10 Musical Theatre Titles We Take for Granted

Because I was practically singing show tunes coming out of my mother's uterus, I never really stopped to think about a lot of things in classic musicals. Because I first encountered them, got to know them, then memorized them while I was too young to really think about them in any serious way, it didn't occur to me until much later that there were things there worth thinking about...

For instance...

My Fair Lady
I grew up thinking this was kind of a dumb title for a show, if we're being honest here. What did that title have to do with the story? (Although I loved the Hirschfeld poster art!) It wasn't until high school that it hit me – "London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady." Duh!

My Fair Lady (like Pygmalion before it) is a story about subverting and busting open class distinctions – and therefore, the entire social structure -- and though it's never mentioned explicitly in the show, the subliminal image of London Bridge collapsing under the weight of social upheaval is both funny and very dramatic. Plus, invoking this old, traditionally English song (according to Wikipedia, the original song dates back to the 1600s and no one is exactly sure where it came from or what it means) also implies that long-held social conventions are in the cross-hairs of this satire. It's a strong, interesting title for the show. On the other hand, how many people actually make that connection to the old song? If a title is clever and revealing, but nobody gets it, is it still a good title? Isn't the point of a title to entice an audience?

The Music Man
As might be expected from a musical with this title, the central theme of the show is the role of music in the lives of Harold, Marian, and River City, and how that music heals.

The title works on two levels. On the surface, the title refers to Harold's con involving musical instruments. Just below the surface, it also refers to what we learn in this story, that music plays an incredibly important role in our lives, and Harold brings music (both literal and metaphorical) to River City even though that was not his intention. Music is portrayed in the show as fiercely American, as wholesome and transforming, as part of our national heritage (as evidenced by the singing of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” at the assembly), as patriotic. At that time in America's history, music was often the center of small town life; and yet, the only music in River City before Harold's arrival is the gramophone at the barber shop and the piano lessons Marian gives.

The show's creator Meredith Willson uses music as a metaphor for joy and life. When the school board learns to harmonize with each other, they suddenly find themselves in personal harmony with each other as well. Harold uses their new enthusiasm for making music to escape them time after time. By simply starting a tune, he can get the board members caught up in the joy of four-part harmony while he slips away. It's ironic that when the school board asks Harold for credentials to prove he's a music professor, he uses music to avoid exposing himself as a non-musician. He becomes a "music man" so they don't find out he's not a "music man." His clear command and manipulation of (and through) music may mean he's more of a musician – a music man – than even he thought.

But on a more cynical level – and make no mistake, The Music Man, is a pretty cynical show, despite its reputation as a Family Classic – the title also refers to how much Harold uses music in his con. He exploits people's love of music to cheat them out of their money. In the show's opening, we hear Charlie Cowell say repeatedly, with real disdain, "He's a music man!" That's not a job a man has, Charlie seems to be telling us, and so we should be suspicious. But that's what Harold is. Music is his seduction language (as he seduces Marian, Mrs, Paroo, Winthrop, Mrs. Shinn, and the whole town), and, most ironic of all, music is his ultimate salvation. He promises actual music, knowing he can't deliver it, but then he accidentally delivers metaphorical music along the way. He's not a man of music, but ends up being the man who brings music... Harold really is the music man.

The Sound of Music
When I was a kid, this is one of those shows I thought had a really dumb title. "The Sound of Music," yeah, no shit, it's a musical! But years later, I understood how right this title is. This is an American fable, and though religion is part of the environment, this story is really about a new, non-religious kind of faith, in this case, faith in the healing power of music/art. In other words, "the sound of music" is their/our salvation. Not too far off from what the hippies believed a decade later. But it was also what America was seeking in 1959.

As The Sound of Music opens, Capt. von Trapp is an emotional cripple, just like many American men who came back from World War II. And it is literally the sound of music – and not just the actual sound of music, but more specifically, the sound of the title song, "The Sound of Music" – that rescues Georg from his depression, that bonds him to Maria and his kids, that re-establishes The Loving Family, exactly what America wanted in the postwar years. That moment when Georg picks up the guitar and sings "Edelweiss," the inherent healing and connection in that moment, is the point of the title. The sound of music heals us. It was everything postwar America craved at that moment.

But significantly, The Sound of Music (the last Rodgers & Hammerstein show) opened as the rock and roll revolution was already in full swing. And one of the standard attacks from adults was that rock and roll wasn't really "music," but just "noise." Though it wasn't intentional on the part of R&H, the title also asked audiences in 1959, what exactly is music and what does it sound like? The sound of music was at heart of a major cultural upheaval in our country, and the R&H musical would be one casualty of that revolution.

This title means so many different things to different people, which was the whole reason Jonathan Larson loved it. The word rent represents the financial burden young people feel as they graduate college full of knowledge but absent any marketable job skills, thrown into a real world where high ideals don’t pay the rent. But the title also highlights the temporary nature of these characters’ lives, the month-to-month living without permanence or promises. The characters Collins and Angel sing to each other in the song “I’ll Cover You” that though love can’t be bought, at least it can be rented. In other words, their happiness is temporary, but it’s theirs for a while.

And of course the word rent also means torn, Larson’s favorite meaning of the title, and certainly the characters in this show are torn between conflicting desires – between comfort and idealism, between love and dignity, between anger and pain, between the fear of intimacy and the fear of getting hurt. The word rent means shredded in grief or rage. It means split apart when it describes communities, families, or other relationships. And it also means torn open by painful feelings, something nearly every character in the show feels at some point. And all the complexity of that simple, four-letter word parallels the complex construction of both this fascinating musical and the real world it dramatizes.

Songs for a New World
Every song in this amazing, abstract musical is essentially about the same thing: those moments in life when everything seems perfect and then suddenly disaster strikes and you find yourself in a "new world," in the form of the loss of a job, an unexpected pregnancy, the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, imprisonment, even suicide. But these songs are even more about surviving those moments, about the way we regroup and figure out how to survive in a new set of circumstances – how we write our own "songs for a new world" – even against seemingly overwhelming odds. These are songs about a world in which the definitions of family, distance, money, technology, the very nature of human contact is changing every day, a world in which the rules don’t apply as often as they do, a world in which the solutions our parents found don’t work for us, and a world in which today’s answers probably won’t apply tomorrow. For someone who has lost his job or lost a spouse, our everyday "real" world becomes just as frightening, just as dangerous, just as uncharted as the New World was to the Jews leaving Spain in 1492. It's a brilliant metaphor and it's a brilliant title.

Passing Strange
The title of this show is another of those multi-layered titles that can mean a dozen things all relevant to the show. The title of Passing Strange comes from a line in Othello. In this scene in the Shakespeare play, Othello is accused of “stealing” Desdemona with the use of spells and potions (of course a white women wouldn’t otherwise fall in love with a black man!), and in his defense, Othello tells the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him, hearing stories of his painful youth:
I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffered. My story being done
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
'Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.

Othello’s tragic stories full of harrowing battles, travels outside the civilized world, and dramatic reversals of fortune – tales not just exotic and strange but passing strange, beyond strange – moved her so deeply that she fell in love with this sad, damaged man. In certain ways, this parallels in Passing Strange the Youth’s own (less dramatic, more metaphoric) life journey. And it’s fair to speculate that Marianna and Desi (both white women) fall for the Youth for similar reasons, to “fix” this damaged man with their love.

But even outside the Othello context, the phrase by itself is just as potent, particularly applied to the wild and weird adventure Passing Strange's creator Stew takes us on, through church services, acid trips, marijuana caf├ęs, riots, performance art, and more. His story truly is passing strange. But passing has so many other meanings. When it comes to African Americans, passing usually means being light-skinned enough to live as a white person, but here Stew turns that upside down when Franklin introduces the idea of “black folks passing for black folks” – not just passing but passing strange – which then underlines certain moments throughout the rest of the show when the Youth does indeed “pass” for being black. And this also suggests the show’s central theme of the masks that all these characters wear to hide from the world.

And there are more meanings. The Youth is “passing” through these cities – though he may think he intends to stay in both Amsterdam and Berlin, he is really just passing through, not intending to integrate himself into the community, but staying "strange" and outside it. And he’s also both passing time (wasting time) and passing through time, especially in the time-telescoping world of the theatre, when time can be compressed and elongated at the whim of the Narrator. All that in two words. Another great title!

The Nervous Set
The Nervous Set was a neurotic little jazz-Beat musical that debuted here in St. Louis, in Gaslight Square in 1959, then went to Broadway and got its balls cut off. Admittedly, it was a very hostile, smartass musical (New Line produced it in 2004) with a very smartass title. The phrase, "The Nervous Set" was a poke at the literary magazine Smart Set (1900-1924), which one Eugene O’Neill website describes this way:
Smart Set was a leading literary magazine which was edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Calling itself “a magazine of cleverness,” it provided a haven for writers just getting started, as well as for established authors whose more daring efforts could find no other market.

Smart Set editor H.L. Mencken promised to “combat, chiefly by ridicule, American piety, stupidity, tinpot morality and cheap chauvinism in all their forms.” The phrase smart set soon became a common term for the intellectual and cultural elites in America. The title of the musical (and its source novel) was a joke implying that the newest trend among the cultural elite was to be neurotic, to be part of the Nervous Set. But most audiences today wouldn't get any of that. Which is okay, really, because it's a mess of a musical...

A Chorus Line
Legend has it that Michael Bennett chose the title A Chorus Line because that put the show at the beginning of the "ABC" theatre listings in the New York Times. If that's true, he had astonishing instincts. That "A" at the beginning of the title is a big deal. This is any chorus line, any job interview. We're all in this together, Bennett is telling us. There is nothing specific here, though of course there is. As the great dramatists all know, the more specific the details, the more universal the connection.

But the title is also telling us something about the aggressive minimalism of the physical production. For most of the show, there is literally nothing onstage but actors and a white line for them to stand on. The show had (essentially) no sets or costumes, nothing to "help" tell this story, just that chorus line, just that central metaphor. Nothing else.

By 1975, it seemed everyone in America was lying – the politicians, the media, etc. – but A Chorus Line stripped away all the conventional “lies” from musical theatre, the artifice that separates actor from audience, the fourth wall, the sets (sort of), the costumes (sort of), even the pretense of a linear narrative. And so it just left us with us up there, with that metaphorical Mirror Up to Nature. Not only was it naturalistic in its acting style, but its content was also true. There weren't even the "lies" of fictional storytelling. This was a documentary musical. You walked into the theatre and you saw exactly what you were gonna get: just a chorus line, but also everything else it implies...

Jesus Christ Superstar
People probably don't even register it anymore, but the title of this now classic rock opera is snide, sarcastic, angry. It reveals Judas’ point of view (he is our protagonist after all, not Jesus), that Jesus has become a “superstar,” a shallow, hyped personality worshipped merely for the hype, like so many pop stars of the 1960s and 70s and today. All this baggage became more important than the central philosophical message Jesus wanted to convey, a message Judas believed in. To Judas, Jesus lost his stature as philosopher when he gained his status as superstar.

Everyone already knows the story of Jesus as the Son of God. This was the other, rarely examined side of the story of Jesus, an ordinary guy who became an unlikely star. The name Jesus was one of the most common Jewish male names of that time and place; calling this man Jesus is like a modern author calling a character Everyman, or in Bible-speak, the “Son of Man.” The story is about the process of Jesus becoming a superstar and the cost of that.

The lyric to the chorus of the title song originally just repeated “Jesus Christ” every time the melody repeated. But before recording it, Tim Rice wanted to give the lyric some variety. The word superstar was just beginning to be widely used, mostly to refer to rock and pop stars. Rice changed the second repeat of the chorus to include the word superstar because that's what Christ was, a superstar of his time, widely popular, complete with his own groupies who cared more about his star status then about his message. He was thronged when he went out in public, and like many rock stars today, he was considered dangerous and corrupting by the establishment. The songs “Hosanna” and “Simon Zealotes” point out to Jesus the tens of thousands of followers who are hanging on his every word. Whether he likes it or not, he's a superstar, and that's going to get him killed.

This title was very controversial, and it pissed off all the right people, but more than that, it was exceptionally right for the story Tim Rice was telling.

Anything Goes
This is another musical that most people think is kind of empty and shallow, but it's really not. This is a story about morality and moral irony, set in a time ("the present" when it debuted) with no fixed morality, the roaring 20s continuing into the 30s for the rich, even if the 20s only led to the Depression for the rest of the country. Also, since most of the show takes place in international waters, there is literally no "law"! Significantly, the characters we like the most (Reno, Moonface, Billy) are the least lawful or “decent.” And the most decent character (Sir Evelyn) is the show's antagonist. All this moral complexity is wrapped up in the show's title and its title song, a conscious symbol of the moral relativism of the American culture during Prohibition.

In the 1930s, it seemed all America's institutions were failing, The famous criminals of the time made their own rules, and that made them heroes to millions of ordinary Americans struggling themselves under the weight of poverty and hopelessness. In a time when the law itself was an object of ridicule, thanks to the failed experiment of Prohibition (and its widespread violation), the Gangster stood in for everyday Americans, "a nation of scofflaws" who no longer respected the law or even recognized it as legitimate.

In Anything Goes, Reno is America, responding to the repeal of prohibition, just a year before Anything Goes opened. Instead of the usual religious story of going from sinner to saint, Reno hass gone from “moral purity” as an evangelist under Prohibition, to “moral sin” as a nightclub singer after the repeal. She has been "saved" by abandoning religion. She's a sly, comic mix of superstar evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and notorious speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan (the model for Velma in Chicago). Here, in this world, literally anything goes.

There are probably more examples, but that's enough for now...

I'm sure you figured out some of this stuff already, but hopefully there are some things here that you hadn't realized before, and now when you see or hear the show, it will be different for you. And that's kind of cool.

I remember that it wasn't until I was in college that I finally understood why it was funny that the Munsters had a cuckoo clock with a raven in it that popped out and said, "Nevermore! Nevermore!" Once I realized that, watching The Munsters was even more fun. I think, at least in a few cases, the same will be true with these shows.

Long Live the Musical!