Generation to generation

On what would have been my mother’s 80th birthday, I’m of course thinking about her legacy to me. But stick with me here. This prompted a thought about the wide array of musical theatre aspirants: performers and designers as well as writers.

She saved, in ugly brown binders, every Playbill from every Broadway show she attended, from roughly 1945 (Oklahoma) to 1958 (A Party with Betty Comden & Adolph Green).  As a child, I spent countless hours staring at every page; in some cases, memorizing them. I could rattle off the credits of every mid-century theatre luminary. I’d see patterns, e. g., this Inge fellow unleashed one great drama after another: Picnic, Bus Stop, Come Back Little Sheba, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. And, speaking of Sheba, I’d start tracing the career paths of Broadway stars like Shirley Booth. (Heck, she even played the maid in a sitcom I watched.) From Inge play to Schwartz & Fields musical, to another Schwartz & Fields musical, to The Matchmaker, to Blitzstein musical tragedy, and yet never did the musical of The Matchmaker, Hello Dolly. Remember, with no Internet, child me had to figure this stuff out: Playbills and reference books, or Playbills as reference books. Each had an ad for the stolid but un-fancy store, Rogers Peet, so I had a more informed appreciation of Marry the Man Today from Guys and Dolls than most kids my age.

These days my life is liberally peppered with young adults who know precious little of theatre history. And wouldn’t know Rogers Peet from Peet’s Coffee. (A friend of mine who blogs frequently mentions the idea that if you mention a product you can get a free sample. And I really like Peet’s Coffee – House Blend, ground, thanks.) Sometimes, I play for pairs of twenty-somethings doing Marry the Man Today who are wholly unfamiliar with Rogers Peet, Guy Lombardo and galoshes. Pisses me off. And now with Readers Digest filing for bankruptcy.

But, to bring this back to my mother, for a minute, we once were posed an interesting question: If you could boil down all the messages you heard from your parents growing up, what would it be? My response “How could you possibly not know that?”

There’s a Brian Lasser song that has such a great premise, I’ve long considered stealing the title: I’m Becoming My Mother. Nobody likes to hear themselves uttering their parents’ catchphrases, but in the finals of the Jeopardy Teen Tournament, when three boys failed to identify the play that includes “To be or not to be,” I may have transmogrified.

Readers of this blog, of course, are not among the oblivious.  You’re reading this, in part, to become more informed. But I’ve been thinking of compiling a little list, the shows one must be familiar with in order to consider oneself literate in musical theatre. Seems to me opera fans have a firmer idea of what constitutes the Standard Repertory than we do.

I’d have to start with the final three masterworks shaped by Jerome Robbins: West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof.  The first two of those have Stephen Sondheim lyrics; do we need a couple more? Add Company and Sweeney Todd.  Next, more than double the list with the output of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein: Show Boat and the five smashes with Richard Rodgers: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Bring it to a dozen with one Rodgers sans-Hammerstein, Pal Joey. Gershwin, Porter and Berlin must get at least one each: Porgy & Bess, Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun.  One other from the 1940s, Finian’s Rainbow. And now, to tackle the fabulous Fifties: Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, The Music Man and since Comden and Green can’t be omitted, Bells Are Ringing.

Time out. Bells Are Ringing is a show which I didn’t have a recording of growing up. And a collection of vinyl cast albums is a far more common legacy from parents who lived in the great years of Broadway LPs. Of course I wore down the grooves playing these records too many times. But many young theatre fans did that. Reading those liner notes that told the story and how the songs fit in was a valuable lesson. Today’s download crowd is missing the low-down on how scores illuminate plot points.

My mother didn’t save Playbills after the 1950s, so, in a sense, I’m flying blind.  The Fantasticks is the longest running musical of all time.  Can one afford to not know it?  By that logic, the list must include Phantom of the Opera, and others that held the Longest Broadway Run crown, Cats, A Chorus Line and Grease. (Note I didn’t say Best Musicals of All Time; this is just the shows one needs to know.) Back to the 60s: Oliver!, Hello Dolly, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret.

Thursday, I discussed this list with a young guy who knows he needs to know the Standard Repertory but doesn’t yet.  He’s eager to get familiar, but wondered how many shows we were talking about and I predicted I’d list about thirty.  Good prediction, as I think I counted 29, so I guess I’ve room for one outlier, not written in English, but a huge off-Broadway hit in Marc Blitzstein’s translation, The Threepenny Opera.  That lets me end:

– 30 –

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