History, unlike perfectly rhymed stanzas, doesn’t come in neat little packages. You can’t assume that a decade, say, will contain shared characteristics, because we’re not going to turn over the etch-a-sketch and shake vigorously the moment Barbara Walters announces “This is 2020.” So, when we talk about eras, epochs, and periods, we rush to use the word “roughly.” I’ll try to restrain myself from using that here.
So, 100 years ago today, the thing we’d recognize as a Musical Comedy began, with the opening of Irene.And, as long as we’re allowing a certain degree of inaccuracy, let’s say that 50 years ago, the thing changed into something else. The first half of this century of musicals might be called Old School, while, for some strange reason, the second half is often called Contemporary Musical Theatre. It’s also tempting to break this into quarters: I’ve been known to use Golden Era to refer to the period that starts with Oklahoma! (1943) and dies out roughly 25 years later with Hair. Another handy demarcation point is Rent (1996) so I might use these smash hits to divide into four parts. (Boy, the temptation to use “roughly” is strong!)
I don’t remember much about Irene, but it might be the oldest Broadway musical I’ve seen, albeit in a much monkeyed-with revisal. It involves social climbing, a character we root for, and songs that have a certain amount of charm. These have tunes you can hum, and instantly understandable words that relate to the sound of the characters and their emotions. Some are funny; others, poignant. Songwriters Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy weren’t great artists. It’s unlikely they thought of themselves as such. Their hope was that the public would like the songs well enough to buy copies of the sheet music, because that’s where the real money was for songwriters, then. Stage-works, and royalties derived from other productions, weren’t the main source of lucre. Commercial records didn’t exist; nor were there ASCAP payments for radio play. Of course, a few years later into this first era, vinyl sales and airplay did become a big deal. But, throughout this earliest quarter, it was more important, to songwriters, to get that extractable hit song than it was to tell a story effectively.
With very few exceptions, the pre-Oklahoma! musicals had disposable plots. The audience wasn’t looking for an interesting story. They liked the star turns. That is, there were specific Broadway performers they were turning out to see – picture Fred Astaire – and, certainly, the songs stars put across needed to be attractive, immediately delightful.
I just remembered that I’m going to be quizzing kids later today on what they know about George Gershwin. And his Broadway songs exemplify this type of entertainment. The lyrics, usually by his brother Ira, are intricately rhymed. Never a false rhyme, and if there’s a near-rhyme, it’s called out. That is, it’s put across in such a way that the lyricist is acknowledging it’s forced. An example by Ira’s friend Yip Harburg:
Dorothy: Not even a rhinoceros?
Cowardly Lion: Imp-oceros!
Tin Man: How about a hippopotamus?
Cowardly Lion: Why, I’d thrash him from top to bottom-us!
Dorothy: Supposing you met an elephant?
Cowardly Lion: I’d knot him up in cellophant!
Wrapping an elephant up in cellophane is a rather odd threat – do lions work with clear plastic? – when you think about it. But you don’t think about it, because the attempts to rhyme are so amusing.
I’ve written on other occasions how Oklahoma! changed everything. In the second quarter of our history, audiences cared more about the story, and the writers crafted numbers to move that story, no longer prioritizing creating a hit song. And yet, the majority of chart toppers came from Broadway musicals. Songs still rhymed; tunes were hummable. Ballads were pretty, and up tempos got you tapping your toes. Show tunes defined popular song. Until they didn’t. By the sixties, Baby Boomers spent enough on 45s, rock began to edge theatre tunes off the charts. A torch was passed when The Beatles knocked Hello Dolly off the Number One spot. Don’t let it be forgot that, earlier, the fab four had recorded a Broadway ballad, Till There Was You.
The revolution of a half-century ago threw out the craft baby with a torrent of bathwater. Hair had no coherent book, but it did have an impressive number of Top 40 hits, and often the radio listeners had no idea they were enjoying songs from a musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice joined the fray by releasing a cast album of a show that had never been produced, Jesus Christ Superstar, which was, Jesus Christ, a super-hit. Rock musicals had that callow iconoclasm that says the old ways are bad. Why write Old School musicals if a new day has dawned? And so, out went the rhyming. In the past fifty years, most scores have contained false rhymes and nobody’s having fun with forcing. Dramaturgically, it seems less attention is paid to effective storytelling. So there are a host of plots that make no sense, or fail to engage an audience’s emotions. Melodies lost their sweetness, as if a mellifluous tune was something your mother might go for, but not you.
One could view the third quarter – from Hair to Rent – as something of a culture war between traditional values (La Cage Aux Folles’ brassy cheese is an example) and shows that have similarities to rock concerts (Dream Girls is one). There was an Old Guard that complained about the rock kids taking over, as well as a New Guard who felt the Broadway musical audience would die out if scores didn’t embrace the aesthetics of tunes you could hear on the radio. (Remember radio?)
Successful pop-inflected musicals were a fairly rare thing prior to Rent, but now they’re so common, the more traditional show-tuney scores stand out as unusual. In retrospect, that rock vs. old-fashioned schism seems quaint and unnecessary. Why can’t musicals embrace contemporary sounds while still utilizing the traditional mechanics of good story-telling and lyric-crafting? Does it spoil the rock aesthetic to rhyme? Why shouldn’t plots make sense and deliver emotional peaks and valleys? We all seem to agree that the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution improved storytelling in our form. The rejection of so many of their innovations can seem like a step forward, but sloppily written shows? That’s the oldest fashion of all.