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The Search for New Direction in the musical.
From the ‘American Dream’ to the ‘Rock-Opera’.
1950 to 1978 were despondent ones for the musical. American musical theatre had been showing signs of exhaustion. This most seemingly anti-intellectual of genres carries its own ‘ideological project’. Before this, the musicals not only exhibited singing and dancing; they were about singing and dancing, explaining the magnitude of that experience. They not only gave the most intense pleasure to their audience but also supplied the justification for that pleasure. The pop songs of the day were the songs from the shows. With the increase in number of radio stations and the availability of portable radios recorded music became the music of the masses. With the arrival of the Beatles in 1964, Rock music exploded across the land sending other musical trends into hibernation! The occasional attempt to break out of the old moulds were unsuccessful and led nowhere. They showed inadequacies; being unmelodic and formless. With rare exceptions, audiences rarely left the theatre singing the show tunes. Rock and roll couldn’t be assimilated in a dramatic structure. The songs didn’t tell a story. If rock and roll was used it would mean songs did not enhance and push the story forward, they would be separate from the story. Not until 1960 did Broadway face up to the emerging vogue. Musical theatre accepted rock music grudgingly.
The eminence of the British musical has been the most significant theatre phenomenon in the world over the last twenty years. It has not only given British theatres a greatly needed financial boost but has changed ‘popular’ theatre indefinitely. Never will audiences see new musicals in the style of Oklahoma!, Brigadoon and South Pacific. With these musicals there was a danger of tipping from musical into melodrama. They never throbbed with subtlety because someone was always bursting into song about how every thing ‘was looking just swell’. The musical not only wanted to sing away your troubles, but your thoughts as well. The ‘old style’ musical theatre had no social conscience. Always presented in the traditional proscenium arch, the musical isolated the audience from new ideas and innovations. Due to television broadcasting daily updates on world affairs it is now impossible to believe in the benevolence of the Universe that the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote about. Today’s audiences can almost find it abhorrent. They are socially aware and informed of current affairs. Musical theatre has advanced technically, intellectually, is universally popular and overflowing with cultural relativism.
From 1960 onwards, Broadway came to rely more on its directors, librettists and lyricists. The emphasis of importance being on the directors. Tom O’Horgan, Gower Champion, and most of all, Bob Fosse gave the period some of its sustained achievements. These musicals are one of the most collaborative of art forms. Actors no longer had chunks of dialogue interspersed with musical interludes. The musical became seamless, with characters singing when their emotions became too overbearing for speech. The songs encouraged the musical to move forward and not stand still whilst the ‘star’ sang their showstopper! Stephen Sondheim advocated the “conceptual musical”. He subordinated every aspect of the work to his personal vision. As a result increasing intellectualised musicals confronted audiences that had frequented the theatre as a means of escape. When a writer is responsible for the book and the lyrics – as, for example, Oscar Hammerstein and Alan Jay Lerner, were – that writer may be more able to regularly address the same concerns than a composer-lyricist can. Nonetheless, Sondheim has managed to create a body of work that is clearly of a piece, despite the fact that many of the shows that he has co-created have been projects that were brought to him by his collaborators, not ideas that he originated. Undoubtedly, part of the explanation for this is that he tends to work with writers and directors who are in tune with his worldview. Furthermore, however much Sondheim may see himself as someone who enjoys and is good at “imitating” another writer’s style (as he stated in a conversation with Sam Mendes that was broadcast when Mendes’s production of Company was shown on British television), he clearly influences his collaborators as much as he is influenced by them. And then there are those who seem able to assimilate the innovations of their predecessors, raising the level of craftsmanship in their chosen genre to an unprecedented high level, while simultaneously exploring new areas of expression and form. It is to this latter group that Stephen Sondheim belongs.
While the musical theatre had not been entirely insulated from the social developments of its audiences, realism was still the orthodox aesthetic. Sex and swearing, prostitution, infanticide, incest, and drink ‘distressed’ the audience, as the New York Herald Tribune said. Audiences attended the theatre to watch the middle class ‘American dream’ to be told that,
‘…The best things in life are free, that everything is coming up roses, and that if you don’t have a dream how you gonna have a dream come true?’#
The musical was supposed to be a form of cathartic entertainment. Yet the music was a subliminal advertisement for the sought after ‘American dream’. Musicals satisfied the middle class consumer mentality.
Stephen Sondheim changed the emphasis of the musical. It was now intelligent and sometimes brimming with disenchantment. He is the conscience of the musical. In West Side Story (Appendix 1 – A) he combined classical music, ballet and straight theatre seamlessly.
‘ It’s an American Musical. The aim of the mid fifties was to see if all of us – Lenny Bernstein who wrote “long-hair” music, Arthur Laurents who wrote serious plays, Oliver Smith (designer) who was a serious painter – could bring our acts together and do a work on the popular stage…’#
West Side Story showed how singing, dancing, acting and design could merge into a single unity. Presenting itself as a social play with a tragic ending, reminding audiences and critics alike about how elusive tragedy had been in Broadway musical tradition. It had been atypical for the hero to die a tragic death in a Broadway musical, but fights and untimely deaths became the fortitude of the commercial musical. Many of the great musicals focus on a conflict between an individual and a community, or sometimes on a conflict between two communities, and this is a dramatic situation that often appears in Sondheim’s shows. Often the individual will be an outsider who wishes to be accepted by the community and has been rejected or cast out from it. Other times it is the outsider who has rejected the community and its values and beliefs. It is a world filled with moral uncertainty, a world in which all values are relative, but one in which the inhabitants keep trying to find redemption and salvation
Although West Side Story is one of the shortest books in Broadway musical history, it is packed with action. The plot is communicated, mostly, without dialogue – pointing to the collaborative nature of the piece. Originally setting out to tell the story by movement throughout, there was no attempt to separate dance, music, dialogue, acting, and lighting or stage decor. The lyrics are witty, stylish and clever, creating multi-dimensional characters. Heavily rhymed and inner rhymed, they are married to the music almost to the point of perfection. It was intellectual to use the tragic story and theatrical components to express a melancholy drama. It aspired to a level far higher than that of the usual Broadway musical, being a rare instance in Broadway history where the emphasis was on youth. These new faces in Broadway offered a new attitude to the musical. They brought a new vitality and prevailing urgency to the stage. In many of the shows, we see a young person (or sometimes more than one) who has led a sheltered existence and who loses his or her innocence during the course of the action, so this new approach was refreshing and realistic.
West Side Story demanded to be taken seriously whilst not appearing doctrinaire. It entertained without patronising the audience. It never pretended to be an alternative to Shakespeare but had obvious links to Romeo and Juliette. This play was just the start for Laurent’s adaptation. It is impossible to not discern the similarities in the opening scene of each play. Shakespeare wrote of the Capulet’s and the Montague’s feud – Laurent wrote of the skirmish between the Jets and the Sharks, rival adolescent street gangs.
It was a marvel on its d?but, especially because it did not attempt to feature any particular theatrical aspect. It is doubtful if without West Side Story there could have been later musicals with such vociferous social consciences.
Cabaret (Appendix 1 – B) combines high drama, realistic if unconventional morality, and strong characters with astounding melodies. It was based on the play I Am a Camera by John van Druten. John Kander, the composer of Cabaret pushed the music into serious moral and musical terrain. With the emergence of popular music threatening his career as a theatre composer he took his chances and tried a new style of musical.
‘When popular music seemed to stop caring about theatre music,
People who wrote for the theatre stopped writing for the market. The musical naturally became more experimental.’ #
Set in the Kit Kat club where the cabaret encourages you to leave your troubles behind and believe that life is beautiful. This musical confronts the era of Nazism in Germany, even including a Nazi song, ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’. In 1966, the Holocaust was still very fresh in everyone’s mind. The story follows the life of Sally Bowles, an English girl, working in the Kit Kat club. The emergence of the Nazi party’s power is charted alongside the story of Sally. The musical was no longer singing about how wonderful life is but actually challenging a complex, poignant political era. It was an ‘intelligent’ musical that was not solely about entertaining but also about thinking. By setting it in such a provocative era a huge step towards political musicals was being taken. Never before had Broadway tackled such a sensitive subject.
Cabaret also used the theatrical form of ‘a show within a show’. While we are watching actors on the stage, we are also watching them act on a primary stage. This theatrical device can almost be seen as a form of alienation. We realise we are not the audience being entertained, they are on the stage, we are the privileged audience that sees the ‘real life’ story. We are thus encouraged to absorb the meaning of the story and the subtext.
Described as a tribal love-rock musical, Hair (Appendix 1 – C) was an innovation of its time. It was a presentation of a way of life, not a story. The play was written by two ‘hippies’, who took starring roles, and the rest of the original cast were not trained performers but real people showing the audience how they lived their life. It was a simply a depiction of their lifestyle, the alternative to the strived for American Dream. It was to offer the audience a different view of life, to show that there is freedom in love and sex, freedom from the constraints of society and the freedom to take drugs. It was the first musical of the hippie peace and love generation. It is still poignant today, as the social comments are still true. Corporate wealth, challenged in Hair, still rules in society today. Strong language and nudity ensured a measure of shock value.
‘…It (Hair) finds in the vocabulary of life a language which is free from clich?, which has a coinage that is funny, surprising, and rich.’#
The characters speak of sex, masturbation and drugs. All taboos in previous Broadway shows. They confront the audience and ask why we find these words abhorrent. It is the bourgeois middle class theatre audience that expected these constraints.
While being entertaining, Hair also had a strong message about their disapproval of the Vietnam War. The song ‘3-5-0-0’ is a song about the average number of American casualties every month in Vietnam. It is easy to just mistake it as a ‘nice song’ on first hearing it.
Because of its irreverence and contemporary attitude Hair was received favourably by both critics and audiences alike. It tested musical stage conventions and opened up new ground for future projects. It proved that escapism could also work when social questions are asked and the audience is confronted with honesty and ideology. The audience does not view a recognised history or the status quo lifestyle, but witnesses something new and exciting. Hair was heaving Broadway into a new era. Although it now seems deeply conservative and highly sentimental, in its time it was groundbreaking.
After the success of the first rock musical Hair, the path was paved for a new, British, inspirational one. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice provided just that. Their British rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, (Appendix 1 – D) had already been a huge success worldwide before it triumphed in the West End. It ran for eight years in London. It encouraged other ‘rock operas’ onto the stage. Its religious theme was new and refreshing on Broadway and in the West End theatres. It is the story of the last seven days of Jesus’ life, seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot – his betrayer.
The quite ridiculous charges of blasphemy undoubtedly helped publicise the musical, aiding its success. The real blasphemy for many when it was first released was the association of Jesus with the sin of rock music. Yet in America, a few years later, churches were formed that no longer sang the traditional hymns but sang gospel. Maybe, if Superstar had been produced only a few years later it would not have been as popular. The majority of the ticket sales was to curious people, wanting to ‘see what all the fuss was about’. At the premiere of the Broadway show there was a group of protesters outside the theatre. A Rabbi was exclusively complaining about the content of the show, i.e. the lyrics. He represented the American Jewish Committee. They compiled a document which concluded that the show ‘unambiguously lays the primary responsibility for Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion to the Jewish priesthood’, and found evidence of anti-Semitism in nearly every line.
It received mixed reviews. Clive Barnes, an Englishman writing for the New York Times, criticised most of the show,
‘[Mr Rice] does not have a very happy ear for the English language. There is a certain air of dogged doggerel about his phrases that too often sound like a deflated priest.’#
This was not the most flattering of reviews yet it did not hamper the success of the show. However, Douglas Watt from the Daily News gave a much pleasanter review,
‘Jesus Christ Superstar, … is so stunningly effective a theatrical experience that I am still finding it difficult to compose my thoughts about it. It is, in short, a triumph.’#
The main criticism of Superstar was the comparison of Jesus with a pop star on the decline. Yet this was an effective tool in conveying the message. The questions the characters in the show were asking Jesus, were questions that a large portion of society have wondered themselves.
Evita (Appendix 1 – E) followed the unlikely, if real-life, drama of a woman of doubtful virtue who became the wife of a virulent fascist who rose to become his country’s dictator. Despite the real-life Evita Peron’s many shortcomings, she was greatly admired by many of her countrymen and women. Similarly, despite Tim Rice’s suitably acerbic lyrics, Evita became a paean of praise for a woman who had little to her credit other than the strength and determination to bring about her largely immoral ambitions. It’s success was echoed in the USA where it became one of the earliest amongst a wave of British stage musicals that helped reverse the transatlantic tide. Tim Rice believed that the only way to capture the melodramatic, almost unbelievable, glamorous and ruthlessly populist characteristics of Eva Peron was through a musical. The subject matter, Eva Peron, was not new but it was fresh to theatre goers. Here there was a true ‘real-life story’. People empathised, hated and loved Eva Peron after Evita. Otherwise, she would have remained unknown to millions of people. The only people opposed to the musical (the film version) were the Argentineans themselves. They objected with the idea of Madonna, a woman – they thought – of little virtue, playing their national heroine. Strangely though, their lives are not dissimilar. Both were born into an underprivileged household. Both had a huge drive and ambition and they both fought their way to the top.
Many different musical styles were embraced in Evita. Plain chant, aria, rock and much more. This contrapuntal mix of styles added depth and interest. The political lyrics for Peron are still appropriate for today’s political parties.
‘One has no rules, is not precise
One rarely acts the same way twice
One spurns no device
Practising the art of the possible
One always picks the easy fight
One praises fools, one smothers light
One shifts left to right
It’s part of the art of the possible.’#
The power of Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webbers musicals is their universality.
Rice and Lloyd Webber, proved that it is possible to take any subject matter, even as obscure as the story of Evita (to the mass population), and make it a box office success. Their perseverance and trust in their own talent ensured a musical of great standard and ground breaking new storyline. They were, together, a huge theatrical force.
The most successful musical ever, Les Mis?rables, (Appendix 1 – F) was not universally well received on its premiere. But the benevolence of the producer ensured another huge success for British musical theatre. Cameron Mackintosh is the biggest producer of musical theatre. He has unique conviction, knowing that the success of the show does not only depend upon its marketing but on the quality of its pre and post production methods.
‘The universal aspect of Les Mis?rables has less to do with political upheaval or revolution than with the eternal truths about human nature and our beliefs in God.’#
It is laden with irony and arduous subject matter. The audience leaves the theatre with a heightened sense of view. Everything around them now seems more exciting. This is the effect of highly charged emotional musicals. It could be called an ‘emotional roller coaster’. The beautiful music and lyrics of ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ is a typical example of the disheartening part of the story.
There’s a grief that can’t be spoken
There’s a pain goes on and on
Empty Chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone
Here they talked of revolution
Here it was they lit the flame
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.
On March 12, 1987, the American version of the smash London hit Les Mis?rables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Sch?nberg, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, opened at the Broadway Theatre.
In addition to winning eight Tony awards and other major awards throughout the world, Les Mis?rables has touched the heart of its international audience as few shows in history have done.
This power derives from the timeless reality of the titanic novel upon which the show is based, Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Mis?rables. More than 130 years later, wars and revolutions still litter the world, and Hugo’s words still describe the undying message of his novel. The musical is telling us the story which happened over a hundred years ago yet the audience can still relate with the plight of the characters.
Les Mis?rables reminds us that we are each part of the same human family, and that whatever our outward differences may be, our longings for individual liberty and peace are the same.
Says Caird, “We saw it from the start as a very big project, and we knew that the only way we could work on it was to go back to Victor Hugo’s book and start again … We decided to specify and dramatize the wretchedness of the times in order to give some focus to Hugo’s anger…”
“I approach the material as if doing a play by Chekhov or Shakespeare,” says Nunn, “Nothing is allowed through as a simple matter.”
Of the writing process, Boublil says, “It was a real, total collaboration. Not only on the writing but also on the casting process. We really made a new team of writers, and we made a new show.”
This seems reminiscent of West Side Story, the first collaborative show. Each successful musical since then has been a collaborative effort and has grown in success each time. Musicals are now more eager to tackle subjects that were formerly only touched by straight plays, off-Broadway, and fringe productions. The mass audience is ready to be entertained and intellectually challenged in conjunction. Commercial musicals are encouraging the majority of ‘non-theatre goers’, the children of computer games, the internet and television, to experience a once bourgeois form of entertainment. Nothing can replace the immediacy of the theatre and the sense of occasion at every performance. The musical is a most powerful conveyer of emotion. As the songwriter Yip Harburg says’
‘Words make you think thoughts, music makes you feel a feeling, a song makes you feel a thought.’ #
Appendix 1 – Dates
A – West Side Story
Winter Garden Theatre, New York, 26th September 1957
Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 12th December 1958
B – Cabaret
Broadhurst Theatre, New York, 20th November 1966
Palace Theatre, London, 28th February 1968
C – Hair
Public Theatre, New York, 17th October 1967
Shaftsbury Theatre, London, 27th September 1968
D – Jesus Christ Superstar
Mark Hellinger Theatre, New York, 12th October 1971
Longacre Theatre, London, 23rd November 1977
E – Evita
Prince Edward Theatre London, 21st June 1978
Broadway Theatre, New York, 25th September 1979
F – Les Miserables
RSC’s Barbican Theatre London, 1985
Acting out America
Lahr J. (1972) Penguin Books
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Bordman G. (1978) Oxford University Press
Eyre R. & Wright N (2000) Bloomsbury
Ganzl’s book of the Musical Theatre
Ganzl K. (1988) The Bodely Head
Oh, What a Circus
Rice T. (1999) Coronet
The Hollywood Musical
Feuer J.(1982) The Macmillan Press
The making of West Side Story
Garebian K. (1995) ECW Press
The Twentieth Century Performance Reader
ed. Huxley M. & Witts N. (1996) Routledge
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