Every year, around this time of year, for the past 18 years or so, I’ve given a talk called A Subjective History of Musical Theatre. It’s the highlight of my year. And unique. It’s said that there’s nothing quite like it and that nobody else could deliver it, or would have thought of delivering it the same way. I have a blackboard; I have a piano; I have no notes. Off the top of my head, I engage my audience. They are theatre students who may or may not know a thing about the shows written prior to Rent. It’s that gap in knowledge I’m trying to fill.
But here’s the beauty part: It’s not a linear history, nor a survey. It’s whatever I choose to tell them. So, I get to give a lot of opinions. Because, unlike your run-of-the-mill history lectures that claim to be objective, this is SUBjective – it’s right in the title. And everybody accepts that I might say things they’ll disagree with. That’s OK. You’re allowed to argue with me. And the whole thing is, first and foremost, highly entertaining.
It’s difficult to describe, and it’s never exactly the same, and for this you can blame Socrates. I ask the students questions, and, if they give a dopey answer, I’m likely to make fun of them. Amazingly, nobody seems to mind. So, after I identify The Boys From Syracuse as the first musical based on a Shakespeare play, I have the students guess which play it’s based on. If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll be able to figure this out; it’s not as if he wrote a lot of plays with men from that city. But, inevitably, someone yells out “Two Gentlemen of Verona” to which I get to yell “No! Those boys are from Verona.” Silently, I appreciate the guess, because Two Gents did become a Tony-winning musical. Rereading this paragraph, I see that I sound a bit mean, but really everyone’s laughing. There’s comedy in errors.
And there’s music in my lecture, unsurprisingly. Whenever I feel like illustrating something with a song, the piano is right there. I even hide behind it to depict the opening of Oklahoma! They hear some Grieg. They hear some Weill – oh, wait, that’s Lloyd Webber, stealing from Weill. I can remember some course I took when I was young where a lecturer took a lot of time to drop a needle on the right place in a record album. My illustrations take no time at all, and I get to sing my favorite song. Because it’s my lecture.
I make Richard Rodgers the central figure, since he was connected to so many of the turning points in musical theatre development. I describe, in great detail, the Isn’t It Romantic sequence in Love Me Tonight.
I get to act out his working relationship with Lorenz Hart. “He pulled the little guy by the scruff of his collar into a small room not unlike this, with a piano in it, and he locked the door. He played the tune they were working on.” I play six notes. “He firmly told Larry ‘We have to finish this song. You are not leaving this room until you give me a lyric to-.’” I play it again. “Hart begs ‘Please, Dick. You can see I’m too hungover to even think right now. Let me out for a quick nip, hair of the dog that bit me and I’ll be back.’ ‘NO, YOU WON’T.’” Six notes. “And this went on and on until Hart, in total desperation, uttered ‘With a song in my heart I behold your adorable face just a song at the start but it soon is a hymn to your grace when the music swells I’m touching you hand it tells that you’re standing near and at the sound of your voice heaven opens its portals to me what to do but rejoice that a song such as ours came to be but I always knew I would live life through with a song in my heart for you. Can I go now, Dick?’ ‘Yes, you can go now, Larry.’”
So, that’s a small example of what I do. It must be pointed out that the students don’t know With a Song In My Heart, and every story I tell assumes they don’t know how the story will end. So there are some dramatic turns that get everyone in the room (including me) crying.
On the other hand, familiarity makes some of my samples something of a sing-a-long. It’s a pleasant surprise when my rendition of Many a New Day has a female chorus join in. That’s one reason why the Subjective History can’t be filmed, or turned into a podcast, book, or any other form. It’s shaped, to a significant extent, by the listeners. I take to the blackboard to draw the world’s worst map of Western Europe, never knowing whether it will be recognized as such in five seconds or five minutes. And that’s just there to show how Offenbach influenced Sullivan.
Writers, hearing each other’s work, refining the form – that’s what interests me. It’s why Oklahoma! gets the most time and less influential shows (say, The Pajama Game) get none. But it’s best not to dwell on who you don’t hear about in my densely-packed few hours (Comden & Green, e.g.), I’ve a limited amount of time to tell an entertaining story. It’s not meant to be definitive. I’m spreading out a smattering of knowledge, like manure, hoping it will grow, and I don’t need to talk about the show that mentions spreading manure to do it.
I’m a sucker for a good story. Whether it’s Arthur Laurents smiting his forehead, or David Merrick adjusting the opening night to coincide with a creator’s death, I get to be the raconteur with the unforgettable tales. And a rendition of I Dreamed a Dream that hasn’t been forgotten by a generation of students.