Last time on the art of the Villain Song, we learned how beautiful and ennobling music and seemingly innocent lyrics can highlight the essential goodness of an apparent villain; this time we’ll see how those same techniques can be used for straight-up irony, as a horrifying contrast to the actual situation. Sondheim has always been the King of this technique; he’s used it throughout his career, especially in Sweeney Todd, where every time the music reaches its greatest heights of beauty, you know someone is plotting murder, or about to attempt murder, or just straight-up committing murder. The music in this particular musical, a twistedly comic vaudeville about real-life Presidential assassins, is disturbingly light and tuneful almost throughout, but this song is a special case. It’s a gorgeous Pop-Folk ballad, in the vein of acts like the Carpenters, except that because Sondheim is Sondheim, it’s far more beautiful and melodic than even the best songs ever released by those artists. It’s the most beautiful song in the entire show, actually…so naturally, it’s given to John Hinckley, the deranged stalker who tried to kill Ronald Reagan, as he sings of his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, and then to Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the Charles Manson disciple who tried to shoot Gerald Ford, as a profane hymn to her murderous leader. If that sounds incredibly disturbing, that’s the idea…it’s that kind of musical. Even limiting myself to Sondheim’s oeuvre, I could have chosen any number of songs from Sweeney Todd, or such other items as “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures, as an example of this particular form, but I selected this one because its real-life connections give it a particular resonance. There’s a creeping horror to hearing Hinckley and Fromme sing a beautiful love song that you just don’t get from a purely fictional killer like Sweeney Todd, no matter how well the song in question is written.
Archives for May 2016
So here we come to the second part of my extended series on villain songs. This song is a similar but subtly different phenomenon from the see-it-all-through-the-villain’s-eyes sort of song we discussed last time. This is one of those songs that only qualifies as a ‘Villain Song’ in context, and sounds for all the world like it was written for a heroic character. This can be used for disturbing irony, as is seen in much of Sondheim, or it can be used to drive home that the character isn’t really a bad person, as it is here. The imagery of this song is drawn almost entirely from the work of English poet John Milton, which suggests an interesting potential irony. For those who don’t know, the story of the fall of Lucifer as most Christians understand it is scarcely suggested by the actual Bible, and nearly all of our ideas about it were codified by Milton in his poem Paradise Lost. And given that Les Miserables‘ Inspector Javert is, like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, a man whose sin is taking the great lie of his job home with him (in this case, that the law is infallible and all the people he hurts in its name truly deserve it), it makes sense that he would be quoting religious ideas drawn from a popular poet rather than the actual religious texts he thinks he’s referencing. Javert is a vividly tragic character, and while the musical does flatten out some of the nuances he had in the novel (which is inevitable given the novel’s sheer length and complexity), it only highlights the central tragic paradox his character is built on. This is a man who has absolute faith in something that is ultimately not true, and it’s hardly surprising that once he’s forced to realize that fact, he cannot bring himself to go on living.
Of the two Weird Al albums released in the current decade, 2014’s Mandatory Fun seems to generally receive the lion’s share of attention, due to its topping the Billboard 200 for a week and producing Yankovich’s third Top Forty single, the Schoolhouse Rock tribute “Word Crimes”. But of the two albums, this one is actually the better one by a significant margin.
Some have held it against him that he basically repackaged the songs from his Internet Leaks EP, which had made a big deal about its gimmick of being distributed free over the internet, as part of this commercial album, which some saw as hypocritical. But when this album was released in 2011, there was undoubtedly still a significant portion of Yankovich’s fanbase that hadn’t been sufficiently internet-savvy as to have downloaded the EP (I was one of them at the time, so I know), so I can understand why he felt the need to make sure that all of his fans got to hear this material. In any case, apart from perhaps “Skipper Dan”, the most interesting material on this album was all completely new at this time, so there was ample reason to pick it (and ample value in paying for it) up even if you already owned the EP.
The material from the EP is capable enough…a recession-themed parody of a Glam Rap song, and topical technology satires mimicking the styles of Queen (“Ringtone”) and the Doors (“Craiglist”), but it’s very much Yankovich business-as-usual. Even the genuinely amusing “CNR”, which parodies the ‘Chuck Norris facts’ meme by substituting Charles Nelson Reilly for Chuck Norris, doesn’t really break any new ground.
But much of this album is actually quite dark and deep by Yankovich’s usual standards. “Skipper Dan”, the funny-sad lament of a failed actor reduced to working at Disneyland, is actually quite depressing for a Weird Al song, especially on repeat listens. And “TMZ” and “Party In the CIA” are two of most ambitious and serious satires Yankovich has ever released. The former, based on Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”, is a genuinely biting commentary on our culture’s treatment of celebrities, while the latter, a parody of Miley Cyrus’ “Party In the USA”, is a heavy political satire that actually mentions waterboarding and political assassinations.
The single this time around was “Perform This Way”, and while it may not have charted as high as “Word Crimes”, it is an even more impressive achievement. If you had asked almost anyone before this album came out, they would have said Lady Gaga’s sheer excesses made her utterly impossible to parody, but Weird Al is considered the King of Parody for a reason, and he proved it by creating a hilarious parody of “Born This Way” that perfectly captured the utter absurdity of the whole Lady Gaga phenomenon.
The ubiquitous polka medley of contemporary hits is, like all such medleys on Weird Al albums, something of an acquired taste, but this one is as well-executed as any of them, and will no doubt appeal to that handful of fanatics who buy the albums primarily for those medleys.
Pretty much the only real dud on the album is “If That Isn’t Love”, an uninspired retread of jokes that weren’t even Weird Al’s best work the first time around. But the album more than makes up for that misstep with its magnificent closing track, “Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me”. On the surface, it seems similar to the two aforementioned decent-but-unspectacular songs from the EP; then-current technology jokes set to a pastiche of a Classic Rock act’s overall style. But combining the sheer exaggerated dramatic force of the Jim Steinman-Meat Loaf collaborations with a hyperbolic lyric about unwanted e-mail somehow resulted in a song so gloriously over-the-top that it ranks with the funniest large-scale set pieces of Yankovich’s career.
As I said, this album tends to get overlooked in favor of its successor Mandatory Fun, but it contains some of the most impressive material in the entire Weird Al canon, and it demonstrates how he has outlasted most of the acts he started out parodying and is still as relevant now as he was in the Eighties and Nineties. This album should be required listening for anyone with an interest in Weird Al’s work (yes, even if you already own Internet Leaks), and is also of value to anyone interested in the Pop music of the period, as Yankovich casts a fascinating lens on that pop-culture era and its assorted phenomena.
Well, this song is certainly…memorable. Released as a single from the acclaimed Like a Rose album by Pistol Annies member Ashley Monroe, this song arguably outdoes her more famous colleague Miranda Lambert at her own game. Even by the standards of the Miranda Lambert-Kacey Musgraves brand of Country Music Monroe works in, this is pretty goddamned daring and risque for a Country song (sample lyric: “Let’s put up the teddy bears/and get out the whips and chains”). Yet, for all its earthy bluntness, the song manages to maintain its dignity without getting sleazy like so many of the Bro-Country songs popular at the time. This might have something to do with the song being written from a woman’s perspective, but I’m more inclined to credit the genuinely clever writing, which has a self-awareness and sense of timing that manages to make the racy lyrics genuinely funny. I admire the guts it took to release this song, especially as a single, and while it is not built for success on Country radio, to say the least, it stands as still further proof that while Bro-Country was dominating the crossover market, there was still plenty of great Country music being made in 2013 if you knew where to look.
It says something that of all the tracks on Nicki Minaj’s most hated album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (which, may I remind you, included “Starships”, “Beez In the Trap”, “Pound the Alarm” and “Roman Holiday”), this was still widely considered the worst of all. It was reportedly meant at the time as a diss track directed at fellow female rapper Lil Kim, but between the migraine-inducing beat, the maddeningly repetitive chorus, the idiotic and extremely unpleasant lyrical content, and Minaj giving the shrillest, most annoying performance of her career, I don’t think anybody noticed. In any case, the only person whom this makes look bad is Minaj herself, and it has become something of a running joke used by her detractors to make fun of her, which might be considered a backfiring of the song’s promotional strategy. Despite being probably the most-remembered song from the album after “Starships”, this was never actually released as a single…simply paired with a deliberately ridiculous and somewhat horrifying Youtube video that was obviously designed to become the kind of camp success that was prevalent on Youtube at the time (remember, this was only a year after the phenomenon of Rebecca Black’s “Friday”). But as bad as the video was, the song itself is still much worse, and in any case the attempt to court notoriety wound up working a bit too well, which serves Minaj right for releasing it in the first place.
Florida Georgia Line’s first album wasn’t exactly great music, but at least the singles it produced were relatively capable examples of the shallow style they were attempting. As for their second album…well, keep in mind that the idiotic “Dirt” is widely considered to be that album’s high point. Anything Goes, as said album was entitled, is in the running with Justin Moore’s twin disasters Outlaws Like Me and Off the Beaten Path for the title of Worst Country Album of the Decade So Far, and this track is a perfect illustration of why. This song is every aspect of Bro-Country that people hate taken to its logical limit, and almost seems to be designed to openly taunt the people who didn’t like their first album. The infuriatingly vapid melody and maddening whistling accompaniment could seriously drive someone to murder, and the lyrics are basically the singer explaining all the reasons he’s a complete waste of the air he breathes, coupled with several terrible rhyming choices. I’ve heard (and reviewed) ‘feel-good’ songs that seemed little more than odes to their singers’ complete uselessness before, but none of them went anywhere near this far…even “The Lazy Song” seems like “Man in the Mirror” next to this anthem to worthlessness. Florida Georgia Line’s early stuff was, as I said, not exactly ‘good’, but back then they were actually one of the more tolerable Bro-Country acts, and their extreme negative reputation was due more to overexposure than their actual quality. But with material like this, they truly descended into the lowest depths of the Bro-Country genre, becoming so awful that they arguably had a major hand in killing the genre.
This is at least arguably a good movie, and is without question enjoyable to watch, which its gloriously gaudy visuals and fast-based, campy mix of farce and operatic melodrama, but there’s a reason virtually no-one today considers it the masterpiece it was hailed as on its initial arrival. The basic problem with it, which has been pointed out before, is its emphasis on style over substance and its complete lack of substance as a result. That said, I also have two other major objections to it.
One is how it appropriates the plot of one of my favorite operas, La Traviata, and then proceeds to make really poor use of it. The original opera had one of the most touching stories in history, and Moulin Rouge manages to obliterate almost everything that worked about it. The opera’s plot set-up made sense in context; the movie kept the plot, but not the set-up. The opera had one of the most beautifully realistic and understated portrayals of relationships in the history of the form; every character in the movie is an over-the-top cartoon. The opera made its heroine’s sacrifice heartrending; in the movie, Satine’s ‘sacrifice’ is so senseless and contrived that it’s impossible to take seriously. In the opera, leading man Alfredo is, like most Italian opera heroes, a genuinely sweet man who thinks with his heart, and who shows genuine remorse for his one impulsive act of cruelty. In the movie, Christian doesn’t even apologize for publicly humiliating Satine—she just takes him back, as if what he did was totally justified. All these changes really bother me because, while La Traviata will assuredly outlast Moulin Rouge, at this particular moment the mediocre hit movie is more widely known to the general populace that the glorious masterpiece opera, so for a lot of people this is their only exposure to the story.
The other issue I have with the film is the way they put together their jukebox score. There’s a reason most jukebox scores consist of songs by the same songwriter(s) (Singin’ In the Rain, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, The Boy From Oz), the same band (Beatlemania, Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys), or at the very least the same era (Rock of Ages, Bullets Over Broadway, Walking On Sunshine). The importance of having a unified sound to your score is not simply waived because you’re doing a jukebox musical—your songs still need to fit together properly. Moulin Rouge, on the other hand, draws its material from a plethora of totally unconnected sources, and while some of the numbers are enjoyable in themselves (particularly David Bowie’s opening rendition of “Nature Boy”, the love duet for the leads, featuring a gigantic medley of fragments from various songs containing the world ‘love’, the star-studded single version of “Lady Marmalade” recorded for the soundtrack, and the tango version of the Police’s “Roxanne”), the overall score suffers from a serious lack of focus. Frankly, using “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” not only in the same score, but in the same scene, wouldn’t pass muster on a compilation CD, much less a musical.
This film was hailed like the Second Coming when it came out, simply because what it was doing was so new and innovative, but it has since sunk into a much more deserved status as a campy guilty pleasure, especially after the Chicago film took its stylistic innovations and used them for something with actual story substance.
The ‘revolution’ that the musical theater experienced in the 1940s is generally credited almost entirely to Oklahoma, but can really be traced to the innovations of no less than seven shows, of which Oklahoma is but one (interestingly, four of these seven shows have music by the same composer…but more on that later).
The first of these shows was the folk parable Cabin in the Sky. Today this show seems dated and even a little racially patronizing, but at the time it was a never-before-seen sensation, and not just because of its glorious score (written by Vernon Duke, a semi-unknown who never had another success on Broadway, though he managed to produce a few other hit songs even so). All-black shows were rare enough as it was during this time period, but most of the ones that did exist were jazzy musical comedies loosely modeled after the Cotton Club revues, so this folksy, religious-themed fantasy parable was a totally new creature. Despite not really being a hit and only rarely having seen a revival, the show was gigantically influential, and not only because it produced one of the biggest hit songs of the Forties, “Taking a Chance on Love”. It set the model for the use of fantasy on Broadway in such shows as Finian’s Rainbow and Brigadoon, and laid the stage for Oklahoma‘s innovation in its popularizing of the Folk idiom on Broadway.
The second show, Lady in the Dark, isn’t a musical in the conventional sense at all. It’s essentially a straight play (by Moss Hart, of the famous Kaufman and Hart team) about a female advertising executive undergoing psychotherapy interrupted by three surreal musical dream sequences representing her psychological nightmares. With music by the legendary German composer Kurt Weill, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, striking out on his own after his brother George’s death, the show pioneered several of the techniques associated with the concept musical, essentially presaging both the onstage numbers in Cabaret and the final sequence of Follies, and proved more than any other show on this list that the most basic rules of musical theater could be broken while still achieving success.
The third show, Pal Joey, by the team of Rodgers and Hart, was in some sense a fairly conventional uptempo song-and-dance musical comedy…it just happened to center around a sociopath and be far more frank about sexuality than any Broadway show before it. The score, despite managing to produce two huge hits, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “I Could Write a Book”, didn’t sound like your typical musical-comedy fare either…note that the first is a sour, cynical lament with some overtly sexual lyrics, and the latter a blatantly insincere near-parody of conventional love songs. The rest of the score alternated between being silkily sarcastic and almost abrasively brash, and while Gene Kelly as Joey gave the character an enormous amount of charm, it still wasn’t enough to disguise what a scumbag this character was. All of the musical’s great satires, particularly Chicago, owe something to this pioneering work of ultra-cynical character writing.
For the fourth, we come to the much-vaunted Oklahoma. While the perceived singleness of its role in the genre’s development is probably just a touch overrated, there’s no denying that it did break an enormous amount of ground in terms of naturalistic character writing and seamless musical integration on Broadway. Of course, it helps that the score is indelible, with 90% of it having gone on become enduring Great American songbook standards (the previous record for this, let’s remember, had been five songs per show). It also has the advantage of having produced a movie version as iconic as the stage show…Lady in the Dark had a marginal movie with most of the music cut, Pal Joey‘s film version was an embarrassing debauch, and while Cabin in the Sky did produce a famous (and frankly excellent) movie, it bore surprisingly little resemblance to the show it was based on. But one can appreciate everything that made Oklahoma great from the comfort of one’s own living room, which might go some way toward explaining its perceived status as the great game-changer of Musical Theater.
The fifth show, On the Town, finds the sunnier, more idealistic side of Musical Comedy bringing itself in line with the innovations of the earlier show. Apart from its spectacularly showy use of extensive ballet sequences, On the Town is a more-or-less traditional musical comedy, except that it fills out its characters realistically by the end and provides a note of bittersweetness to its exuberance. It set the tone for later musical comedies like Annie Get Your Gun or Guys and Dolls that retained the conventions of the genre but filled them out by incorporating some of the naturalism and character depth of more serious shows like Oklahoma. Guys and Dolls in particular built on these innovations by adding a unity of style unheard of at the time, subtly foreshadowing the advent of the unified concept shows that would finally achieve the ideal of so-called “Gesamtkunstwerk” that had been theorized about since Wagner’s day.
The sixth show was Carousel, in which Rodgers and Hammerstein built on their innovations in Oklahoma to fully realize a genre that had been first suggested by Show Boat…the Musical Play. In contrast to Show Boat, which had been a grand, sweeping epic with no one human protagonist, Carousel focuses tightly on a small group of characters and their feelings, making it even more moving and, not insignificantly, much easier to imitate. In addition, the score was so loaded with elaborate musical scenes that, if not for the fact that it still contained a significant amount of dialogue, it would have qualified for Porgy and Bess-like Pop Opera status. In fact, the central number of the score, “Soliloquy”, is so ambitious and psychologically insightful that even the Porgy and Bess model had never approached anything like it…indeed, precious few ‘real’ operas had ever contained anything so varied and complex.
Finally, we have Allegro, the last of the truly genre-defining shows of the Forties, and the only one to be generally considered a failure (it actually ran longer and made more money than Cabin in the Sky, but history doesn’t tend to perceive it that way). With a second-tier score by Rodgers and Hammerstein that nonetheless managed to contain several excellent numbers, this show set the template for every major feature of the modern Concept Musical, from the symbolic presentation to the fragmented score to the guiding hand of a visionary director-choreographer. While it didn’t actually achieve its goal of a seamlessly integrated production very well, it provided the rough model that, a generation later, would be perfected in such works as the collaborations between Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince. Moreover, as the first clear example of the Heartbreaker Flop, it set the precedent that you don’t need success or perfection to make Broadway history, which is a more important achievement than it may sound to some of the Broadway neophytes out there.
The last four of these shows were particularly key in reinventing how Broadway made use of dance. Oklahoma and Carousel each programmed one Tchaikovsky-style dramatic ballet into their action, On the Town programmed several, and Allegro was infused with dance throughout, pioneering the art of the director-choreographer. This important development, of which the visionary Agnes De Mille was the frontrunner, paved the way for such future giants as Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Michael Kidd, and Joe Layton. Meanwhile, in a very different vein, Bob Fosse spent the Fifties pioneering a much earthier kind of dance, bringing his utterly unique style to such shows as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, New Girl In Town, and Redhead. New Girl In Town even has a plotted ballet, albeit one much racier than anything Agnes De Mille ever attempted.
For the rest of the Forties and most of the Fifties, things more or less followed the patterns set by these seven shows. Rodgers and Hammerstein in particular continued to build on their own innovations, creating three more legendary masterpieces during this period. The first, South Pacific, blurs the line between the Hit Parade scores of the Twenties and Thirties and the integrated character musical, with a collection of songs that were self-contained and largely extractable but still perfectly served the needs of the story and characters in context. The King and I is best known to the general public for its cute kids’ songs like “Getting To Know You”, but combines that element with a passionate and politically-charged central conflict, the most complex characterization yet seen on Broadway, and some of the team’s most sophisticated music on the ballads and character numbers. After three pleasant but disappointing shows in their declining years (Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, and Flower Drum Song), they managed to create one more world-beater in The Sound of Music. But while this show did have one of the most delightful and hit-laden scores in history, it really didn’t become the world-changing juggernaut it is now until the Sixties film version was released, so we’ll save a detailed discussion of it for the next chapter.
At the same time, Opera continued to manifest on Broadway, both in conventional Classical operas that played in Broadway theaters (like Kurt Weill’s Street Scene or the works of Gian-Carlo Menotti) and in continuation of Pop Opera genre started by Porgy and Bess, which produced one of its all-time masterpieces, The Most Happy Fella, in the mid-Fifties. There was even an unsuccessful but extremely admired show, The Golden Apple, that fused Pop Opera with pure musical comedy for a lightweight, joyously comic sort of sung-through plotted Vaudeville resetting Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey in small-town turn-of-the-century America.
Pure operetta continued to get made throughout this period, but it almost invariably flopped, as audiences had lost almost all patience with its more dated conventions. Apart from Song of Norway, a musically lush but dramatically vacuous Grieg pasticcio that seems to have fluked its way into success in the Forties, there are really only two success stories to speak of in this period. One is Kismet, which tried to modernize the operetta model with broad comedy and sexuality, and, helped by an utterly ravishing score adapted from Alexander Borodin, managed to become pretty much the most successful operetta of all time. The other, which was a commercial failure at the time but has succeeded impressively in revivals, is Leonard Bernstein’s career showpiece Candide. Based more on European comic operetta than the romantic fantasies favored in America, it resembled to a certain extent a far more ambitious version of an Offenbach opéra bouffe, and, with Bernstein’s glorious score and lyrics by a large stable of the Twentieth-Century American intelligentsia, it is probably the best of all American operettas from an artistic perspective, in spite of a book that has never been made to fully work.
Granted, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate does resemble a kind of comic Operetta with its Shakespearean source material and lush romantic music, but these elements are blended heavily with the Musical Comedy tropes of Porter’s early years, in effect creating an Operetta/Musical Comedy fusion very different from the one found in the Rodgers and Hammerstein-style Musical Play. And even then, Porter’s followup work in the same vein, Out of This World, despite having one of Porter’s all-time greatest scores, flopped because of a dated book and presentation…exactly the problem that was killing Operetta in general. Even Operetta on film was becoming discredited, with the last two Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy vehicles, Bitter Sweet and I Married An Angel, being extremely poorly received, and the 1943 Phantom of the Opera film (technically the first musical made of the story) being widely disliked both then and now.
Like Operetta, the plotless Revue was dying at this time, albeit more gradually (although it would later experience a resurgence in the songwriter anthology shows of the Seventies). There were still a few classic titles produced during this period…New Faces of ’52, Lend an Ear, Vernon’s Duke’s The Littlest Revue, Ben Bagley’s Shoestring Revue series…but audience had mostly lost patience with the form. The innovations of the early Forties had radically changed audience expectations, and they were now primarily interested in good stories, which was one thing the Revue by definition did not have. It didn’t help that, because most of the real talent was drawn to story musicals, the amount of quality Revue material declined sharply (although several future giants like Charles Strouse and Sheldon Harnick did get their start writing for the genre). Follow the Girls, a kind of hybrid between the Revue and a Thirties-style Musical Comedy, was a long-running hit, thanks to good choreography and star performances by Jackie Gleason and Gertrude Niesen, but it was the kind of hit that virtually no-one would actually admit to liking.
For all these positive developments, this era was far from perfect. Theater snobs like to imagine these decades (particularly the Fifties) as some kind of theoretically perfect alternative to the supposed tawdriness of modern Broadway, to the point where calling this era “The Golden Age of Broadway” has become common parlance even among people who aren’t theater snobs. It does look like more was being accomplished in terms of producing classic shows, but that’s mostly due to the tempo of production being much faster in those days…they were producing far more shows each season back then, so of course they had five or six major titles in a year as opposed to one or two. The difference was economic, not artistic…and what the theater snobs don’t want to remember is that the tempo for producing absolute garbage was just as quick in comparison to today. Six shows in particular prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, and are fun to bring up when you encounter a theater snob gushing about the Fifties “Golden Age”…Buttrio Square, Hit the Trail, Portofino, Happy Town, Ankles Aweigh, and Whoop-Up. The first four are known to today’s theatergoers only by reputation, but they are widely agreed by the experts in the subject to be the four worst musicals of all time…yes, worse than any of the modern disasters like Dance of the Vampires or Dracula that theater snobs routinely point to as signs of Broadway’s artistic apocalypse. As for Ankles Aweigh and Whoop-Up, they actually lasted long enough for cast albums to be made, and between them they represent the Gold standard of hilariously awful Broadway fun-trash, sending generations of listeners into hysterics with their garishly horrible numbers like “Headin’ For the Bottom Blues” and “Nobody Throw Those Bull”. They also persist as permanent reminders that, if I may quote Billy Joel, “the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”.
Meanwhile, the film musical was also breaking new ground, though nothing as staggering as what was happening to Broadway at the time. Still, a similar movement toward deeper, more intelligent scripts was definitely underway, with both nostalgic family fare like Meet Me In St Louis and satirical comedies like Singing In the Rain or The Band Wagon showing far more wit, intelligence and emotional depth than the scripts to even most of the greatest Thirties musicals. This trend reached its pinnacle in 1954 with A Star Is Born, a bluntly tragic piece that openly deconstructed the very myths that Hollywood, and especially Hollywood musicals, had previously been built on. It took many years for this film to be fully recognized as the classic it was, partly because of heavy cuts made to its initial release but also probably because its story and message were just too depressing for audiences at the time. Remember, this was three years before West Side Story debuted, and openly tragic musicals were almost unheard-of at the time.
In addition, two legendary 1943 films, Stormy Weather and the film version of Cabin in the Sky, introduced the concept of the all-Black Hollywood musical, and while both still seem, for all their musical splendor, a bit insensitive and patronizing to a modern audience, at the time they were smashing through boundaries and stereotypes and giving Black performers far more opportunity than the limiting and often offensive bit parts they played in most previous musicals. (There was also some attempt at predominantly Black shows on Broadway, but apart from Porgy and Bess and Cabin in the Sky, they met with limited success, with even lovely pieces like St. Louis Woman and House of Flowers amounting to little more than cult flops.)
Also, a surprising number of Broadway shows began to be filmed in a far more faithful, reverential style than was common in prior years, which some critics have dubbed the ‘prestige treatment’ and which would become even more popular in the early 1960s. Several stage musicals were also filmed for television in their original stage format during this period, most notably the Mary Martin Peter Pan musical. There were even a few musicals very clearly in the Broadway style (and featuring Broadway songwriters) that were made exclusively for film, with the most legendary examples being Gigi and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella.
The animated musical was, at this point, almost completely dependent of the works of Walt Disney, with the few full-scale films made by other studios, such as Filmation’s Gulliver’s Travels, being almost unwatchable today. Disney thrived in the early Forties, creating such all-time masterpieces as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. He also made two films experimenting with the juxtaposition of animation and live-action film that would eventually give us Mary Poppins and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the unjustly vilified Song of the South and the Burl Ives vehicle So Dear To My Heart, and while neither was especially interesting as film, both featured fine animation and lovely music. Unfortunately, he ran out of money well before the end of the decade and had to make a series of low-budget ‘filler’ movies in order to earn enough money to create another work in the Snow White vein. He finally did create five more high-profile, fairly ambitious animated films, but all of them, while impressively animated, tended to be inferior to his Forties classics in both story and music (with the exception of Lady and the Tramp, which featured a wonderful score by Peggy Lee, and Sleeping Beauty, which draws its music from the Tchaikovsky ballet of the same name). Still, while not nearly as impressive overall as the first-generation Disney classics, these movies did keep the animated musical alive, and the cliches they propagated would at least give the Disney films of later generations something to subvert.
It wasn’t until the second half of the Fifties that a new set of shows with totally unprecedented innovations began to appear on Broadway. The first, of course, was My Fair Lady. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, much is made of this show’s almost unheard-of fidelity to both the letter and spirit of its source, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, but most people don’t even notice anymore how strange its musical innovations must have sounded at the time. Because the standard Fifties ‘Broadway Sound’, which was essentially jazz-based, would have sounded absurdly out-of-place in a Shaw play, My Fair Lady was carefully written in an alternately silky and staccato idiom that sounded nothing like conventional Broadway scores of the time. And let’s remember that in those days, Broadway was basically synonymous with the Pop music of that era, and that My Fair Lady, despite not sounding like anything close to normal Fifties Pop, somehow became the biggest Pop smash of that era, making it sort of like our modern Indie Rock crossover boom times ten.
The Music Man was also an extremely innovative show, but while its story was exceptionally well-done, it was still essentially a softer variant on the Pal Joey formula. Most of its real innovations were musical, particularly its popularization of a very rhythm-driven form of patter song that would lead directly to the modern Rap genre. Granted, this show did not invent that idiom…its ancestors had existed in various underground music scenes for some time…but in this era when Broadway was the main source of Pop music, it gave what we would call Rap its first taste of mainstream popularity, something that modern Rap fans would frankly do well to remember.
The next great innovator of the late Fifties, West Side Story, combined a more overtly and unambiguously tragic story than Broadway had yet seen in a non-operatic work, with a score that combined desperately lyrical ballads with menacing music that sounded like a hybrid of Be-Bop and Stravinsky to represent the world that would tears the lovers apart. Closely following it, and featuring several of the same collaborators, was Gypsy, which elevated the Pal Joey school of cynical musical comedy to Shakespearean levels, essentially creating a full-fledged musical play out of musical comedy’s trappings and musical sound. Both of these shows were far darker and more hard-edged than musical theater was used to, and they helped lay the stage for the later works of Stephen Sondheim, who penned the lyrics for both works as a kind of apprenticeship for his later role as the Dark God of Musical Theater.
As I said before, some people would argue that this point represents the Musical Theater’s peak, and that it was all downhill from there. I don’t agree, but that will have to wait for the next chapter, in which I discuss the progress the musical would make in the Sixties and Seventies.