Today, for the first time, I’m unleashing my Subjective History of Musical Theatre on the public. This is the same fascinating storytelling session I’m used to presenting to young adults in a theatre school. With a new kind of audience, I don’t know exactly what to expect. It’s always been a dialogue in which the knowledge of the students (or lack thereof) comes into play.
Here on this page, I always imagine I’m addressing musical writers. And it should be obvious to you how important it is to know the history of our beloved genre, what’s gone before. A friend was just telling me about the Bryan Adams score for a new Broadway musical, and my mind leaps to an assumption that Adams, like most rock stars, doesn’t know the repertory. Certainly, one can succeed fabulously in the rock world without knowing the first thing about how songs tell a story on stage. So it drives me a little crazy when pop-meisters “slum” in musical theatre. The task of entertaining an audience in concerts, in music videos, or on recordings is completely different than engaging a live audience in a theatre with a story. But, of course, they’d know that if only they knew the pitiful history of rockers trying to conquer Broadway. But they don’t know that history, usually. Because why would they?
A lot of musical fans are beside themselves with excitement about the recent announcement of a cable television mini-series about Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse which features Lin-Manuel Miranda’s involvement. Now, I’m not one to enthuse about something that’s not yet made, especially television. But it’s a reminder that Miranda knows and practically reveres musical theatre history. With all the things he could choose to do these days, he’s helping tell an important bit our story. Most obviously, he has a particular genius for presenting history in a way that engages audiences.
And, as long as I’m stating the obvious, Hamilton is a musical about the genesis of America that’s full of references to other musicals. A bit less apparent – at least to me – is that it draws all sorts of parallels to the history of hip-hop. You and me, we’re more likely to catch the nods to Camelot and South Pacific, and might be reminded of Sondheim’s favorite Sondheim song, Someone In a Tree, from his historical musical Pacific Overtures, where we hear various perspectives from folks who weren’t in The Room Where It Happened.
That was no accident; Miranda knows the show. And this makes me think of the common desire to write something that hasn’t been done before. Well, if you don’t know the shows that have been done, how would you know?
This summer, in Central Park, there’s Shaina Taub’s musical of Twelfth Night. And my mind rushes to all sorts of precedents: the early rock musical smash, Your Own Thing, the short-lived Music Is, the Duke Ellington jukebox, Play On, the lovely Illyria. And from this two things are clear: I know of a lot of shows and EVERYBODY adapts Twelfth Night.
Something that fascinates me is the way writers react to the stuff they see. When Richard Rodgers was young, shows were stilted, not very jazzy, didn’t use the vernacular. And so he and Lorenz Hart created a new sort of musical comedy that was thoroughly modern. And, less than two decades later, Rodgers teamed with Oscar Hammerstein to revolutionize the form. It was as if Rodgers was rejecting Rodgers, which is quite a feat. Those scores to Hart lyrics are wonderful, but utterly different than the ones with Hammerstein words the world knows and loves. And it’s not merely a matter of style; the goals are different. Sometimes authors maintain that The Gentleman Is a Dope is the Rodgers and Hammerstein song most like a Rodgers and Hart song. Really? Was it self-consciously witty? Abound in tricky rhymes? Was it trying to be a radio hit? Of course not. Hammerstein was writing for a character in a situation, and the frustrated nurse expresses herself in ways that remind some of Hart’s cynicism.
Rodgers provided the music to so many ground-breaking shows, he’s the hero of my narrative. But The King and I is the last of his shows to do something extraordinarily different than all that had gone before. Its choreographer, Jerome Robbins, took the baton and became the great change-maker of the next thirteen years. His Broadway career ended with a trio of masterpieces: West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof (the last of which is currently off-Broadway in some language few speak!). The theatre innovator most people today recognize as such, Stephen Sondheim, cut his teeth writing lyrics to two of those shows. So, putting it together, Rodgers -> Robbins -> Sondheim -> Miranda, who translated lyrics for the bilingual Broadway revival of West Side Story.
Thus, there’s a chain of innovators going back nearly 100 years. Each time, the younger acquires some wisdom from the older, though Sondheim would say he learned more from Hammerstein and that’s true. But the point is, none of these milestones in the musical’s development emerged in a vacuum. All the writers knew a great deal about what had come before.
This week, in L.A., you can attend my idiosyncratic history presentation. It’s going to get you thinking about where musical theatre has been, how it evolved, what it is today. And you can sit there and be thoroughly entertained. Or, you can take this knowledge and apply it to the things you write. The next chapter of the history, dear writer, is yours.