CON­SPIR­ACY OF FEEL­ING

The hum­ble mu­si­cal, now a main­stay of the­atres around the world, has its roots firmly planted in the Amer­i­can Dream, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

MER­ICA,” said John Updike, “is a vast con­spir­acy for mak­ing you happy.” If that’s true, there have been few more suc­cess­ful con­spir­a­cies than the Broad­way mu­si­cal — that is, the “book” (mean­ing play) mu­si­cal — a dra­matic form that blends drama of character and nar­ra­tive with song and dance. “Words make you think thoughts, mu­sic makes you feel a feel­ing, a song makes you feel a thought,” said song­writer Yip Har­burg. The best mu­si­cals have a thrilling seam­less­ness and a cu­mu­la­tive emo­tional charge; the worst are chunks of di­a­logue in­ter­leaved with mu­si­cal in­ter­ludes.

The first book mu­si­cal was John Gay’s The Beg­gar’s Opera, writ­ten in 1728. Lack­ing a genre to lump it with, it was called a bal­lad opera and, like its dis­tant Broad­way de­scen­dant, it brought to­gether the worlds of high and low cul­ture and popular en­ter­tain­ment.

It was part satire, part so­cial crit­i­cism, part ro­mance and part pure en­ter­tain­ment op­por­tunis­ti­cally geared to the tastes of its in­tended au­di­ence, who en­joyed be­ing voyeurs of low-life sex and vi­o­lence.

The first Amer­i­can at­tempt to em­u­late The Beg­gar’s Opera was called The Black Crook. It opened in 1866 with a plot of sorts — a de­riv­a­tive Faus­tian melo­drama — char­ac­ters of sorts, spec­ta­cle, danc­ing, a num­ber called You Naughty, Naughty Men and was a tri­umph of mar­ket­ing. It had many gen­teel ri­vals from Euro­pean im­ports: opera bouffes from Paris and op­erettas from Vi­enna, like Franz Le­har’s The Merry Widow. Op­eretta bred its Broad­way ver­sion, such as Rose-Marie and The Desert Song, drip­ping in syrupy Ru­ri­ta­nian ro­man­ti­cism.

Op­eretta, mu­si­cal com­edy, bur­lesque, re­vue, min­strel shows and the Yid­dish the­atre were like trib­u­taries flow­ing into a wide, deep and muddy river. On this river Show­boat ar­rived in 1927 and was the first ex­am­ple of what we now de­scribe as the Broad­way mu­si­cal. In­stead of a line of cho­rus girls show­ing their legs in the open­ing num­ber, in Show­boat (by Jerome Kern and Os­car Ham­mer­stein) the cur­tain rose on black dock hands lifting bales of cot­ton, and singing about the hard­ness of their lives. Here was a mu­si­cal that showed poverty, suf­fer­ing, bit­ter­ness, racial prej­u­dice, a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship be­tween blacks and whites, a love story that ended un­hap­pily — and, of course, show business. In Ol’ Man River black peo­ple were given an an­them to hon­our their mis­ery that had the au­thor­ity of an au­then­tic spir­i­tual. More­over, as a con­tem­po­rary critic said, “It never falls into the cus­tom­ary mawk­ish chan­nels that mis­take bathos for pathos.” Well, not of­ten.

It was 16 years be­fore Ham­mer­stein col­lab­o­rated — in 1943 — with Richard Rodgers to pro­duce the mu­si­cal that sig­nalled the sec­ond wa­ter­shed in the evo­lu­tion of the Broad­way mu­si­cal: Ok­la­homa! If we take for granted now that a mu­si­cal can fuse di­a­logue, song and dance in the ser­vice of dra­matic nar­ra­tive, it’s be­cause Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein made it seem as in­evitable and nec­es­sary as the in­ven­tion of tele­vi­sion. They changed the course of Amer­i­can mu­si­cal the­atre just as Chekhov and Ib­sen changed the course of 20th-cen­tury drama — in both cases trans­form­ing ex­ist­ing forms by em­brac­ing real is­sues, and ex­am­in­ing real char­ac­ters and real sit­u­a­tions.

If you were look­ing for the common thread be­tween all the sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tors to the mu­si­cal you’d have to say it was their Jewish- ness: Rodgers, Ham­mer­stein, Kern, Hart, Berlin, Gershwin, Bern­stein, Loesser, Styne, Freed, Lau­rents, Kauf­man, Sond­heim and, of course, Of­fen­bach. The ex­cep­tion is — as Rodgers pointed out — Cole Porter: “It is surely one of the ironies of the mu­si­cal the­atre that, de­spite the abun­dance of Jewish com­posers, the one who has writ­ten the most en­dur­ing ‘Jewish’ mu­sic should be an Epis­co­palian mil­lion­aire who was born on a farm in Peru, In­di­ana.”

It was an irony not lost on Porter, who, as he said him­self, wrote Jewish tunes. What drew Jewish im­mi­grants to the mu­si­cal the­atre was that they had a tra­di­tion in the shund — their own im­ported Yid­dish the­atre — and they loved to play with their newly ac­quired lan­guage. Added to that, the the­atri­cal­ity of their speech suited the in­her­ent ar­ti­fi­cial­ity of the mu­si­cal form and the the­atre al­ways ac­cepts out­siders. What’s more, show business was (and is) a way of emerg­ing from the ghetto.

There was a pe­riod of about 30 years in the US from about 1930 when that “mar­vel­lous in­valid”, the the­atre, seemed to be in a state of con­stant ec­stasy. This dra­matic form — drama, song and dance blended with en­ergy, op­ti­mism and as­trin­gent wit — reached a per­fect equi­lib­rium. There are not many great Broad­way mu­si­cals but the best have as much right to in­clu­sion in any the­atre reper­toire as plays from any other era. If one had to name them one would cite: Show­boat, Ok­la­homa!, Porgy and Bess, On the Town, An­nie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me, Kate, South Pa­cific, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Gypsy, Funny Girl, Cabaret and The Pa­jama Game.

With the rise of the cheap(ish) por­ta­ble record player, with am­pli­fied sound, with the pro­lif­er­a­tion of ra­dio sta­tions, with in­creased pros­per­ity among blue-col­lar work­ers, recorded mu­sic be­came the mu­sic of the masses. The new Tin Pan Al­ley songs — rock ’n’ roll — couldn’t be as­sim­i­lated in a dra­matic struc­ture. “When popular mu­sic seemed to stop car­ing about the­atre mu­sic, peo­ple who wrote for the the­atre stopped writ­ing for the mar­ket. The mu­si­cal nat­u­rally be­came a lot more ex­per­i­men­tal,” said John Kan­der, the com­poser of Cabaret. And there was no one more ex­per­i­men­tal than Stephen Sond­heim, who changed the pal­ette of the mu­si­cal, re­plac­ing op­ti­mism and sen­ti­ment with dis­en­chant­ment and acer­bity.

The clas­sic mu­si­cals ad­dress the emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence of an au­di­ence di­rectly and with­out in­hi­bi­tion, marked by en­ergy, as­trin­gent wit and op­ti­mism, de­void of irony, cyn­i­cism and pes­simism. They were born out of a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal mo­ment in the US in which progress seemed be­nign: de­cent, staunch, hum­ble (but not too hum­ble and not too black) folk pro­gress­ing — “with hope in their hearts” — to­wards ful­fil­ment of the Amer­i­can Dream. It’s an as­ser­tion of faith: “You’ll never walk alone.” Call me sen­ti­men­tal, but I find that mov­ing.

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