: songSlither, Slither You and hither.
1927Sheet music: songSighing Pines
1930Song (published?)Once in a While
1936Sheet music: songTo Love is to Live
1944Sheet music: song‘I want to be loved’

FURTHER READING:

Ben West’s article on finding Noah’s Ark ; on understanding Clare Kummer’s contribution

Nypl.org Musical of the Month Reboot: Clare Kummer’s “The Choir Rehearsal”

‘Kummer, Clare Beecher, 1886-1958’ (2006). Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/2137914787?accountid=14685

FINIZIO, VICTOR LEE. “Clare Kummer: An Analysis” (Order No. 6603427, The University of Iowa, 1965. 

If you’re interested in joining the Clare Kummer project, where we are working to digitize her plays and musicals, we have a Facebook group.


Sarah Whitfield (@sarahinthepark) is Senior Lecturer in Musical Theatre at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. She is a musical theatre researcher, practitioner, and academic. She writes about theater history with a particular focus in uncovering the work that under-represented and minoritized groups do, and have done, in the arts. Her recent publications include Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables and, as an editor, the 2019 collection Reframing the Musical: Race, Culture and Identity.


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