Archive for the 'words' Category

Great Masters of the Musical – Part Two

Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin certainly knew how to write tunes. But as Jonathan Webster discovers in the second part of his survey of the century’s greatest musicals, these popular composers are at last gaining respect as writers of ‘serious’ music.

Gershwin, Porter and Berlin are excellent songwriters. But think – where did you first hear their songs? Chances are it was in the jazz club arena rather than in the Broadway theatre or Hollywood cinema. Many of the greatest showstoppers have been taken up by pop and jazz singers and arguably have received their greatest interpretations from a Fitzgerald, Holiday or Sinatra. But what has happened to the shows they were designed for? Here we look at these great songs in the original context of their largely forgotten shows.

The word musical is an all-embracing term which has come to mean many things to different music-lovers. For some it’s a frothy operetta-style entertainment, as epitomised by the works of composers such as Franz Lehár and Sigmund Romberg; for others it signifies the era of the film musical – a form which dawned in spectacular fashion with the 1930’s celluloid showcases for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In our last issue we covered the post-war Broadway musical; now we wind back the clock to the musical comedy between 1900 and 1950.

Continue reading ‘Great Masters of the Musical – Part Two’

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.

Continue reading ‘Great Masters of the Musical – Part One’

Music Monday: Jerusalem

Power of the Word

Librettos, seen ‘cold’ on the page, can appear preposterous; but, Michael Oliver demonstrates, the librettist’s craft is as great as any playwright’s.

What makes a good libretto? A cynic might reply with the old maxim that if anything’s too stupid to be spoken then let it be sung, no doubt adding that quite a few marvellous operas have appalling libretti. Take Il Trovatore, for example: two rivals in love, unaware that they’re brothers; a crazed all gypsy woman who throws the wrong baby on the fire! Preposterous!

In fact, the libretto of Il Trovatore is perfectly suited to its purpose, a superbly crafted machine for bringing irreconcilable emotions into violent conflict: a machine for manufacturing pretexts for arias. Just what Verdi wanted and needed. A good libretto is one that inspires a composer to produce his finest music. It’s incomplete without the music, and to criticise a libretto without taking account of the music is like condemning a recipe without tasting the dish.

Continue reading ‘Power of the Word’

Selfish Saturday: The Advantage of Absence

let-light-inIt was completely unplanned.

I was gearing up for the July session of Camp NaNoWriMo, assuming I would be just filling in daily slots with DailyOM snippets, as I usually do when I’m writing elsewhere, and return to business as usual in August. I didn’t expect that I would actually walk away from this place for a whole seven weeks.

See, business as usual was the problem here.

In nearly eight years, I’d never taken a break from posting, not for more than a few days at a time. I was long overdue for a sabbatical that I didn’t even know I needed. I didn’t plan it, but it happened, and it was right. I won’t apologise.

While I was away, I had fun writing yet another story in a series I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. It’s not publishable, for several reasons, but I don’t necessarily write for publication. Beyond that, I stayed mostly away from words, reading little, basically letting the clutter in my head sort itself out. It’s nowhere near done, but I’m saner than I’d been for a long time.

Some of my regular features here are coming close to running their course, and there will be more free slots soon. I may fill them with something, original or not, or I may not. I’m thinking of resurrecting another blog for original writing, that has lain dormant for years. I don’t know yet. The writing process is something necessary, but there is a charm in the blank page and the suspended moment, not to mention a need for them, that I’ve learned to appreciate.

Trust the first rains of autumn, exceptionally early, to bring the mojo back.


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