It’s my sister’s birthday and I ran some numbers. It’s been 38 years since she graduated high school, and, then, the Golden Age of musical theatre had begun 38 years earlier. So, today, I thought I’d use 1981 is a point of demarcation, and examine the differences between Golden Age musicals and – what to call the more recent ones? – Copper Age musicals, proving, now and forever, that I know precious little about precious metals.
In the wake of Rent’s TV fizzle and Hair’s TV cancellation, some oldsters have mentioned how musicals on television were so much more successful in the 1950s. I thought of the broadcast of Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town, which gave eager viewers a taste of what they could have seen on Broadway. Far fewer tuned in to recent attempts like Jesus Christ Superstar and A Christmas Story; this gets me thinking about stars and star power.
Rosalind Russell was primarily known as a movie star and her Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday created an indelible impression. Smart, fast-talking, loud, a bit abrasive, not lovey-dovey or sentimental. And the Broadway musical, Wonderful Town – book by Chodorov and Fields, lyrics by Comden and Green, music by Leonard Bernstein – let Roz be Roz. So, the TV-viewer in 1958 knew what they would be getting. Rosalind Russell shtick, with songs and dances. Skip ahead sixty years. What percentage of television viewers have any idea what watching Jesus Christ Superstar or Rent will be like?
This has less to do with musical theatre’s place on the crowded cultural landscape than it does with how those shows were created. Copper Age musicals aren’t built around popular stars and what they do best. The public doesn’t love particular performers for a set of abilities they could do eight times a week on Broadway, and the actors, if they’ve done film and television, are used to getting a much larger paycheck than the theatre offers. Copper Age creators, therefore, don’t build shows around stars. We write with the hope that some other element will put people in the seats
List great Golden Age musicals and you’ll come up with many examples of shows designed to be performed by particular people. Gypsy gives audiences Ethel Merman doing Merman-esque things, as does Call Me Madam and Annie Get Your Gun. Kismet and Kiss Me Kate were tailored to Alfred Drake’s prodigious talents, and one contains all the letters of the other. Mary Martin singing Rodgers & Hammerstein? Who’s going to care she’s too old for her roles. Broadway, as a commercial engine serving up beloved stars, shaped its productions to let those stars shine.
Today, of course, a musical can be almost anything. Except not a star vehicle because stars today don’t commit to appearing on Broadway for a period of time long enough for investors to recoup. When a musical can be almost anything, it can also miss the mark in a great many ways.
We’ve all seen the sad image of a forlorn polar bear floating off on a tiny island of ice. The Broadway musical lost its connection to the mainland. Your income and exposure, writing musicals, didn’t just come from performances on stage. There were record sales – on unbreakable (but scratchable) vinyl. There were radio shows and then television shows dying to play the latest Cole Porter numbers from Broadway. The Ed Sullivan Show, any many others, regularly invited New York shows to do scenes for its viewers. It broadcast from the theatre where Stephen Colbert is today, so the sets and stars only had to move a few blocks. After appearing, lines for tickets would go around the block.
Golden Age songwriters weren’t just writing for characters in situations, they were writing for the masses. An extractable hit, like Hey There from The Pajama Game, would be embraced by millions, sell all sorts of records to people who never knew (or cared) that this was sung by an anti-union factory foreman in Iowa, to himself, using a dictograph machine; eventually the live John Raitt and his recording of himself would harmonize together.
The hope that your song would be heard beyond Broadway created its own set of imperatives. The music would have to have recognizable form, the harmonies couldn’t be wildly unexpected, the lyrics would have to rhyme so that they could be instantly understood.
These imperatives no longer exist, and nobody expects a show tune to ever make it to the Top 40, to ever be heard outside of the theatre. Our concentration is on characters and situation, and so melodies needn’t be hummable, and so they often aren’t.
If musicals and musical-writers are only making money from live performances of the whole show, well, naturally this changes the nature of the beast. Economics forces some realities on us. The musical-writer will not make a lot of money, compared to the Golden Days. Maybe that’s why I chose Copper to contrast with Gold! And business-people take a look at the marketability of shows, rather than the quality itself. So, I’ll admit it, a romance centering on a strike in an Iowan pajama factory doesn’t sound like a great idea to me; no way it would be produced today. But I treasure The Pajama Game for the quality of its songwriting, the spirit and dazzle of its Bob Fosse dances, and the strength of John Raitt’s voice.
And what a different world we’re in today. If shows succeed it’s in spite of their low-quality songwriting, dances don’t dazzle in ways that sell tickets, and it’s hard to find a booming baritone. I’m not judging, by the way. It is what it is. But I’ve noticed a lot of people who have familiarity with Golden Age classics who think anything new is automatically inferior. That’s another vicious circle: Audiences, nostalgic for the time when musicals did something different, stay away from Copper Age shows, and so these shows have trouble finding an audience. Comparisons are invidious; it’s a different beast.