ABSTRACT: The Jazz Singer grew from a moment of inspiration when author Samson Raphaelson saw Al Jolson perform in 1917. Raphaelson’s idea of a rising singer, Jack Robin, torn between sacred and secular, became in turn a short story, a play, a feature film, a novelization, and a radio play. With each new adaptation, the music evolved; the thread that binds together all of these stories is the jazz singer’s stock in trade—his songs. For Jolson and The Jazz Singer, these songs serve several functions: besides providing a unique snapshot of popular vaudeville melodies in the 1920s and beyond, the songs used in the various tellings of The Jazz Singer have a specific connection to Jolson, providing numerous opportunities to retell his (largely fictionalized) origin story with the very songs he had used to make it on Broadway in the first place. We might then consider The Jazz Singer a proto–jukebox musical, in which preexisting songs with a common thread or history become the basis for a new story. Making extensive use of archival documentation and addressing previously unexamined adaptations of the story, this article shows how each version of The Jazz Singer came to be a musical summary of Jolson’s life as a performer.
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