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The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical: Is The Fabulous Invalid Beyond Recovery?

In March of 1954, General Foods sponsored a ninety-minute television special called The Rodgers and Hammerstein Cavalcade. Having Broadway stars on television singing the songs of the New York stage's most popular writers was considered such a major event that all four existing television networks simulcast it, knowing they could not possibly come up with a competing program that would grab the entire country's attention like hearing excerpts from Broadway's greatest musicals.

In the late 1990's, the Broadway musical Rent plastered the city with advertisements asking, "Don't you hate the word 'musical'?" Advertisers decided that the best way to sell tickets to a multiple Tony-winning hit was to tell audiences that it wasn't a musical.

This is one of the comparisons Mark N. Grant uses to open his new book, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, a detailed exploration of how this art form became an important part of American culture, a unique form of American theatrical literature, and then began a harsh decline in both quality and popularity which exists to this date. He says a lot of things that are going to anger some musical theatre lovers and have others nodding in sad agreement, but he backs up every opinion with well-researched facts. This one is sure to be the topic of many heated discussions in piano bars and theatre lobbies throughout Manhattan.

I had a chance to chat with Grant over lunch and hear his take on musical theatre's development and decline first hand.


So what is it that made you want to write this book?

There are a lot of people who wonder whatever happened to the Broadway musical, which held a position of cachet and prestige in the cutting edge of popular culture fifty years ago. Many feel that the spectacles of Andrew Lloyd Webber and shows like Les Miserables and the Disney musicals, while certainly different, are not of the same quality of what the musical used to be; Show Boat, Oklahoma!, West Side Story...

What makes a good musical?

Something that is based in a moving drama. A good story and convincing characters drive the whole creation. The musical of course is a collaborative achievement between the musical setting, the lyrics, the conception of the dances and the stage movement, and the visual design, all of which I contend were uniquely well integrated in what I call the second of three eras in the history of Broadway musical theatre.

And what are these three eras?

The first begins in 1866 with The Black Crook, which is generally regarded as the first musical, up until the opening of Show Boat in 1927. Show Boat is what I would consider to be the beginning of "The Golden Age", the second era of musical theatre. That stretches through 1966 and the opening of Cabaret. After that time we go into the decline, which we are still in today.

I can hear the Sondheim fans screaming now.

Sondheim excepted! There are always exceptions. Not every musical in The Golden Age was a strong book show, and there have been excellent musicals written during the decline. My book is about the types of musicals that were predominant on Broadway during each era. But my position is that the first era and the third era, which we are in now, are alarmingly similar. The musical grew up during The Golden Age. The musical treatment became more mature. The lyrics became much more literate and specific to the characters and the book. The book, above all, became more important and more integrating and was treated by the co-creators as such. And then, gradually over the period of the last four decades, all those accretions of maturity that evolved in the second era devolved and went through a retrograde, so that musicals that are popular and commercially successful today have a lot in common with the musicals of the formative years of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

How so?

For one thing, the emphasis on spectacle. In the first era showtunes as we know them hadn't really become institutionalized. The reason people went to Broadway shows, more often than not, was to see a spectacular production. The first musical version of The Wizard of Oz in 1903, for instance. Although it did feature two of the leading clowns of the time, Montgomery and Stone, the advertisements pushed the special effects. It was "Don't miss the cyclone scene!", not "Don't miss these great songs!"

So just like today, Broadway songs were not the popular music?

The songwriting tradition that created the great Broadway songbook gradually evolved in part because there was a fundamental shift in the character of popular music from the late 19th Century through the 1920's. The period before 1910 was an era of march rhythms. There were waltzes of course, but popular music was fundamentally gaited to the beat of a march; a 2-step rhythm. That was ragtime rhythm and the type of music George M. Cohan wrote. Then in the second decade of the 20th Century there was a ballroom dancing craze. Vernon and Irene Castle helped popularize the foxtrot, which was a 4-step rhythm. This foxtrot rhythm was seized by Broadway songwriters, starting with Jerome Kern and by the early 1920's all of his scores were predominantly written that way.

And what we consider to be the traditional Broadway sound was developing?

Yes, also because the instrumentation changed. The rhythm section, piano, bass, guitar and drums, was being introduced into both popular and theatre music. This was the influence of jazz, which was growing popular at the time. The musicals of Victor Herbert and early Kern never had a rhythm section driving the tune.

And how did this musical change improve the Broadway musical?

The rhythm section driven foxtrot song became by the mid 1920's what we know as the showtune. The 4-beat foxtrot gave songwriters a structure that gave room for more probing and literate lyrics. It was bouncey and danceable, with a regular downbeat, and yet permitted more soaring melodies than the 2-step. The rhythm section drove the melody and the dance numbers yet didn't overwhelm them. The sung foxtrot was more versatile than either the march or the waltz and helped create a style of songwriting in which singers really act on the lyrics. But when the rock groove started to permeate Broadway, the lyrics once again suffered, because the rock music puts rhythm and the beat in the forefront. The listener can't hum a rhythm or a beat. And this is not just the case for what you would normally call rock musicals. In A Chorus Line Marvin Hamlish has a rock groove leitmotif that runs throughout the show. It's not a tune, but a little riff, very recognizable. With Lloyd Webber, Wildhorn, Boubil-Schoenberg, Rent and Elton John, such grooves underpin in just about every song in the score. Sondheim doesn't use rock grooves, but he does use long strings of vamps as if they were minimalist patterns.

Many complain about the rock music making musicals too loud these days.

I believe mine is the first book to comprehensively investigate the subject of sound design in Broadway musicals. In the old days the orchestrators and arrangers were the de facto sound designers, making sure that their orchestrations would allow the singers to be heard in the theatre. Until the last thirty years, the orchestra pits were open. You had the exciting moment at the beginning of a show where the lights would dim and everyone could see -- and hear!-- the musicians playing the overture. Amplification was used sparingly as far back as the 30's and 40's, and by the 50's foot mics were common. In the 60's you get into wireless mics and by the time you get to Cats not only is every performer on Broadway hooked up to their own wireless mic, but soon every instrumentalist in the pit is individually miked. The sound designer has become more important than the stage manager. The show cannot run without the sound plot because if that fails the singers cannot be heard. What started as a benign effort to enhance audibility now controls the whole product and we have a completely artificial sound in what is supposed to be a live medium. The sound designer has more power over how the orchestra sounds than the conductor and can even change a singer's interpretation of the score.

But has this negatively affected the quality of the written material?

I think the fourth wall has been weakened by rock music and the sound design. It's brought back the theatre dynamic of vaudeville. As late as 1940 you had people like Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor appearing in what were supposed to be book musicals, but they'd ad-lib, or stop the show and sing their own trademark songs. When Oklahoma! became a wild success it put an end to that. Shows became book-driven and the fourth wall was preserved, securing the suspension of disbelief needed for a strong musical. That has unraveled. When people see a show like Rent they're seeing a concert and a lot of attitudes, but the dramaturgy and the literacy of the writing is not on the same level as our great musicals. I'm not saying there aren't good rock tunes, and I respect how it's a very sincere piece, but it's not at all sophisticated, crafted writing on the level of Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin or Oscar Hammerstein or Yip Harburg.

What musicals today would you consider to be well written?

I don't think the shows today that are supposedly well-written really are. Urinetown, for example, goes through the motions of being very clever and cynical about deconstructing the musical. But it doesn't really go as far as, say, the book to Finian's Rainbow, which although dated in some respects is also very subversive to the genre, but does so with a lot more intelligence, amusing characterizations, literacy, fantasy and charm while still making a political statement. The songs in Urinetown aren't very good, though the show was sometimes amusing. And as far as the direction goes, we are now in the era of speed and noise. Theatre requires nuance and quiet at times. There has to be a sound floor so you can go someplace to peak. That's also a flaw of the sung-through musicals. You lose the excitement of the difference in sound from spoken word to singing. For over 3,000 years theatre had no such thing as amplification. It only goes back to the 1920's. If you listen to recordings of George M. Cohan or Ethel Merman you can hear the projective apparatus in their enunciation and how they were able to sing naturally at different levels and still be heard in the back of a theatre.

But an interesting connection you make is how the advancement of amplification made the rise of the director/choreographer possible.

I cite Gower Champion as someone who turned the musical in the wrong direction. There are people who say it all went downhill with Hair or Euro-pop musicals. I say it started going downhill with Hello, Dolly!. Champion was a master of musical staging. Nobody would question that. But he didn't do much to direct the book. He was more interested in the package and the window dressing than the beating heart of the drama underneath and left out many important plot and character points written by Thornton Wilder in The Matchmaker. As director/choreographers became more influential, they moved the performers around in all different directions so they wouldn't be always facing downstage. Movement became more important than words and music so there became a need for more sophisticated sound design. Let me give you an example. In the original Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 they had a simple character-exposition song called "Bianca". Harold Lang sang it to Lisa Kirk and she reacted. That's how it was staged. But in the 1999 revival they had the muscular tank-topped actor playing the role bizarrely staged to be ascending the metal bars of the two-flight stage set like Tarzan swinging on tree vines, focusing the audience's attention on an irrelevant display of gymnastics. The song became the accompaniment to the action, not vice versa. The audience was treated as though it were a hyperactive child, fidgety unless chewing gum for the eyes was provided.

Which director was most responsible for the rise of the book-driven musical of The Golden Age?

The director who did the most to create and consolidate the integrated book-driven style was Rouben Mamoulian, mostly know as the director of the original productions of Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma! and Carousel. He was the first director to seize the reins and combine all the elements of a musical into an integrated production. In the early 20th Century you'd have a stage director for the dialogue, a dance director for the songs and sometimes even a separate ballet director. They wouldn't really have much to do with each other. But Mamoulian directed the songs himself, although he left the ballet direction to Agnes de Mille. She, too, is terribly important: she became singularly responsible for elevating the role of choreographer in a musical to an authorial level, and made sure that all movement served the story and development of the characters. Then Jerome Robbins came in and did that to even greater effect. But eventually other very gifted choreographers, such as Bob Fosse, Gower Champion and Tommy Tune came in and instead of using the book of the show to drive the movement, they superimposed their own concepts onto the book. I call that Conceptual Showmanship. Again, this is very similar to the way musicals were created in the first era where directors and producers like Florenz Ziegfeld and George White supplied the creative force. Before them you had the now-forgotten Arthur Voegtlin who conceived great spectacles at The Hippodrome, much like today's Disney musicals, where he would hire many writers and composers and designers to write musicals which supported his concepts. Packaging, in other words, instead of following the germinal impulse of creative writers. Kern and Hammerstein wrote Show Boat before they had a producer. So did Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson for Pippin, but Bob Fosse completely redid their writing with his own "concept".

What, if anything, gives you hope for the future of the Broadway musical?

A show like Caroline Or Change, where you have one of our great playwrights, Tony Kushner, writing a musical. It wasn't completely successful, but it was serious and dramatic while still entertaining. The acting, singing and dancing talent today is as good as it ever was, but vital and inspired writers are needed, and today they're lured away from musicals by the money they can make from movies and television. We need composers who won't settle for mirroring the country's musical taste, but who will take the reins and rediscover a way to seize the public imagination. Or else our rideout music, which could be "Something's Coming", will instead be "The Party's Over".

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From This Author Michael Dale