Crazy for the Red, Blue, and White

So what does the Fourth of July mean to me?

Well, first off, I love America so deeply. I love our Constitution and our system of government. I watch C-SPAN for fun. I love that we really are "the world," made up of every nationality on the planet, because that gives us the richest culture the world has ever known. And I love our national character – brash, rough, loud, fearless, aggressive, big-hearted – which is exactly the same as the character of the American musical comedy.

Composer Leonard Bernstein described musical theatre as “an art that arises out of American roots, out of our speech, our tempo, our moral attitudes, our way of moving.”

Lots of people argue that the American musical theatre evolved from the older European forms – British authors think England invented it, while German authors think Germany invented it. But neither is really true. Sure, operetta and ballad opera had some marginal influence on the new art form, but the American musical was born right at the turn of the last century, invented by the great George M. Cohan. Yes, he borrowed certain things from vaudeville and minstrel shows, but his musical comedies were genuinely something new. The language, the energy, the pacing, the plotting, everything about these shows was uniquely, intensely American – brash, rough, loud, fearless, aggressive, big-hearted.

Check out the Act I showstopper from Cohan's Little Johnny Jones, in this recreation of the original 1904 production. Notice how slangy it is – that was genuinely radical...

No European show ever felt like that. Not even close.

Historian Cecil Smith described Cohan as “the apostle of breeziness, of up-to-dateness, of Broadway brashness and slang. Speed, directness, and ‘ginger’ were the chief ingredients of his musical plays.” One of Cohan's famous directions to his cast before the curtain of a musical was, “Speed! Speed! And lots of it! Above all, speed!” Cohan gave the musical comedy its tempo, its attitude, its fierceness, its sheer, aggressive American-ness.

From its birth, the American musical theatre has been a form that could have emerged only from a culture like ours, a massive mashup of all (well, mostly Western) human culture, and the art form evolved as America evolved. The casts onstage became integrated as America became integrated. Female characters became overtly sexual (in shows like On the Town and Pal Joey) as American women became overtly sexual. Musical comedy morality became more ambiguous as mainstream American culture moved away from the certainties of traditional organized religion. Every choice made by writers, directors, and designers was political, and each choice either reinforced or challenged prevailing social and political values in America. No, No, Nanette in the 1920s was about wealth and its implications. Anything Goes in the 1930s was about American culture’s preoccupation with celebrity, particularly criminal celebrity. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the 1940s was about America’s reinvigorated postwar hypermaterialism.

And the American musical could have evolved this quickly only in a culture like ours, in which we're always searching for the new and exciting, and relevant. Notice the wild acceleration of that evolution since the 1990s, when this new Golden Age began, as the musical theatre has become less shackled by commercial constraints than ever before.

Only America could have birthed Little Johnny Jones, Hair, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Rent, The Cradle Will Rock, Chicago, Floyd Collins, Assassins, Hedwig, BBAJ, Violet, Noise/Funk, Avenue Q, American Idiot, Something Rotten... I could keep going. In the November 2003 issue of American Theatre, performance artist Tim Miller wrote:
As I watched the national Tony broadcast last June, savoring the folks singing and dancing their way through numbers from the nominated musicals, I was struck by how cheerfully utopian it all felt. These shows and the people who made them seemed to manifest a clear, alternative political vision of our country – one where gay couples are smoochingly visible; where the short fat girl wins; where people of different races boogie together; where progressive politics is everywhere you look. The Tonys conjured up an America I wish actually existed.

It’s easy for people, even theatre people sometimes, to malign musicals as a kind of guilty pleasure – superficial, reactionary fluff; a bad habit, like bingeing on bonbons. But I believe the legacy of the musical theatre is infinitely more complicated and subversive and admirable.

Miller declared that musicals taught him everything he ever needed to know about life, love, politics, and America itself. The musical theatre is America’s mythology, a chronicle not just of America’s times, people, and events, but even more of America’s dreams, legends, national mood, politics, and its extraordinary muscle and resilience. As Ian Bradley writes in his book You’ve Got to Have a Dream, “Is it escapism or is it rather their strangely spiritual, almost sacramental quality which makes musicals deal in dreams, possibilities, and visions of what might be if only we lived in a better world?”

In the December 2003 issue of American Theatre, director Molly Smith wrote,
The seriousness I embraced in dramatic form during my early career, I have now rediscovered – to my delight – in the content of musicals. For me, this robust, craggy art form is in the bones of American culture. It is unpretentious, earthy, forward-looking and optimistic. At the same time, it is full of conflict and contradiction. As you can tell, I’ve been smitten by my rediscovery of this most robust of American art forms. Moreover I envision a future in which the American musical is the ‘serious’ theatre I so revered beginning in my twenties.

Modern American musical theatre is what opera composer Richard Wagner meant when he talked about Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total theatre” using all the art forms to create a powerful, unified work of art in an accessible, populist form. American musical theatre has grown as much in one century as other art forms have grown in several centuries. What other art form could have produced something as mature as Show Boat in the third decade of its existence? It’s as if the art form was born almost fully grown, as if it shot from infancy to adolescence overnight. And its success and its sophistication is due not only to the brilliant artists, some of them geniuses, who move the art form forward but also to the American audiences who were – and still are – adventurous enough to embrace the experiments, to buy the tickets and encourage producers to keep trying new things.

In fact, musical theatre is one of the few indigenous American art forms. Some scholars believe the only truly American art forms are American musical theatre, comic books, the murder mystery, and jazz, all forms that have impacted nearly every corner of the civilized world. American musicals overshadow British musicals even in London, even though the British have contributed mightily to the art form over the years. In Germany and other parts of Europe, as well as in Japan, audiences give standing ovations to even the most run-of-the-mill American musicals simply because they are American. They just can’t get enough of that muscle.

And neither can I. Bring on Heathers.

Happy Independence Day! I'm off to watch The Music Man, 1776, and Yankee Doodle Dandy.

And Long Live the American Musical!