‘America,’ 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 the 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 (an ‘Amazon parade of legs’), a number called ‘You naughty, naughty men’ and was a triumph of marketing. It had many genteel rivals from European imports: opéra bouffes from Paris and operettas from Vienna, like Franz Lehár’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 (this was the Golden Age of Ziegfeld), 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 Jewishness: Rodgers, Hammerstein, Kern, Hart, Berlin, Gershwin, Bernstein, Loesser, Styne, Freed, Laurents, Kaufman, Sondheim and, of course, Offenbach. The exception is — as Richard 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 Cole 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.
In the US there was a period of about 30 years 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 I have to name them I would cite: Showboat, Oklahoma!, Pal Joey, 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, of course, The Pajama Game, which I’m directing at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Impossible to patronise, these shows are supreme examples of dramatic art and with Guys and Dolls it’s not hard to accept Kenneth Tynan’s assessment of it as ‘the second best American play’ — the best being Death of a Salesman.
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 Broadway musicals address the emotional experience of an audience directly and without inhibition. In this they are peculiarly American — marked by energy, astringent wit and optimism, devoid of irony, cynicism and pessimism. They were born out of a particular historical moment in which progress seemed benign: decent, staunch, humble (but not too humble and not too black) folk progressing — ‘with hope in their hearts’ — towards the fulfilment of the American dream. It’s an assertion of national faith: ‘You’ll never walk alone’. Call me sentimental, but I find that moving.
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The Pajama Game is at the Shaftesbury Theatre from 2 May until 13 September.
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