Written by: Michael Darvell
Hardback, 128 Pages
In her introduction to this modest volume in the Oberon Masters theatre series Ruth Leon poses the question “why musicals?”. She continues by defining what is a musical thereby stating the case or providing an apologia for the genre. So a stage musical is a combination of speech, music, song and dance to form “a multi-faceted artistic expression which, in any combination or society, is just the highest form of storytelling.” Every nation apparently has its own form of musical production, be it in African rituals, Native Americans singing and dancing for their ancestors, Shinto priests and Buddhist monks moving while chanting, Jewish rites played out in movement and song, and Muslims calling each other to prayer in unison. The musical is universal in one way or another.
However, when it comes to, say, the American musical, the stuff and life of Broadway and by inference the West End musical, too, not everybody enjoys the conventions. As with opera, musicals can be an acquired taste and many people shy away from the artificiality of the genre – characters singing at each other or breaking into dance is not everybody’s idea of an evening’s entertainment. But, argues Ruth Leon, “once you accept that combining speech, music, songs and dance is not, as others have claimed, an artifice imposed by an elite but a basic human need”, the musical can be most rewarding, providing it has the right combination of composer, lyricist, book and music, and a cast capable of bringing it to life. Music has the power to move so much more than speech can, and dance brings further excitement. When the combination is right, the formula is a winning one and that’s why certain musical shows sustain reviving because they not only have something to say to every generation but they also advance the art of the musical itself.
For her book Ruth Leon has chosen to write about the shows that she considers are among the best ever written. But, she asks, how to choose, say, the first five best titles? Asking around and questioning friends she found the top three shows quite easily: West Side Story, My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls, reporting that “almost everybody agrees on them”. But what about the other two? Oklahoma!, Gypsy, Show Boat, Sweeney Todd, Fiddler on the Roof, Sunday in the Park with George and South Pacific – to name but seven. That means leaving out anything by Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Lionel Bart, George & Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, E. Y. Harburg, Noël Coward, Cy Coleman & Dorothy Fields, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Jerry Herman, Kander & Ebb, Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz, Charles Strouse, Burton Lane, Meredith Willson, Kurt Weill – the list goes ever on. It’s a truly impossible task to quantify the top five, the top ten, and even the top hundred might be a stretch. In the end Ruth Leon settles for about twenty of the most popular and/or most influential musicals and writes on them at some length.
It comes as no surprise that the top twenty are all American shows. The musical as we know it today was an art-form developed in the USA, a product, like the Hollywood film, of the twentieth-century, although the genesis of the American musical reaches back to the previous century with operettas, vaudeville and music-hall. There were many plays which incorporated songs in these nineteenth-century productions but the first to have a long-running success was The Black Crook of 1866, a melodrama based on the Faust legend. It was an immediate success, toured the US and was revived fifteen times in New York alone. Its mixture of plot, song and dance is pretty crude even for its day, but the show deserves a place in theatre history because it introduced scenic effects, colourful costumes and a chorus of comely dancers, elements that were to become the staple diet of American musical comedy. The inclusion of a bevy of terpsichorean beauties was, however, made by sheer accident. A French ballet company was booked to appear at the Academy of Music in New York but the theatre burnt down. The producer of The Black Crook was then persuaded that the dancers would enhance his play.
Other shows followed, such as Robin Hood (1891), Florodora (1900), an early version of The Wizard of Oz and Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland (both 1903) and the New York premiere of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (1907), which was followed by more operettas such as Oscar Straus’s The Chocolate Soldier, Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta and The Girl from Utah (1914),which had music by, among others, Jerome Kern who became prominent for writing good songs for musical-comedy plots because audiences really only went to enjoy the numbers. Kern would soon collaborate with P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton.
Although other shows were staged and had reasonable runs, they were still anchored in operetta, musical-comedy, and/or the Ziegfeld Follies type of revue. Shows by Friml, the Gershwins and Sigmund Romberg (The Student Prince) all appeared in 1924, but Broadway audiences had to wait until 1927 before the American Musical became a reality … Show Boat, the first of Ruth Leon’s perfect musicals, one that was to steam ahead of all of its contemporaries. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II found the story to be the right project to take the musical out of its comfort-zone. Show Boat dealt with real people that broke the mould and made it possible for the genre to handle uncomfortable tales of miscegenation, poverty, slavery, gambling and the breakdown of marriage. All this was presented within the framework of a musical show which still had comic moments, while the songs were not just charming interludes but were there to move the story along, the most famous being ‘Ol’ Man River’. Show Boat was an immediate, immense and constant success, and has been filmed three times.
If you ignore the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing (1931), the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, and the brothers’ opera Porgy and Bess (1935), or Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1938), and a whole host of others, the next groundbreaking American musical was in 1945, Oklahoma!. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II took Lynn Riggs’s play Green Grows the Lilacs, which dealt with the pioneer families of the American Southwest. Oklahoma! defied convention and began with a woman churning butter to the strains of ‘Oh, what a beautiful mornin’’. The importance of Agnes De Mille’s choreography also cannot be stressed as it was seamlessly integrated with the dialogue and the songs. Oklahoma! changed everything and had an immense influence. Rodgers & Hammerstein went on to write some of the most iconic musicals, including Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I.
One show that was influenced indirectly by Rodgers & Hammerstein was Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls (1950), originally a serious, albeit unlikely, romantic story about a Salvation Army girl and a Broadway gambler. Guys and Dolls is quite unlike any other show. An adaptation of the stories of Damon Runyon with characters that have their own language and rulebook in these hilarious fables about the members of the New York underworld. Loesser’s extraordinary score of seventeen superb numbers came first and the book was fitted around them.
Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady is arguably the definitive Broadway musical, a show with the widest appeal and one that succeeds on every level. Its songs have become classics. It remains true to its origins which lie in George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, and although Ruth Leon details the problems it initially faced with its two stars (Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews), it succeeded against all the odds. In Leon’s eyes it is a masterpiece and will “last longer than my precious fifty-year-old LP recording of the original cast.” Leon reckons that My Fair Lady changed the face of contemporary theatre, an idea that, as good as the show was, many might find debatable.
A show that may have been over-praised but which certainly altered things is Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). It began life in 1949 as an idea by choreographer Jerome Robbins who wanted to transpose the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to a city-street setting. New York became the star. It took eight years to stage the work. Not a great success (it fared better in London), West Side Story has become a musical that will always be relevant and universal. Leon goes on to make a case for Jule Styne and Sondheim’s Gypsy, a musical fable about stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and which has no duff songs and gave Ethel Merman the performance of her lifetime. Gypsy has Sondheim’s lyrics but Company has his music too in a show that broke all the rules, a collection of short plays by George Furth on the subject of marriage and commitment with sixteen sublime numbers. Michael Bennett’s choreography broke rules too. Having been influenced by his mentor and surrogate father Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim retains one foot in the past while planting the other firmly in the future.
Who is to follow Sondheim? No doubt the Broadway musical will continue in some form or another. Meanwhile, whether you agree or not with the twenty or so shows that Ruth Leon has chosen for her book – a handy introduction to a popular if often-misunderstood genre – they will continue to be revived. Her tome gives a good potted history of how some of the best-ever musicals reached the stage. She writes in an amusingly anecdotal fashion, imparting information easily and in an entertaining way. Apart from a few literal glitches, The Sound of Musicals is a really good and appealing read.