The Stage Musical
The 1920s stage musicals were a perfect reflection of the Jazz Age. The generic revues satisfied a demand for novelty and humor. The book musicals, a bit more substantial, told an interesting, if not very compelling, story. But almost everyone was happy with the way America's lyric theater was going. Well, almost everyone.
Among the unhappy were Jerome Kern (1885-1945) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960), veterans of many successful shows in and around Broadway. Kern, especially, yearned to tackle something more challenging, a real story about real people in real situations, not a story that was "a synthetic product manufactured for specific stars and their specialties, filled with routines which would appeal to the audience but which were not particularly germane to the plot" (Ewen 1977, 353). Hammerstein, too, believed that the public could handle something heavier than what was in vogue, but he cautioned that whatever they might do, it must be entertainment, not education or philosophy.
Kern and Hammerstein had collaborated earlier on Sunny, largely written as a vehicle for the stunning Marilyn Miller to follow her successful Sally. They worked well together, and shared similar values and attitudes. When Kern mentioned Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat as a potential musical, Hammerstein was ecstatic. It was the kind of project he had been seeking for quite some time, and they set out in earnest. The result was a masterpiece – a critical moment in the history of America's lyric theater.
Edna Ferber was reluctant to have her successful novel converted into a musical; she could not envision her story as a "girlie show crammed with conventional musical-comedy attractions" (Ewen 1959, 190). When Kern explained that he had something very different in mind, she consented.
The show opens with Cap'n Andy Hawks' showboat, the Cotton Blossom, docked at stage center. Gaylord Ravenal, a handsome ne'er-do-well riverboat gambler, approaches the boat looking for temporary work. He encounters Cap'n Andy's lovely daughter, Magnolia, flirts with her, and sings that even though they have not been properly introduced, they could "Make Believe".
He leaves, and Magnolia asks Joe, one of the black boat workers, if he knows anything about that handsome stranger. Joe says that the riverboat guys are all pretty much the same. Magnolia wonders if her friend Julie might know. Joe then reflects that these wonderful human concerns are interesting, but they pale in comparison to the all-powerful, silent, indifferent, and eternal force of "Ol' Man River". The tune is an absolute masterpiece which brought Edna Ferber to tears when she first heard it.
Magnolia asks Julie about the stranger. Julie is the leading actress on the boat, and she knows a lot more about men than the tender teenager, Magnolia. Julie cautions Magnolia to be careful, and says that Gaylord Ravenal is probably just another no account riverboat drifter. Magnolia says that if he were, she'd just decide not to love him. Julie then offers a bit of advice about men; she says it's not that easy, and sings the somewhat cautionary "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man".
Next comes a scene that reveals that over the past several months the beautiful olive-skinned Julie has been the object of continued sexual harassment by one of the low-brow boat workers. Her leading man and real-life husband, Steve Baker, finally punches the boat worker, who sulks off mumbling words of revenge.
And revenge it is. Soon, the boat is buzzing that a local sheriff is preparing legal orders to close the showboat. Steve and Julie know, but no one else does, what this is probably all about. So, in full view of everyone in the troupe, Steve takes a pen knife, pricks Julie's finger, and sucks out a little of her blood.
The sheriff arrives with court papers showing that Julie is of mixed ancestry – one of her parents was black. He's going to close the show because miscegenation is illegal. Steve says there is no miscegenation because he, too, has Negro blood in him. Everyone supports his claim, and the sheriff stomps off in disgust. Julie and Steve decide to leave the boat, however, to avoid what are sure to be continued troubles up and down the river.
Over his wife's strenuous objections, Cap'n Andy assigns Magnolia to be the new leading lady. They ponder briefly who might be a good new leading man, when Gaylord reappears. Of course, he gets the job, is very good at it, and within months, he and Magnolia are the most popular make-believe and real lovers up and down the river.
During this early stage of their association, they sing a beautiful operatic duet, "You Are Love". Hammerstein made an art form out of oblique declarations of love. His lovers often reveal their love in an indirect manner – "People Will Say We're In Love" from Oklahoma, "If I Loved You" from Carousel and "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific, for example.
Magnolia and Gaylord marry, and leave the boat to pursue a new life in Chicago. Gaylord's professional gambling career sustains them admirably. They live a life of luxury and pleasure, and are indeed very happy and comfortable. There are three versions of the story from this point on:
1) In the original stage production and in the first movie treatment, a 1929 "part-talkie," they have a daughter named Kim. Then Gaylord's luck turns bad, and he skips out to preserve his masculine ego and to preclude dragging them down into poverty and shame. Magnolia goes back to the boat to be with her parents. After twenty years or so, Gaylord comes back, and all is forgiven.
2) In the 1936 film, same as above, but Magnolia goes it alone, becoming a world famous singer-actress. Daughter Kim is on the edge of a similar career, when they find Gaylord – a custodian in the very theater where Kim is scheduled to make her debut. Before she sings her opening tune, Kim acknowledges her father in the wings. Magnolia rushes into his arms, and all is forgiven.
3) In the 1951 film, Gaylord skips out, but he doesn't know that Magnolia is pregnant. Magnolia has the child, returns to the showboat. Cap'n Andy welcomes her back, and asks her to join the entertainment ensemble. When Kim is just out of diapers, the Cap'n creates an act. The Hawks family trio – grandfather, daughter, and granddaughter – become a riverboat favorite up and down the Mississippi. In a chance meeting on a gambling boat, Gaylord bumps into Julie. She tells him of the growing fame of the Hawks family trio. Stunned at learning he has a daughter, Gaylord goes back to make amends. All is forgiven, and the show ends.
Scholars and critics have never been completely happy with any of the above plot resolutions. Still, everyone agrees it is one of the greatest shows in history. Historians divide the Broadway musical into two big periods: before Show Boat and after. It broke new ground in several ways.
First, it deals with genuine people in realistic emotional entanglements. These are not cardboard personalities. The audience gets to actually care for Julie, Magnolia, and Gaylord.
Second, the songs grow out of the dramatic circumstances. There is a reason for a tune to occur, and it's not just to give a star something to sing.
Third, the music is masterful, first-quality all the way. Kern hit his stride, here, and these songs are among the finest works in the history of musical theater.
It was also a feast for eyes and ears, as stupendous as anything producer Flo Ziegfeld had ever presented, but with one major difference – this show had deep and permanent musical and dramatic substance.
THE CLASSIC MUSICAL COMEDY
The model for musical comedy, which crystallized in Show Boat, served the industry well for a long time. The elements that were always present are discussed below.
The stories from the 1930s through the 1960s were nearly always about people caught up in love situations that should not work because of class or culture differences. They are eternal variations on the Romeo-Juliet and Cinderella themes that go way back in Judaic-Christian history, perhaps all histories – he's rich, she's poor; he's old, she's young; he's educated, she's not; he's Jewish, she's Protestant or Catholic; she's respectable, he's from the street; or the reverse of all of these situations (she's rich, he's poor, etc.).
The basic conflict, incidentally, is revealed quickly so that everyone knows early in the show who's who and what the problem is. The remainder of the show is simply a matter of watching it all work out, in spite of what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles.
The leading characters may be right out of central casting, but the audience will be drawn into a personal relationship with them before the evening is out. These generic types will be particularized early in the show. Audiences really grow fond of the music man, even though he's typical of every traveling salesman in the country. And how many librarians like Marian are there in the Mid-West? Yet, this specific librarian works her way into the collective audience heart in the space of a few scenes.
The libretto (little book) compresses the story to set up situations that would be incomplete without a song or a dance sequence. The author of the original story may or may not be involved in doing the libretto, and the librettist may or may not be involved in doing the specific lyrics to the individual songs.
A good libretto will also bring the drama around for a reprise of one of the memorable tunes heard early in the show. And a good libretto will have a crisis at the end of the first act to bring the audience back for the second act. Also, there will be a blockbuster dramatic-musical moment about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the show – to lift the audience members who by this time are running low on blood sugar, adrenaline, and attention energies. Finally, it is surprising how many musical comedies take place over a period of a few days or a few weeks. The time line is often nearly continuous.
To delay the inevitable, and fairly obvious, conclusion to the primary plot, many shows have a pair of secondary lovers. They are usually friends or relatives of the leading characters, and often provide a comic contrast to the serious love affair in the main plot.
Great song texts (lyrics) have a universal appeal because they can be extracted from the show and still survive. "Tonight" comes out of the dramatic flow of West Side Story, but soars on its own even to those who have never heard or seen the show. The same can be said for "You'll Never Walk Alone", sung at many high school graduations with no hint that it came from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel.
Every good show has several love songs in solo and duet, also one or more novelty tunes, and surely a couple of ensemble numbers that are often sung and danced at the same time. Some shows will have a long and reflective self-examination, a "soliloquy," by one of the leading characters.
No matter how serious the central story of the show, there will be many moments of high humor. The art form is commonly called "musical comedy" for good reason. Musicals can and do treat heavy topics, too, but they must do so with a few swift strokes, like a political cartoon, and then move on to more pleasurable, less somber events.
PORGY AND BESS
In some ways a splendid example of and in other ways a major exception to the above model is Porgy and Bess by brothers George (1898-1937) and Ira Gershwin (1896-1983). Often called an opera, the show towers high above almost all other shows in the musical genre, but to quibble over categorizing it as an opera or a musical is pointless. It's an overpowering musical and theatrical experience. Gershwin said specifically that he was writing a folk opera.
In 1935, the heart of the Depression, this show spoke to both blacks and whites about the magnitude and beauty of a great love in the face of unspeakable odds. (The following synopsis is drawn largely from David Ewen, 1959, 136-137.)
As the curtain rises, a crap game is taking place in one corner of the court area in front of the African-American tenement, Catfish Row, while in another corner a few people are dancing. Clara is sitting in a third corner, lulling her baby to sleep with one of the most beautiful and popular songs ever composed, "Summertime". When the child just will not go to sleep, Clara's husband, Jake, takes the child and sings a different lullaby, "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing". The baby goes to sleep, and Jake says to his wife, "There, you see, that's how it's done."
As the heat of the crap game rises, a quarrel erupts between Robbins and Crown, and Robbins gets killed. Crown goes into hiding, leaving behind his girlfriend, Bess, who decided to move in with Porgy. Otherwise strong and virile, Porgy is paralyzed below the knees, and has to get around on a small cart drawn by a goat. Bess is a woman of the streets, and Porgy has been attracted to her for quite some time.
The scene shifts to Robbins' room where the mourners are lamenting his death. Neighbors come by to put coins in the saucer on his chest for burial money. The widow, Serena, distraught with grief, gives voice to her tragedy in "My Man's Gone Now", and the religious atmosphere is heightened with Bess' spiritual, "Oh the Train Is at the Station".
In the second act, we find Bess happy in her new life; she has come to love Porgy. Porgy speaks of his new found joy in an exultant refrain, "I Got Plenty of Nuttin'", and the lovers exchange tender sentiments in the duet, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now". At his insistence, Bess leaves Porgy behind as she joins the crowd to go to Kittiwah Island for the lodge picnic.
The picnic gets riotous with singing and dancing. Sportin' Life entertains his friends with a recital of his cynical philosophy, "It Ain't Necessarily So". When the picnic is over and the crowd proceeds back to the boat, Crown – who has been hiding out on the island – stops Bess, breaks down her resistance, and drags her off into the woods.
A few days later, back in Catfish Row, the fishermen are off to sea. While they are gone, Bess returns, delirious and feverish, to be gently nursed by a forgiving and solicitous Porgy. In "I Loves You, Porgy", they repeat their avowal of love.
As a hurricane begins, and the womenfolk huddle in Serena's room to pray for the safe return of their husbands, Crown return and injects a sacrilegious note into the atmosphere by singing "A Red-Headed Woman Makes a Choo-choo Jump Its Track". Just then, from her seat in the window, Clara sees Jake's boat overturn. Taunting Porgy for being a cripple and unable to give help to anyone, Crown runs out into the storm to try to save Jake. But all the fishermen are lost, and when Crown returns for Bess, Porgy kills him.
Porgy is taken off to jail for questioning. Sportin' Life takes Bess to New York where he will pimp for her. She was reluctant, at first, but he broke down her resistance with some "happy dust" (cocaine), singing "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York".
Porgy returns from jail since there is no hard evidence to hold him. He's made quite a bit of money shooting craps, and he has a new dress that he bought for Bess. When he learns about Bess and Sportin' Life, he pauses for a moment, and then in a final scene of overwhelming power, beauty, and sadness, he sets out for New York on his goat cart to find his woman, Bess.
Strange as it may seem, one of the world's greatest art works, Porgy and Bess, got off to a bad start. It confused all the music and drama critics, and ran for only 124 performances. Four revivals starting in 1942 have done extremely well, however, as did a 1959 movie with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Manuscripts have been discovered which show that Gershwin's original intent was clearly operatic – continuous music, intense psychological statements made by the orchestra, no spoken dialogue, and such. Over the years, of course, as always, every director has taken great liberty to cut, paste, insert, delete, and otherwise doctor the show to bring it in line with the available time, talent, and budget.
After it caught hold, the show captured the hearts and minds of audiences in every major city in twenty-eight foreign nations, and served as an official instrument of diplomacy for the State Department. In 1976 the Houston Grand Opera staged the work with great success, and in 1983 Radio City Music Hall sold out its 6,000 seats each night for an extended run. On its 50th anniversary, the show entered the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera. During rehearsals at the Met, several black opera singers broke down and cried as they struggled with the ambivalence of returning, even professionally, to certain childhood memories.
Porgy and Bess stands as a towering monument in the history of America's musical theater. The deepest human psycho-emotional concerns and convictions suddenly flame up from a particular tale out of a specific sociocultural setting – and they are given singular artistic substance and beauty in some of the very best "popular" music of all time.
THE AGE OF GREAT STANDARDS
Before Porgy and Bess, several shows had aspired to step from the flatland of the revue mentality to a little higher intellectual ground, but most of them failed. A good many great tunes came from these shows, however. The tunes are called "standards" by working musicians in the field of American popular music. "I've Got a Crush on You" came from the Gershwin brothers' Strike Up the Band (1930), even though George S. Kaufman's grim antiwar story was so heavy that the show closed on the road.
The haunting "Night and Day" survives from Cole Porter's Gay Divorce (1932). "I Get a Kick Out of You", "Blow, Gabriel, Blow", and the title song from Anything Goes (1934), also by Cole Porter, are still heard often in nightclubs, as well as Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from Roberta (1934).
"Where or When", "My Funny Valentine", and "The Lady Is a Tramp" came from a Rodgers and Hart show, Babes in Arms (1937). As Thousands Cheer (1933) by Irving Berlin gave us the perennial standard, "Easter Parade".
Cole Porter provided "Begin the Beguine" and "Just One of Those Things" for Jubilee (1935) which ran only 169 performances. Producer Billy Rose moved into the Hippodrome Theater to get enough room for the Rodgers and Hart Jumbo (1935), with such fine tunes as "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World", "My Romance", and "Little Girl Blue".
An entire textbook could be written about the nature of the charming and infectious standards which survive from shows that ran only a few months. In most cases, the lyrics deal with universal dilemmas or joys, and the melodies have memorable linear threads which somehow please listeners year after year.
Aside from the pronounced wealth of great talent and great tunes to be found in 1930s stage musicals, two other developments came to bear. First, there was the rise of satire. The revue-as-satire had its birth in burlesque, of course, and its adolescence in the 1920s Garrick Gaieties, but now it came into full maturity. There were no memorable tunes in Of Thee I Sing, but it deftly skewered political conventions, beauty pageants, marriage, the Vice Presidency, the Supreme Court, foreign affairs, and motherhood – and it launched a string of impudent satires on everything dear to normal Americans.
Directed by George S. Kaufman from his own book, with words and music by the George and Ira Gershwin, Of Thee I Sing received the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a first for a musical. There were extended choral passages, elaborate recitatives, and integrated instrumental sequences which foreshadowed George Gershwin's remarkable musical score for Porgy.
Band Wagon (1931) poked a hole in high society's pompous lifestyle, especially the aristocracy in the South. As Thousands Cheer (1933) used a newspaper format to blast the foibles of current events. Pins and Needles (1937) took a liberal pro-union shot at war-mongers, bigots, reactionaries, Nazis, Fascists, Communists, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, and then, for good measure, delivered a few jabs at the labor movement itself.
Harold Rome's Pins and Needles was fun, and ran for 1,108 performances, but Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock (1938) was too serious, and ran for only 108 performances. Its strong anti-business posture turned away too many music lovers, as did Harold Arlen's Hooray for What! (1937) which dealt with poison gas, munitions, diplomatic duplicity, espionage, and warfare.
There is a limit, obviously, to how current and how intense the topics and treatment can be in a "musical comedy".
Second, dancing took a turn away from its vaudeville and minstrel roots toward more stylized ballet mannerisms. George Balanchine, the preeminent classical ballet choreographer, broke new ground with On Your Toes (1936), with music and lyrics by Rodgers and Hart. The big moment, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," became an instant dance classic. Balanchine went on to choreograph Babes in Arms (1937), I Married an Angel (1938), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), Louisiana Purchase (1940), and several more.
Dance styles in the stage musical did not change overnight, of course. There was still a great tradition of wondrous bumps and grinds, high kicks, ballroom glides, and crackling tap routines in great abundance. But Balanchine's mark had been made, and later generations of choreographers would have to deal with a new set of aesthetic standards for the body language of the art form called musical comedy.
BROADWAY FROM THE 1960s THROUGH THE PRESENT
A Business Mentality
Beginning with Camelot (1960), which was owned from its very inception by CBS Records, most Broadway musicals are now owned by huge media conglomerates. The central vision, purpose, and dream is, therefore, the financial bottom line – not a compelling story told with great music, but rather a vision of marketing strategies guaranteed to return a profit.
Thus comes a parade of shows being marketed beyond belief with TV ads, road tours, T-shirts, posters, CDs, coffee mugs, post cards, umbrellas, and silk jackets – all of which promote Cats, Spamalot, Les Misérables, Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, or The Lion King. These shows still have interesting, often wonderful music, powerful dramatic moments, dance routines and the other traditional ingredients of American theater, but the show itself is just one part of a complex marketing strategy that includes souvenir DVD packages, downloadable games, stuffed Lion King animals, and anything else that can raise profit margins for investors.
An Operatic Mentality
Opposite forces are also at work in the art form. Stephen Sondheim has created a body of stunning musicals, which pointedly reject the bottom line mentality of corporate thinking. Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park with George are truly operatic in every way, with complex songs with intelligent lyrics.
Topics and Themes in Modern Broadway Musicals
When Oscar Hammerstein died in 1960, it marked the end of an era. Through the 1960s and early 1970s, there were serious efforts to expand the musical in all directions. Everything and anything unusual was tried – nudity in Hair and Oh! Calcutta!; rock in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Tommy; religion AND rock in Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell; and comic strip characters in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman.
These shows opened up new and interesting possibilities for the musical, and they revealed the spirit of the turbulent 1960s, with inner-city riots, campus unrest, ghettos on fire, police dogs and water hoses, rampant drug use, a sexual revolution, and civil disobedience everywhere. But Broadway musicals are so frightfully expensive that the investors also played it safe and offered (right in the middle of the turbulent 1960s) some very traditional formula works right along with the experimental fare. Funny Girl (1964), Hello, Dolly! (1964), Mame (1966), and several others came right out of the conventional pattern for success.
Issues of sexuality came to the forefront in a chilling new way in the 1980s when the worldwide AIDS epidemic exploded onto the scene, killing Hollywood superstar Rock Hudson, pianist Liberace, rock group Queen's frontman Freddie Mercury, and countless other performers over the next two decades. The arts have long been a relatively safe place for the gay community to work and prosper. While not a disease exclusive to the gay community, the illness certainly disproportionately affected America's gay community in the '80s and '90s. William Finn's March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland in 1992 depicted gay men facing life, love, and AIDS with the support of family and friends. Rent (1996), which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony for Best Musical, revolutionized what theatre dared to discuss on stage. In The Full Monty (2000), gay playwright Terrence McNally had straight characters contend with a budding gay romance in their ranks.
Some of the more recent Broadway musicals have been reworkings of operas, movies, and even comic books. The story of Madame Butterfly was given a new time, place, and musical style and became Miss Saigon. La Bohème was updated as the previously mentioned Rent. Even the story of Aida, turned into an opera by Verdi in 1871, was reworked into a modern Broadway musical by Elton John and Tim Rice in 2000.
Walt Disney Productions turned some of their animated films into live stage musicals, and it worked. Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid were successful beyond anyone's anticipation. An older Disney movie musical, Newsies, was also recently turned into a Broadway musical, receiving better reviews than the movie ever did. Not to be outdone, Disney rival Dreamworks turned their blockbuster movie, Shrek, into a musical. Even Marvel Comics has gotten into the act with the debut of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark. Smaller budget films have made their way into Broadway theaters as well, as evidenced by the productions of Once and Kinky Boots.
Finally, Mel Brooks turned some of his great films into live stage musicals. The Producers was a monumental surprise and an exciting promise for similar efforts. (Only Mel Brooks is respected enough in the entertainment industry to be able to escape public scorn for producing shows with song titles like "Springtime for Hitler.") He followed the success of The Producers with a musical production of Young Frankenstein and is rumored to be working on a musical adaptation of his comedy classic, Blazing Saddles.
Recently the rage in the entertainment industry has been for television superstars to move to the Broadway stage – a complete reversal of the traditional move from Broadway to television. Cash-starved Broadway has discovered that a well-known television or movie star, even one possessing questionable acting abilities and no live theater experience, can still sell lots of tickets. Even Daniel Radcliffe (who portrayed Harry Potter in the film series) and a few recent American Idol contestants have been cast on Broadway, certainly due to the star power that their names lend to the shows in which they appear.