“You’re a Grand Old Flag” by George M. Cohan contains a phrase that’s always amused me – “Where there’s never a boast or brag.” Really, now? When I sing it, I often follow the line with “We’re the best!” shouted in rhythm.
Seems to me boasting and bragging is a peculiarly American predilection. But, I suppose, it’s a bit more excusable on July 4th weekend and I’ll try to address an old chauvinistic question:
Why is it that the U.S.A. seems to be the only country able to create great musicals?
Now I hear it (I hear it; I hear it!) – a hue and cry from other corners of the globe. What about this or that non-American musical? Is it not great?
I’ll immediately stipulate that Oliver! is a great musical. It has one of those rare scores where every song has merit and the book moves things along efficiently. Much as I enjoy The Boy Friend and Canada’s The Drowsy Chaperone, both feature scores that are parodies of the type of musical you’d commonly hear in the 1920’s. While Britain’s The Boy Friend really nails it, and The Drowsy Chaperone has a consistently amusing book, both must be considered spoofsicals, although great examples of the genre. Speaking of neologisms, I’ve a lot of admiration for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar, which was created as a record album. I love that album. On stage, though, it fails to transcend its origins. It just sits there, like, well, the staged record album it is, so I can’t call it a great musical. I would say that Germany’s Three Penny Opera is one of the all-time greats. But what other musical from Germany qualifies? Read the question again – “Why is it that the U.S.A. seems to be the only country able to create great musicals?” You’ve got to have created more than one.
In the 19th century, Englanders Gilbert and Sullivan created terrific shows that we call operettas, not musicals. Musicals, as we know them, began in America with the aforementioned George M. Cohan. In the first few decades of the 20th century, musicals underwent a complete reversal in their treatment of ethnic groups. And the idea of America as melting pot of various nationalities is one of our primary claims to uniqueness. At first, nearly every musical utilized stereotyping as a chief source of humor. These jokes are so offensive to contemporary sensibilities, virtually none of the pre-1925 American musicals are revivable in their original form. Legend has it that in 1933, everything changed when Ethel Waters sang Irving Berlin’s Suppertime, about a black woman who has lost her husband to a lynch mob’s noose. Here, the plight of a person of color is being dramatized in such a way that everyone in the audience can sympathize. We’d evolved from laughing at minorities to crying with them. If the modern American musical succeeds in exploring the emotions of widely disparate characters and making them vivid, felt, it might have something to do with this tradition.
More obviously, American music is a melting pot. One thinks of George Gershwin as a cultural explorer, traveling as far as South Carolina and as near as Harlem to listen to black music and to interact with jazz musicians. He brought elements of what he experienced into Broadway shows, as did many others. A generation later, theatre composers needed a knack for writing in all styles. The late great Jerry Bock, for instance, could write supremely hip material for Sammy Davis Jr., or play the same theme in three styles: In The Name’s LaGuardia, a New York City mayoral candidate visits three distinct ethnic enclaves, and his song spelling his name is heard in the musical styles of three ethnicities.
It’s been said that the British are less comfortable with emotion. (Just the other day someone was telling me of an Englishwoman so reserved she didn’t make a sound while giving birth.) But I feel bad about suggesting that there’s a connection between the famous stiff upper lip and the paucity of good British musicals. After all, in the past fifteen years, I’ve had more productions over there than here. And my first-ever production was in England. Plus, it’s not as if they’re not trying to improve.
A while ago, I got the rare opportunity to experience what the British are doing to hone their musical-writing skills. Visiting New York was something of a guru: She travels around England giving workshops designed to expand the creative powers of composers, librettists and lyricists. At a coffee shop, she gave a little sample of her teaching to me and two others.
She distributed small canisters of Play-Doh, like kindergarteners might be given. We were instructed to mould a character with the clay. (I use the British spelling of mold because she spoke with accent.) Then, we had to pass our sculpture to our neighbor who would transform it into something else. Since there were three of us, we then did it again. She never said it explicitly, but I suppose this was supposed to give us a taste of how work gets changed by collaborators, directors and performers.