Times Have Changed...

I have been known on occasion to declare that the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical is dead, that it is no longer relevant to the world in which we live. As I often argue, there was a thick cultural line drawn in the late 1960s, dividing mid-20th-century America from late 20th-century America. The last R&H show opened years before the new Age of Irony, before the Sexual Revolution, before Vietnam and Watergate and Hair. It's a much more ironic, neurotic, but also more self-aware culture now than it was in the 1940s.

But really, though it's pretty easy to argue that we've moved on, well beyond R&H, I'd argue we've also moved on beyond Sondheim, to the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical of this new millennium. Our new heroes are Bill Finn, Jason Robert Brown, Amanda Green, Andrew Lippa, and Tom Kitt. But that doesn't mean we can forget our past.

I often post to New Line's Facebook page questions for our fellow musical theatre fans to ponder. Not long ago, I posted "Name your favorite musical that debuted before you were born."

As soon as I typed it, I realized almost every one of my favorite shows debuted after I was born in 1964. (In fact, most of them debuted after 1990.) I'll always love that I was born that year, because it was such a critical pivot point for the art form (so critical, in fact, that Peter Filichia has written a whole book about that season, called The Great Parade). It was a pivot between Rodgers and Hammerstein and old-school musical comedy on one side, and the emergence of the Brechtian concept musical on the other side. It was the year the last great R&H-style musical opened, Fiddler on the Roof, but even it had more than a touch of concept musical about it. It was the year of Hello, Dolly!, the last great, non-ironic George Abbott style musical comedy, the form invented by George M. Cohan at the turn of the last century. It was the year of Anyone Can Whistle, Sondheim's first great experiment. It was the year Hal Prince directed his first musical, She Loves Me. It was the year the avant garde musical Marat/Sade opened in London. It was the year Cole Porter died.

Everything was changing.

So I started making a list of my favorite shows before 1964. At first, every show I considered had opened after I was born. Then I started thinking of some older shows I really love. Finally, I went to a list I keep from the first draft of my history book – every show I wanted to include, even though many of them didn't make it the final cut. But it's a great list of the most interesting shows, from some not-quite-but-almost musical comedies in the late 1800s, up to the early 2000s, when I wrote my book.

So I went to that list, chopped it off at 1964, then started deleting any show I didn't really love. When I was done, I had exactly ten shows left, shows I really love, a few of which I'd love to work on, and five that I have worked on (two with New Line). It's a cool list of shows...

No, No, Nanette (1925)
Unlike many of the show that had come before, Nanette had something to say, a lesson to teach us, one which we never learned, a lesson perhaps newly relevant again post-2008. This is one of those shows that feels silly on the surface until it hits you what the show's really about. Every character has a very complicated, potentially destructive relationship with money, and every plot element turns on money, who has it, who needs it, who wants it. Jimmy is a near-millionaire who loves giving people money just to make them happy. He's met these three gold-diggers and just can't help making them happy too with generous and frequent handouts. Jimmy’s wife Sue is thrifty as hell and hates the idea of spending money foolishly. Yet Sue’s best friend Lucille is a compulsive shopper, buying things just for the sake of buying them, and not incidentally, to keep her husband Billy (Jimmy's lawyer) on a short leash by making him work like crazy to pay her shopping bills. Nanette feels imprisoned because she has no money of her own and thus, no independence. The maid Pauline even has a song early in the show to set up this central theme, “Pay Day Pauline” (cut from the 1970s revival).

Money, Nanette tells us, is a weapon, a source of power, a prison, and a sure road to victimization. Most interestingly, Jimmy has made his fortune as a Bible publisher, a not so subtle reminder of the Bible’s admonition that the love of money is the root of all evil. America in 1925 and its rampant consumerism was right there on stage to be laughed at, but also to be slyly and accurately assessed. Just four years before the Crash and the Depression, this quirky, modest little comedy was offering up some killer insights into American culture, warning us not to make money too central to our lives. We should have listened.

Doesn't that sound like my kind of musical?

Of Thee I Sing (1931)
George and Ira Gershwin’s masterpiece Of Thee I Sing became the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, beating out Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. It's wild, smartass, cynical, goofy, and openly political. How could I not love this show? In the New York American, Gilbert Gabriel wrote of the show, "It was a new genre for a new decade. We first nighters were in at the liberation of musical comedy from twaddle and treacle and garden-party truck. We were laughing gratefully at a new date in stage history."

Of Thee I Sing both told a conventional musical comedy love story and also ridiculed that love story, standing with one musical foot in the 1920s and one in the future of the musical theatre. Here in the midst of the Great Depression, Of Thee I Sing railed angrily and oh so cleverly at the triviality, insincerity, and uselessness of American politics. The story told of the hand-picked, easily manipulated presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen, who runs on a platform of Love -- which doesn't sound a whole lot more ridiculous than anything Donald Trump says these days.

The campaign holds a nationwide beauty pageant and promising to the winner a proposal of marriage in every state of the union and a wedding at the inauguration. Of course, Wintergreen falls in love with Nice Girl Mary Turner instead, and he rejects the contest winner Diana Devereux, almost causing an international incident – and war, of course – with France. (Again, no sillier than the real world today.) Devereux is, we discover, the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon! As Wintergreen is about to be impeached, Mary announces that she’s pregnant, so all is forgiven. Vice President Throttlebottom assumes the President’s duties, as the Constitution prescribes, and he marries Diana. And in last touch of satiric genius, the Supreme Court decides the sex of John and Mary's baby – and they can't agree so the couple ends up with twins. What's not to love about this show?

And I ask again, doesn't that sound like my kind of musical? Problem, I don't think we could scale it down enough. It really needs a huge cast...

Anything Goes (1934)
Cole Porter’s most perfect musical comedy hit Broadway like a steam engine, starring the powerhouse trio of Ethel Merman as Reno, William Gaxton as Billy, and the hilariously stoic, nasally, trembly-voiced comedian Victor Moore as Moonface. Nearly every song in the show would become an American standard, and the show’s success and popularity would never diminish. But not everything about the show was conventional. This sharply satirical story focused on two themes, the way religion becomes show business, and the way Americans make celebrities out of dangerous criminals, both themes still fiercely relevant today. The plot was constructed on the familiar building blocks of mistaken identity, misunderstandings, and surprise revelations before the final curtain, along with satiric swipes at contemporary celebrities like Aimee Semple McPherson and Baby Face Nelson. But like Of Thee I Sing, Anything Goes offered up some fierce social commentary, dressed up as good-hearted musical comedy. And really, just imagine the context for a second – right in the middle of the Depression, here are carefree rich folks boozing, dancing, and singing on a transatlantic cruise.

New Line will produce this show sometime soon, and you'll all see that it really is a New Line show.

The Cradle Will Rock (1937)
Maybe the most famous show the Federal Theatre Project produced was Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 concept musical The Cradle Will Rock, both a fascinating piece of political musical theatre and a remarkable piece of theatre history. Blitzstein called his show “a labor opera composed in a style that falls somewhere between realism, romance, vaudeville, comic strip, Gilbert & Sullivan, Brecht, and agitprop.” It was the first American musical from a working class perspective. It laid the groundwork, in its politics and its episodic construction, for later shows as varied as Cabaret, Hair, Pippin, Chicago, Assassins, and Rent. And like Chicago, it is thoroughly of its time and yet it doesn’t feel dated. It was the first musical comedy Marc Blitzstein ever wrote, even though he was already, at age 32, an internationally respected classical composer and music commentator. Completed in only five weeks, its subject matter is very serious and yet it lives in a world of cartoon characters and melodrama.

It’s one of the funniest musicals of the 1930s, but even though the audience laughed at all the characters, Blitzstein somehow managed to create an emotional investment that paid off in the show’s very passionate, very dramatic ending. Its politics were socialist and unionist, yet it was unmistakably an American musical comedy and it still today holds a place of honor in musical theatre history. It’s the kind of theatre for which the term “agitprop” was invented (condensed from “agitational propaganda”) and yet, even though it was heavy-handed and didactic, and even though its motives were altogether transparent, it's still a funny, thoroughly entertaining musical, still strongly relevant, especially in this era of decreasing union membership and a disappearing middle class, so appealing precisely because of the honesty about its intentions.

New Line produced Cradle in 2001, and I'd like to return to it. If you don't know the story of this show's historic, dramatic first performance, watch this video...

Pal Joey (1940)
Rodgers and Hart’s 1940 musical was about casual sex, predatory men, and promiscuous women. Sounds like a New Line show, no? Sex had been lurking in musical comedy for a long time, especially in the bawdy songs of Cole Porter, but never before had a musical tackled real sex, recreational sex, sex worth regretting, cheerfully adulterous sex. This was something new and really shocking in 1940. Musical comedy had always been about romance, but never before had a musical been so clearly and exclusively about copulation. Both leading characters (Joey and Vera) want very little besides sexual intercourse. It might be fair to say that musical comedy hit puberty with Pal Joey, and it would hit maturity three years later with Oklahoma! Other musicals had already featured less than heroic heroes, like Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat, but Ravenal wasn’t Show Boat’s central character. And even so, these two were nothing alike. Ravenal was a tragically weak man, but Joey was a dick. Until Pal Joey, no musical comedy had centered on a genuine scoundrel. Describing the show’s characters, Rodgers said in an interview, “They were all bad people. Except the girl. And she was stupid.”

That's got New Line written all over it. We will produce this show someday.

Guys and Dolls (1950)
After moderate success with his first Broadway score for Where’s Charley? in 1948, composer-lyricist Frank Loesser hit the jackpot with his next show, Guys and Dolls, opening on Broadway in November 1950. The show many people today consider the most perfect musical comedy ever written had a book by Abe Burrows (the twelfth bookwriter the producers had hired for this project), direction by playwright/director George S. Kaufman, with athletic choreography by up-and-comer Michael Kidd. Guys and Dolls was based on three of the legendary Damon Runyon’s short stories, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” “Pick the Winner,” and “Blood Pressure” (later in his life, Runyon would actually marry a showgirl like Miss Adelaide), although some of the characters in the show came from other Runyon stories.

Most people know this show, but if you don't... The central plot line focused on Sky Masterson who makes a bet he can make Salvation Army doll Sarah Brown fall in love with him; of course, in the process – it’s musical comedy; opposites attract – Sky falls in love with her too. The secondary plot focused on Sky’s pal, Nathan Detroit, his floating crap game, and his show girl fiancĂ©e Miss Adelaide, who’s been engaged to Nathan for fourteen years. The continual postponement of their wedding has given the dumb but sincere Adelaide myriad comic, psychosomatic illnesses, described in one of the theatre’s most perfect character songs, "Adelaide’s Lament."

I can't say New Line will ever produce this one, but I do love it. I was lucky enough to see Nathan Lane and Faith Prince in the 1990s revival and they were utterly brilliant.

West Side Story (1957)
Opening on Broadway in 1957, West Side Story was one of the American musical theatre's few great tragedies, appearing just when American cinema and theatre was discovering (or re-discovering) social problem stories, just when America was beginning to no longer ignore its greatest evils. West Side Story told a story in which a happy ending is not possible, a musical about hatred and prejudice, a musical that says that love cannot triumph over all.

When director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, and bookwriter Arthur Laurents first discussed this story (lyricist Stephen Sondheim wouldn’t be joining them until later), it focused on tensions between Catholics and Jews, and it was called East Side Story. That this group of rich, white, Jewish, gay men eventually changed the focus as they did to Anglo-Americans and Puerto Rican Americans, that the team recognized the profound racial prejudice in America (and especially New York) against Hispanics may excuse the awkwardness and unintentional racism in their final product. But to its credit, strictly as a work of art and ignoring its flaws as a social document, West Side Story is certainly a perfect blend of the many disciplines that make musical theatre, More than with most musicals, the book, music, lyrics, and staging come together as a perfectly unified whole, speaking with one voice. Musical theatre is by its nature a collaborative art form, but rarely do the many parts make such a consistently crafted statement. Driven by the vision of Jerome Robbins, the greatest talents on Broadway created a musical that is specific yet universal (as Robbins would also do with Fiddler on the Roof), as current as today's headlines yet also timeless.

It is a Broadway fable whose final curtain brings not hope for tomorrow but inconsolable grief over today; what little hope the final moments may imply, we know that hatred does not die. In a country where hate crimes multiply exponentially each year and gang warfare has turned our streets into war zones, West Side Story is heart-breaking and also somehow cathartic. It was a big shock to the Broadway audiences of 1957, with its intricately integrated dance, dissonant, driving, jazz inspired score, its gritty, simple sets, its assault on the well-protected sensibilities of theatre-goers. It was not a big hit. But today, we don't mind the seeing the ugly truth in our musicals, as long as it's the truth.

The Music Man (1957)
The Music Man was West Side Story’s polar opposite in most ways. One of the greatest of all the American musicals, it is not the sweet slice-of-life, all-American musical many people think it is. After all, it's the story of a con man in 1912 Iowa who seduces an innocent young woman merely to keep her from mucking up his plan to swindle the honest, hard-working people of a small Midwestern town, including the young woman's emotionally troubled little brother, who's mourning the premature death of his father. Still sound like a family musical...?

Along the way, the show also takes gleefully wicked pot shots at most of what Americans hold dear -- small town generosity, family values, representative government, education, the 4th of July, European Americans' view of native American culture, classical western culture, and the great hope of so many parents that their child might have the talent to play a musical instrument. Yet somehow, amongst all this dark commentary and savage satire, we manage to find quite easily a soft, gooey center that winds up as a pseudo-traditional musical comedy love story (though just barely). Why is it we consider this show just another sappy, happy, old-fashioned musical?

Are we just afraid to admit how much we love, even identify with, this unrepentant con man?

The Fantasticks (1959)
In the 1950s, mainly thanks to the monster hit revival of The Threepenny Opera, off Broadway was becoming an incubator for unusual musicals that would never work on Broadway. Threepenny had been the first mega-hit off Broadway, but The Fantasticks would leave it in the dust, making theatre history.

Another musical theatre outgrowth of the Beat Generation, the story of The Fantasticks began with Edmond Rostand’s French 1890 play Les Romanesques, a kind of anti-Romeo and Juliet, in which two fathers and best friends concoct a fake feud in order to get their rebellious kids to meet behind their backs, fall in love and marry. Its cynical view of love and marriage was right in sync with the mood of America’s youth in 1959. Directed by Word Baker, commedia dell’arte was the governing style. Their rhyming Beat-inspired dialogue and Schmidt’s dissonant, polytonal jazz vocabulary came to the forefront, especially with their new orchestration, scored for just piano and harp. They found another translation of Les Romanesques, called The Fantasticks. They had found their title. In an earlier version, the story was set in Texas, so even in its new form, the narrator/bandit was still named El Gallo (which is Spanish for The Cock or The Rooster).

After a limited production of just the first act, the writers expanded the show into a full-length musical. They dubbed the romantic Act One “In the Moonlight” and they went to work on Act Two, “In the Sunlight,” exploring what happens to the two families and the new marriage in the harsh light of day. As El Gallo says:
Their moon was cardboard, fragile.
It was very apt to fray,
And what was last night scenic
May seem cynic by today.
The play’s not done.
On no – not quite,
For life never ends in the moonlit night;
And despite what pretty poets say,
The night is only half the day.
So we would like to finish
What was foolishly begun.
For the story is not ended
And the play is never done
Until we’ve all of us been burned a bit
And burnished by the sun!

Act Two was the Beat Generation’s answer to the traditional romantic Broadway musical, a kind of gentler companion piece to The Nervous Set, commenting on the increasingly unhealthy isolationism and insularity of suburban America during the Eisenhower years. In Act One of The Fantasticks, Matt and Luisa found a traditional Broadway musical Happily Ever After. But it was tainted – it was predicated on a deception. In Act Two, the disillusionment sinks in and they find that love can't be built on false romanticism. The Happily Ever After they had been promised all their lives ran smack up against the reality of Life. As with many young people in post-war America, they found that Marriage is Hard. All the lovely lies of the American establishment, the Happily Ever After the end of World War II had promised, that mythical American Dream that only a few Americans actually got to enjoy, was revealed to be a lie. Act Two of The Fantasticks told us that life was complicated, difficult, confusing, but that it was possible for clear-eyed realists to navigate this decidedly un-musical-comedy terrain. The Fantasticks was the beginning of the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution, looking back to some of the great elemental myths but also looking forward to the concept musicals to come, not only rejecting the naturalism of their musicals but also the false romanticism and optimism their musicals propagated.

New Line produced this show in 2004. People were surprised, but this has always felt like a New Line show to me...

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961)
The director Antonin Artaud once said that the theatre “causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of our world.” Only a few musicals since Of Thee I Sing have successfully tread the dangerous path of satire. It took thirty years for another to equal the biting wit of Of Thee I Sing. It was called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and it won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the best musical Tony, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical. The show dishes out a savage satire of the world of big business, complete with the grumbling boss, lecherous executives, secretaries that really run the company, and a generous dose of lying, cheating, and stealing.

Another show New Line will produce someday...

You'll notice my list is chronologically light in the middle, with no shows that debuted between 1940 ad 1950. The war years were pretty bland artistically...

Making a list like this is a worthwhile exercise, particularly for younger musical theatre fans, not just to explore, but to get to know the classics, whatever that word may mean to each of us. Not the boring shows that are called classics just because they're old (Brigadoon, anyone?), but the real gems that still speak to us.

And as a further exercise, even if you still love Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, make your list without any R&H shows, to see what else is out there. And if you don't know enough about musical theatre history to make a good list, then give yourself a Twelfth Night present of my history book, Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre. (Wasn't that smooth?) And while you're waiting for Amazon to deliver it, you can see the original list of shows I was working from when I wrote the book...

Because I've really grown to feel very lukewarm about Rodgers & Hammerstein, people assume I don't like any older shows, which obviously isn't true. What I like are shows that are beautifully crafted and relevant to the our world today. That includes both The Cradle Will Rock and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

What shows would be on your list?

Long Live the Musical!


That Guy | December 31, 2015 at 12:25 AM

"Of Thee I sing" was recently done in a concert version by Australian company Squabbalogic - they're a small independant musical company that's done a lot of "Neo Musical comedy" shows. They managed to do it with a cast of seven - four of whom were doing a lot of doubling (well, seven plus a philharmonic choir of over a hundred).

It is possible.