Great Masters of the Musical – Part One

The Broadway musical is at an all time high – opera singers can’t stop recording them. What exactly is the fascination and which shows stand up to the best operas? In the first of a two-part special, Jonathan Webster looks at music since 1945.

The Broadway and Hollywood musical holds a huge attraction for both pop and opera singers. In the 1960s opera diva Joan Sutherland stunned music critics at the height of her career by making one of the first crossover discs, a collection of Noel Coward songs. Since then, and often to huge controversy, Kiri Te Kanawa, the Three Tenors, Dawn Upshaw and now Bryn Terfel have followed in the footsteps of Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra and Howard Keel. But it is not just about thumping good tunes. Music theatre acts as a superb mirror of popular culture. From the Shavian wit of Coward and Porter lyrics to the streetwise rawness and orchestral sophistication of West Side Story this is a genre which cannot be overlooked by anyone who appreciates good music, be it pop or classical. We start our two-part history of the musical at the end of the Second World War.

America’s post-war feel-good factor
By 1945 America and its allies had as good as won the war. Militarily and economically, the United States was now undisputably the most powerful nation on earth; and in a neat bit of synchronicity, Broadway, the hub of New York’s theatre district, became the heart and soul of the post-war musical – a position it was to retain right up until the early 1970s. Amid the worldwide rejoicing that victory brought, one musical seemed to sum up this new-found optimism better than any other: Oklahoma.

It was the product of a collaboration between the highly distinguished musical theatre composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and his equally distinguished new permanent librettist, Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960). Both men had already notched up stunning successes in their previous partnerships. Pre-war, Rodgers’ name had been synonymous with that of the highly sophisticated lyricist Lorenz Hart, and together they produced such masterpieces as Babes in Arms and Pal Joey. Hammerstein, though more peripatetic in his collaborations, had very wisely thrown his artistic lot in with Jerome Kern to produce Showboat (1927).

With Kern trying out his fortunes in Hollywood, and Hart’s career all but over, due, tragically, to alcoholic and emotional problems, the artistic marriage of Rodgers and Hammerstein was perhaps inevitable. Hammerstein’s lyrics, full of grand theatrical gestures, inspired Rodgers to write music in a new American folk opera tradition. There were technical innovations too. Oklahoma‘s winning mixture of romantic and comic songs, with pretty balletic scenes, replaced the one-to-one specialty dances and platooned choruses of the pre-war musical years. But it was those glorious songs that captured everyone’s imagination and catapulted this duo into the musical stratosphere; songs like ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ and ‘The surrey with the fringe on top’.

South Pacific
Once the tap was turned on with Oklahoma, there was no stopping this indefatigable pair. The next score to wow ’em was Carousel (1945; filmed 1956) – ‘June is bustin’ out all over’, ‘You’ll never walk alone’; followed by the Pulitzer prize-winning South Pacific (1949; filmed 1958) – ‘Some enchanted evening’, ‘Bali Ha’i’, ‘I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair’; The King and I (1951; filmed 1956) – I whistle a happy tune’, ‘Hello, young lovers’; and The Sound of Music (1959; filmed 1965) – ‘My favourite things’, ‘Climb ev’ry mountain’, ‘Edelweiss’, and ‘Do-re-mi’. The gold-plated partnership was brought to an end by Hammerstein’s death in 1960.

In the 1950s, Broadway consolidated its position as the pre-eminent centre for the stage musical that it had begun to garner in the 1940s. During this decade, the composer Frederick Loewe (1901-88) and his librettist Alan Jay Lerner (1918-86) gave Rodgers and Hammerstein a very serious run for their money. Like R&H, the Lerner and Loewe collaboration produced classic melodic songs. But the urbane young lyricist and his older Viennese-born composing partner’s forte was specialising in musicals that were unashamedly romantic and stylishly old-fashioned. Despite a shaky start with several worthy efforts between 1942-45, the duo first hit the jackpot with Brigadoon (1947). Paint Your Wagon (1951) followed, and then the pair stumbled on the idea of transforming Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion into My Fair Lady (1956).

My Fair Lady – broke all the records
It was a most fortuitous choice, as it gave Loewe an opportunity to adapt his natural Viennese musical idiom to Lerner’s sensitive and dramatic re-interpretation of Shavian wit. My Fair Lady took the New York and London performance record, 2,717 and 2,281 performances respectively, and is one of the most revived musicals of all time. Although they could never seriously hope to top that, Lerner and Loewe were to go another couple of highly successful laps with Gigi (first as a film in 1958, and then as a stage musical in 1973), and Camelot (1960).

On the evidence of Frank Loesser’s preceding effort, a pseudo-English musical based on the stage play Charly’s Aunt, no one expected him to come up with the lyrics and music for Guys and Dolls (1950). Not only did it usher in the new decade, but it was perfect for the new zeitgeist. While Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loewe, might opt for safe, idealised characters, Loesser had the nous to do something different. For Guys and Dolls, he drew on a real tale of real folk straight out of Damon Runyon’s very personal stories of the New York streets. It’s a musical tinged with surreal touches, peopled for the most part with low-life, on which everything seems to hinge around an illegal gambling game of the day called Craps. With Guys and Dolls the musical, no longer afraid of being gritty, had come of age; something which did not go unnoticed by our next subject.

In 1957, Leonard Bernstein (composer, author, pianist, broadcaster and eminent conductor) unveiled on Broadway what many consider to be the finest musical of all time: West Side Story. His previous scores for On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town showed his mastery of jazz as well as dance music. Bernstein took all this reservoir of experience and distilled it into producing his meisterwerk, with a not inconsiderable amount of help from a sassy new lyricist on the block, Stephen Sondheim. For West Side Story the two men fashioned a work pulsating with linguistic, melodic and rhythmic variety; one in which they ingeniously adapted Arthur Laurent’s play of the same name – which was itself a brilliantly clever update of the Romeo and Juliet story. Songs from the show, including ‘Something’s coming’, ‘Maria’, ‘America’, ‘I feel pretty’ and ‘One hand, one heart’, have since taken a place in musical folklore.

As the 1960s dawned, it was little wonder that music(al) lovers the world over were firmly of the opinion that this art form was something in which only Americans excelled. 1960-69 saw a whole swathe of Stateside shows doing terrific business both at home and abroad, including: Camelot, Hello Dolly, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Funny Girl and Hair. However, by and large, no one composer-lyricist team dominated the musical theatre in a way that had been previously done.

The late 1960s were a time of revolution, politically, socially and sexually; and, to a certain extent, musical theatre began to reflect this. Composers were not slow to pick up on the new zeitgeist of the so-called permissive age, and responded in fine style. Among the very best of the racier works were Kander and Ebb’s magnificent Cabaret (1966), set in a sleazy pre-war Berlin nightclub, and Galt MacDermot’s Hair (1967), which musically explored the free love lifestyle of the hippies and flower people.

With the exception of Noel Coward’s bittersweet gems from the 1930s (and Sandy Wilson’s The Boyfriend, 1953), Britain had not figured prominently in the development of the modern musical. However, she suddenly started to come into her own in the 60s. East End-born Lionel Bart (1930-99) scored a huge international success with Oliver (1960, based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist), a work bursting with delicious cockney life and rhyme; and in 1968 two callow young men, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, had the audacity to produce a completely sung-through rock musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, which got them noticed by Decca Records. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Sondheim-Lloyd Webber era
The development of the musical in the 1970s, and for that matter the 1980s and 1990s, is synonymous with the names of two men who could not be more stylistically different if they tried: Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Stephen Sondheim (1930-) has been described by Jerry Herman as ‘the only one who keeps on taking the musical theatre to new places’. And it’s not hard to see why. With his trio of scores that began the decade, Company (1970), Follies (1971) and A Little Night Music (1973), Sondheim started to gain a reputation amongst the most avant-garde fans of theatre music by introducing bold formal innovations. Both Company and Follies lack conventional proper plots and seem, instead, to rely on revue-style musical sketches and songs which are, more often than not, dramatic flashbacks. However, it was A Little Light Music which catapulted Sondheim to a new level of dazzling, witty sophistication. Apart from being almost entirely in 3/4 time, with a Greek-style chorus, it spawned a surprise hit in ‘Send in the clowns’.

A Little Light Music set Sondheim on a highly individual, some would say perverse, path to extend the boundaries of what passes for musical theatre. Many of his efforts over the years have been patently commercially unsuccessful. Pacific Overtures (1976) and Sunday in the Park with George (1984) are examples of works that seem, if anything, to be moving nearer to what can only be described as opera. Paradoxically, his musical sustenance comes from the avant-garde in jazz; whereas that of his musical alter ego, Lloyd Webber, seems to pay rather more heed to developments in popular music.

After the success of Joseph, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber (1948-) collaborated with his librettist Tim Rice to produce a rock album on record called Jesus Christ Superstar. By 1971 the album had become an enormous bestseller in America, and quickly gave rise to the stage version. Superstar opened on Broadway in October 1971 and in London in 1972, and, like most Lloyd Webber shows, has hardly been off the international stage since. It did not take long for these two wunderkinds to be declared the saviours of the English musical.

When spectacle triumphs over music
Young audiences everywhere were immediately attracted to the fresh, colloquial style and hipness of the Lloyd Webber-Rice style, and the way they seemed to effortlessly fuse the classical with modern pop/rock sensibilities. And therein lies the secret of their success; or, one should rightly say, his success. Because ever since their highly successful Evita (1978), Lloyd Webber and Rice have amicably gone their separate ways, and Sir Andrew has been slowly reaping the lion’s share of box office receipts for his string of subsequent musicals: Cats (1981), Starlight Express (1984), The Phantom of the Opera (1986), Aspects of Love (1989), and Sunset Boulevard (1995).

Of course, it would be grossly misrepresentative to suggest that Sondheim and Lloyd Webber have been the whole (musical) story over this 25-year period. There have indeed been other notable success stories – Grease, The Rocky Horror Show, A Chorus Line, Annie, Barnum, La Cage aux Folles, Dreamgirls, Blood Brothers, Little Shop of Horrors and Chess – but against the Sondheim-Webber shadow all other composers seem to have paled into the background, or have only produced, by and large, one-horse wonders.

All other composers, that is, except for Claude-Michel Schönberg (1944-). Together with his long-time partner, the librettist Alain Boublil, Schönberg has carved out a niche for himself in teh musical theatre with three highly distinctive works, two of which – Les Misérables (1980) and <i<Miss Saigon (1989) – have gone on to achieve great international success. It’s still too early to tell whether or not his most recent offering, Martin Guerre (1996), will also hit the jackpot; although if Schönberg’s financial backer – Cameron Mackintosh, the most successful musical theatre producer of all time – has anything to do with it, the odds are in its favour.

The problem with Schönberg’s output is its unevenness. While it’s very hard to pick fault with the magnificent quasi-operatic Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, by contrast, is a rather hackneyed update on the Madam Butterfly story in which sheer spectacle triumphs over musical content. And this trend seems to be catching on. Thus the musical theatre is now in danger of echoing Hollywood’s ever-increasing tendency to rely on special effects and action to carry a movie. Add to this the enormous expense of modern staging, and is it any wonder that many old hands are warning that the days of the musical theatre may be numbered? It can only be hoped, for the sake of all who love this art form, that they are wrong.

Classic CD magazine, 1996


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