Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater

Dominic Shellard thrills to the colour, glamour and melody of the American way in song and dance

November 11, 2010

When the curtain rose at the Broadway premiere of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's Oklahoma! on 31 March 1943, the audience gasped. Not because of the young dancing showgirls - for there were none - but at the sight of a middle-aged lady, Aunt Eller, sitting on a porch churning butter, while offstage a cowboy sang the simple melody of Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.

Oklahoma!'s astounding success (it went on to gross more than $40 million over the next decade) was predicated on subverting the audience's expectations, and it was proof positive of the maxim that we hear so often these days, namely that it is sometimes better to "do more with less". In many ways, Oklahoma!'s innovation was the Lord Browne moment for Broadway theatre, presaging and initiating a fundamental restructuring of the conventions of musical theatre. Let's hope the Comprehensive Spending Review and the Browne Review prove equally beneficial for UK higher education.

Larry Stempel's beguiling history of Broadway musical theatre, Showtime, has at its heart a very simple premise: that up until the premiere of Oklahoma!, musicals were, in effect, musical comedies, and after that date they became musical plays and true examples of musical theatre. Stempel's canvas is enormous, but his touch is deft and precise, and for those requiring some colour, glamour and melody to hum in this new age of austerity - a phrase our politicians are not using now with quite the same relish as they did last summer - then this is the book for you.

The narrative traces the origins of the Broadway musical back to the riots that accompanied the appearance of the British actor William Charles Macready at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City in May 1849, when he played the leading role in Macbeth and mayhem and death ensued.

Members of the audience pelted him with eggs, apples, potatoes and a bottle of asafoetida (a very smelly substance) in what Stempel plausibly argues was a class-based protest against highbrow theatre. This challenge against classicism literally and metaphorically created space for musical adaptations of the most popular American plays of the 19th century, which were much more to the taste of the majority of theatregoers.

Arguably the best example of this emerging form was the musical adaptation of the hugely popular stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Although the prim Beecher Stowe objected to theatre on religious grounds, in a pre-copyright era there was little she could do about this metamorphosis of her book into a part-melodrama, part-musical. I loved the fact that, as Stempel recounts, eventually even she was drawn by the allure of live performance and went to see what her book had spawned, albeit "well muffled (and) in the shade of the curtains of (her) box".

But the big breakthrough came with the rise to stardom in the first two decades of the 20th century of entertainer, playwright and composer George M. Cohan, who, Stempel claims, "Americanized musical comedy in a way that put a lasting stamp on the national consciousness". It is hard to argue with that contention when you think of timeless Cohan compositions such as Yankee Doodle Boy (1904), You're a Grand Old Flag (1906) and Give My Regards to Broadway (1904).

It is at this point that the pace of Broadway's evolution - and of the book itself - quickens, with a particularly impressive anchoring of events within the context of the economic, social and cultural development of New York City. Thus, we learn how the creation of Tin Pan Alley, which would ultimately become a moniker for the music business itself, coincided with the relocation of the music business to Times Square in the 1890s. We also learn that the term refers to the metallic tinkle of the pianos that could be heard from the numerous offices of songwriters desperately searching for the next hit melody.

America's greatest singing phenomenon in the early decades of the 20th century was Al Jolson, and Stempel neatly juxtaposes the racist implications of his "blackface" performances (which went largely unquestioned at the time) with the premiere of the earliest Broadway musical that is still frequently performed today, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's 19 Show Boat.

Using a mixture of lively, colourful illustrations, musical analysis that is admirably comprehensible to the layman and valuable contextual insights (we discover that the novel from which Show Boat is drawn critiques the laws against mixed-race marriages in Mississippi, for example), Stempel makes a strong case for the ways in which this musical is memorable for much more than its melodic signature tune, Ol' Man River.

Indeed, this template becomes a pleasurable leitmotif for the rest of the book, which seeks to demonstrate the evolution of Broadway through particularly influential shows and personalities. And none were more transformative than the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose nine smash hits between 1942 and 1960 (including Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music) cemented the transition on Broadway from musical comedy to musical theatre.

Indeed, it is at this point that Broadway takes another quantum leap. The search for more complex books aligned with more contemporaneous music would lead to the groundbreaking success of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's My Fair Lady in 1956 - a musical that drew from (or bastardised, depending on your point of view) George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion - and then to Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents' enthralling West Side Story (1957), whose updating of Romeo and Juliet represents another peripeteia in Stempel's eyes.

I was expecting the final chapters, documenting Broadway musicals from 1960 onwards, to be brash, confident and cocky. But far from it - and this is what makes Stempel's work so intriguing. While celebrating the transfusion of new ideas arriving from off-Broadway, most clearly evident in James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot's Hair! (1967), and rightly paying tribute to the infectious brilliance of my favourite musical, John Kander and Fred Ebb's Cabaret (1966), Stempel writes frankly and honestly in charting what he sees as the relative decline of the Broadway musical towards the end of the 20th century.

The statistics are sobering: during the past 50 years, 75 per cent of Broadway musicals have failed to make a return, and in the 1980s the average musical originating in the US would take two to three years to produce a profit. The reason for the threat to US hegemony was the arrival of the mega-musical and rock opera from Britain; in recounting this tale, Stempel lingers with evident envy over the roll call of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (1986) and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's Les Miserables, which was adapted for anglophone audiences in 1985 from a successful French production, to name just three.

The fightback was led by Disney and other corporate entertainment companies, with the likes of Elton John and Tim Rice's The Lion King (1994, adapted for the theatre in 1997), but Stempel is clearly underwhelmed by their efforts. Showtime ends with a sense that the Brits have appropriated - in a not entirely unacceptable manner - a peculiarly American form of entertainment.

I finished reading this wonderful book on the day that the spending review announced that another British brand widely admired throughout the world would lose about 40 per cent of its funding. While I am confident that UK higher education will still be able to match the resilience of the British musical, it may be useful to reflect, with irony, on a famous line from Cabaret: "Money makes the world go round." In fact, of course, it argues that the absolute opposite is true.

THE AUTHOR

Larry Stempel is associate professor of music at Fordham University. He delights in "truly gracious dining" and is known for threatening students with impromptu vocal performances when they don't respond to questions. He has sung in choruses of all kinds; other passions include travelling and visiting old forts.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and classical languages and civilisation from Queens College, New York, he studied philosophy at the Albert-Ludwig University in Freiburg, Germany before pursuing a PhD in musical composition at the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the Peace Corps in those "idealistic post-Kennedy years" and followed a contingent of volunteers to La Serena, Chile, where he assisted the director of the orchestra of the Universidad de Chile before taking over the post himself.

Stempel lives with his wife Carol in Mount Vernon, New York and is the proud owner of an 18lb beagle, Dory. Although he thinks the dog believes she is his owner, Stempel looks forward to their walks, when they have the chance to bond "on whoever's terms".

Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater

By Larry Stempel

W.W. Norton, 832pp, £30.00

ISBN 9780393067156

Published 25 October 2010

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