The ge­nius of BROAD­WAY

Mu­si­cal theatre came of age when words, mu­sic and dance worked to­gether, writes Deb­o­rah Jones

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

THE golden age of mu­si­cal theatre started qui­etly. A young man was heard off­stage — it was March 31, 1943 — ex­tolling the joys of life and of that day in par­tic­u­lar. ‘‘ There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,’’ he sang, a cap­pella. ‘‘ There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow . . .’’ Oklahoma!, and a new era, was un­der way.

The show was the first col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween com­poser Richard Rodgers and lyri­cist Os­car Ham­mer­stein II, and its open­ing is one of the most in­spired, and con­cise, pieces of scene and char­ac­ter set­ting in all mu­si­cal theatre.

Ham­mer­stein wrote the lyrics first, and with those first eight words ( of which two are def­i­nite or in­def­i­nite ar­ti­cles) es­tab­lished an in­deli­ble im­age of open farm­land on a sunny morn­ing and, by as­so­ci­a­tion, the pleas­ant, op­ti­mistic na­ture of the man who no­tices such things. The rhythm of the line is clear and un­com­pli­cated, and Rodgers sup­ports it with a sweet melody that strolls along as eas­ily as an old- fash­ioned coun­try boy. All this takes per­haps 10 sec­onds to get across. ‘‘ Oklahoma! has a per­fect struc­ture and the score is one of the great­est light mu­sic scores ever writ­ten,’’ says David King, head of mu­si­cal theatre at the West­ern Aus­tralian Academy of Per­form­ing Arts.

Most of the com­pe­ti­tion for great­ness comes from Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein them­selves, with Carousel, South Pa­cific, The King and I and The Sound of Mu­sic com­ing from the pair in the space of 16 years. But they didn’t en­tirely cor­ner the mar­ket. The dream run in the 1940s and ’ 50s in­cluded Alan Jay Lerner and Fred­er­ick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and Leonard Bern­stein and Stephen Sond­heim’s West Side Story, re­mark­able for the qual­ity of their source ma­te­rial ( from Ge­orge Bernard Shaw, Da­mon Run­yon and Shake­speare res- pec­tively) and the bril­liance of their mu­sic and lyrics. More re­cent mu­si­cals might have one or two hit songs; shows in this group string them to­gether like well- matched pearls. Ex­pen­sive ones, too. If you’d in­vested $ 1000 in the orig­i­nal Oklahoma! your re­turn would have been $ 2.5 mil­lion.

That Oklahoma! has en­dur­ing ap­peal more than 60 years af­ter its pre­miere at­tests to its qual­ity: this year alone there will be about 500 pro­duc­tions world­wide, in­clud­ing one at Perth­based WAAPA. But it goes fur­ther than mere pop­u­lar­ity. Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein set the stan­dard and style for an era. The shows cre­ated in the space of lit­tle more than two decades, from 1943 to 1964, when Fid­dler on the Roof opened, are the undis­puted clas­sics of the genre.

Ger­ald Bordman, au­thor of Amer­i­can Mu­si­cal Theatre: A Chron­i­cle, heads his chap­ter on this pe­riod The Amer­i­can Mu­si­cal as a Con­scious Art Form. What would be­come the mu­si­cal started in the mid- 1800s and de­vel­oped out of pop­u­lar the­atri­cal tra­di­tions in­clud­ing op­eretta, melo­drama, bur­lesque and re­vue.

Most com­men­ta­tors nom­i­nate 1866 as the start of the na­tive art form, when a tour­ing French bal­let com­pany found it­self with­out a theatre and en­ter­pris­ing pro­duc­ers com­bined the tal­ents of the danseuses with a melo­drama, The Black Crook.

The young women of the bal­let weren’t the only ones with legs, and the show ran and ran.

In the post- war 1920s the taste was for en­ter­tain­ment; in the ’ 30s the­atre­go­ers wanted ei­ther es­cape from the De­pres­sion or so­cially rel­e­vant drama be­cause of it. There was, how­ever, a clus­ter of supremely tal­ented peo­ple work­ing in New York who would bring the light and shade to­gether.

Ham­mer­stein is a piv­otal fig­ure. His grand­fa­ther was a New York theatre dis­trict pi­o­neer and, with Jerome Kern, he wrote the ground-

break­ing Show Boat ( 1927). With its racially in­te­grated cast and a trou­bling theme of mis­ce­gena­tion, it fore­shad­owed the kind of work Ham­mer­stein would do when he joined forces with Rodgers 15 years later.

He was also an im­por­tant men­tor to Sond­heim, who would much later reign over the high end of the mar­ket.

And he was a lyri­cist of ex­cep­tional and sub­tle gifts. In their book Broad­way: The Amer­i­can Mu­si­cal, Michael Kan­tor and Lau­rence Maslon quote writer Peter Stone on Ham­mer­stein’s use of the ‘‘ con­di­tional bal­lad’’, where love doesn’t hap­pen mirac­u­lously but is ex­pressed as be­ing in the fu­ture, or a pos­si­bil­ity, or at one re­move. In Carousel it’s If I Loved You, in Show Boat it’s Only Make Be­lieve, in Oklahoma! there’s Peo­ple Will Say We’re in Love.

Just how dif­fer­ent Oklahoma! was from its im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors is il­lus­trated by some­thing that quickly passed into mu­sic theatre leg­end. A tal­ent scout for the critic Wal­ter Winchell went to New Haven to see a show, at that stage called Away We Go, which was hav­ing its out- of- town try­out. He ca­bled to Winchell the fol­low­ing as­sess­ment: No legs, no jokes, no chance!

The au­di­ence saw it dif­fer­ently, happy to view work that not only en­ter­tained and thrilled but of­ten chal­lenged as well. Oklahoma! be­came the first mu­sic theatre phe­nom­e­non, run­ning for more than 2000 per­for­mances on Broad­way.

The new breed of creators didn’t shy away from themes such as gang war­fare ( West Side Story ), racism ( South Pa­cific ) and dis­pos­ses­sion ( Fid­dler on the Roof ), but it was in the con­text of well- made theatre that also pro­vided the pop­u­lar mu­sic of the day: Maria, Some En­chanted Evening, If I Were a Rich Man.

The ge­nius, says Andrew Greene, who con­ducts My Fair Lady for Opera Aus­tralia in June, lies in the fact that ‘‘ in ( the clas­sic) mu­si­cals it’s about the team: won­der­ful mu­sic, words, book and great chore­og­ra­phy and di­rec­tion, all com­ing to­gether to cre­ate a won­der­ful night in the theatre’’. No longer was the piece de­signed to re­volve around a big- name star who sucked up most of the oxy­gen. Ev­ery­thing had to be in the ser­vice of the whole.

Michael Grandage, di­rec­tor of the Don­mar Ware­house pro­duc­tion in Lon­don of Guys and Dolls, which is be­ing staged in Melbourne, points to the de­tail and co­he­sion of its book. ‘‘ From a di­rec­to­rial point of view, you’re able to approach a mu­si­cal like Guys and Dolls ex­actly as you would one of the most per­fectly made plays,’’ he says.

As with most clas­sic pe­ri­ods, the golden age of the Amer­i­can mu­si­cal was cre­ated by a rel­a­tively small num­ber of peo­ple. They in­cluded com­poser and con­duc­tor Bern­stein, the youth­ful Sond­heim ( as lyri­cist), pro­ducer David Mer­rick and di­rec­tor Hal Prince. The stel­lar Cole Porter and Irv­ing Ber­lin wrote words as well as mu­sic: when a Porter ac­quain­tance praised Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein’s Some En­chanted Evening, Porter replied in­sou­ciantly that it was in­deed pow­er­ful, ‘‘ if you can imag­ine it tak­ing two men to write one song’’.

Cru­cially, dance be­came a force for con­cen­trated sto­ry­telling, of­ten psy­cho­log­i­cally re­veal­ing, for which Agnes de Mille and Jerome Rob­bins can take much of the credit. De Mille’s dream bal­let for Oklahoma! and an­other for Carousel were so in­flu­en­tial that she per­haps never re­ceived quite her due: soon ev­ery­one was do­ing what she did.

Rob­bins and de Mille came from the classical bal­let world and didn’t see it as slum­ming from their du­ties at Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre. In fact Rob­bins, a force­ful char­ac­ter who di­rected as well as chore­ographed, got the idea that be­came West Side Story while study­ing at the Ac­tors Stu­dio in New York, where Mar­lon Brando was among his peers. The ex­hil­a­rat­ing Act I Mambo in the re- imag­in­ing of Romeo and Juliet isn’t there for colour and move­ment. It re­veals the depth of ri­valry be­tween the Puerto Ri­can and Amer­i­can gangs and, in the set­ting of a so­cial dance, brings Tony and Maria to­gether.

The por­ous di­vide be­tween high art and the com­mer­cial theatre was man­i­fest in a ver­sion of Aida, us­ing Verdi’s mu­sic but trans­lated to an Amer­i­can Con­fed­er­acy set­ting and called My Dar­lin’ Aida. Ob­vi­ously it didn’t en­ter the pan­theon, but it does point to a gen­eral taste for mu­sic writ­ten for a more clas­sic tra­di­tion of vo­cal train­ing. Opera singer Ezio Pinza had huge suc­cess as Emile in South Pa­cific, and My Fair Lady called for a gifted so­prano and got one in Julie An­drews. Ris­ing opera star Taryn Fiebig will sing the role for Opera Aus­tralia.

OA’s chief ex­ec­u­tive Adrian Col­lette says the strong book is cen­tral to the ap­peal of My Fair Lady. It’s adapted from ‘‘ a tough and polem­i­cal play by Ge­orge Bernard Shaw . . . what the mu­sic un­fail­ingly brings to it is the po­ten­tial for ro­mance. It keeps its es­sen­tial am­bi­gu­ity to the very end, but over­lays it with this won­der­fully ro­man­tic mu­sic.’’

Greene says Amer­i­can mu­si­cals have been part of the lighter reper­toire in Euro­pean opera houses for many years, and is pleased to see OA tack­ling My Fair Lady af­ter many years of Gil­bert and Sul­li­van ( OA has also staged Fid­dler on the Roof ).

‘‘( Fred­er­ick) Loewe was amaz­ing. He was a di­rect de­scen­dant of a 19th- cen­tury lieder com­poser of Aus­trian de­scent. We find him not only be­ing able to write won­der­ful ro­man­tic­style pop tunes. He was able to ( write in the man­ner of) the Bri­tish mu­sic- hall style for My Fair Lady — Get Me to the Church on Time, With a Lit­tle Bit of Luck — and also some­thing like They Call the Wind Maria from Paint Your Wagon. He was a mu­si­cal chameleon.’’

Like all move­ments, this one was fi­nite. Times, tastes and meth­ods changed. A show such as Cabaret ( 1966) mostly pre­sented its songs not as ris­ing out of or­di­nary ac­tiv­ity but within the con­text of the Kit Kat Klub where Sally Bowles worked. A Cho­rus Line ( 1975) stripped away all the trap­pings and was a more or less plot­less show about peo­ple try­ing to get into a show.

The bub­ble had very much burst by the Broad­way sea­son of 1967- 68. William Gold­man in his book The Sea­son saw ev­ery­thing that year. There were 14 new mu­si­cals and only one hit: the en­dear­ing but chaotic Hair.

To come: the rock mu­si­cal, Sond­heim ( a kind of one- man style), the Bri­tish ‘‘ popera’’ in­va­sion spear­headed by Andrew Lloyd Web­ber and Cameron Mack­in­tosh, Dis­ney­fi­ca­tion and the juke­box mu­si­cal.

It’s hard to see any­thing other than Sond­heim last­ing an­other 50 years but that doesn’t stop peo­ple from try­ing, year af­ter year, to write the next hit. King says the New York Mu­sic Theatre Fes­ti­val each year pre­mieres about 40 new mu­si­cals — ‘‘ there’s an enor­mous amount of stuff writ­ten’’ — and a few com­posers, Adam Guet­tel ( Rodgers’s grand­son) and Michael John LaChiusa chief among them, are writ­ing works of note.

And a Broad­way that can of­fer, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, mu­si­cal ver­sions of Frank Wedekind’s wildly con­tro­ver­sial 1891 play deal­ing with youth­ful sex­u­al­ity, Spring Awak­en­ing, and the perky Legally Blonde— King calls it imag­i­na­tive and witty — is far from be­ing dead, no mat­ter how much peo­ple han­ker for the glory days and start read­ing it the last rites. Guys and Dolls opens in Melbourne on April 5. The Aus­tralian Bal­let’s Jerome Rob­bins, a Cel­e­bra­tion opens in Syd­ney on April 30. My Fair Lady opens in Syd­ney in June. Oklahoma! opens in Perth in June.

Song, dance and co­he­sion: A scene from Guys and Dolls , main pic­ture; Mau­reen Lip­man and Hugh Jack­man in Oklahoma! , left; Richard Rodgers and Os­car Ham­mer­stein, in­set fac­ing page

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