At the same time, Opera continued to manifest on Broadway. Some of these were actually conventional Classical Operas that played in Broadway theaters, like the works of Gian-Carlo Menotti such as The Medium, The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street. Then there was Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, which served as a kind of hybrid between a traditional Classical Opera and the emerging “Pop Opera” genre that had been introduced by Porgy and Bess. Most of Weill’s score for this gritty Verismo-esque piece basically sounds like standard (if often glorious) Operatic music, but there are touches of a Pop sound here and there, such as the bluesy “I Got a Marble and a Star”, the soaring hit-parade ballad “What Good Would the Moon Be?”, and even a jitterbug number, “Moon Faced, Starry Eyed”.
Perhaps Street Scene‘s most arresting number, however, is the closing “I Loved Her Too”, because of the sheer, almost absurd degree to which it makes us feel sorry for a character who would seem to have no sympathetic qualities whatsoever. The character in question is a brutal, drunken, racist man who had previously sung the reactionary rant “Let Things Be Like They Always Were”, and at this point in the plot he has just murdered his wife because he caught her with another man. As his grown daughter confronts him while the police are taking him away, all he has to say for himself is “It might not’a looked like it you, but I loved her too”. And over the course of this musical scene full of halting, inarticulate words and intensely passionate music, our hearts actually bleed for this horribly unpleasant guy, to the point where we actually understand how losing his wife’s love to someone else could drive him to such a desperate act. This might be the first time this technique was used at all in a Broadway musical, and it perfectly illustrates the art of humanizing a character who gives us no real rational reason for sympathy, simply by letting the audience see how the situation looks from their perspective.
Particularly interesting in this field were two works by former Brecht-Weill protégé Marc Blitzstein, Regina and Juno, the first a full-scale Opera and the second a tragic musical of Operatic depth and sweep like Weill’s Lost in the Stars. Blitzstein’s early works, like The Cradle Will Rock, while certainly interesting, were far from perfect compositions, with their one-dimensional agitprop plots and unmelodic, somewhat dreary scores. Regina and Juno, on the other hand, were faithfully based on truly great plays (Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes and Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, respectively), and by the time he wrote them, Blitzstein had matured into a world-class melodist.
Regina is a faithful retelling of a bitingly cynical play about a family of loathsome con artists in the Old South who swindle and betray everyone, including one another. Still, Blitzstein managed to program in a number of breathtaking lyrical passages, particularly the opening spiritual by the family’s Black servants and the exquisite “Rain Quartet” for the show’s more sympathetic characters. It really says something that Lillian Hellman, a notorious cranky collaborator who was extremely touchy about her properties and had an overall dislike for Musicals in general, actually admitted once that she thought Blitzstein had improved on her original play.
As for Juno, it featured an Irish-flavored score which, while still quite complex, was easily the most accessible and melodious thing Blitzstein had ever written. Some particularly notable highlights of the score are the insanely stirring opening chorus, “We’re Alive”; the ravishing romantic ballads “I Wish It So”, “My True Heart”, “One Kind Word”, and “For Love”; the show’s central message song, “Bird Upon a Tree”; the storm-tossed seafaring duet “What Is the Stars?”; the wildly celebratory ensemble sequences “On a Day Like This” and “Music in the House”; and the warmly rueful “Song of the Ma” for the great Shirley Booth, which later becomes her wrenching eleven-o’clock lament “Where?”. There was even a ballet sequence called “Johnny”, by famed choreographer Agnes DeMille, set to some of Blitzstein’s wildest and most vivid music, that became the show’s “hit”, being routinely performed on its own in ballet theaters long after the show itself flopped.
Both Booth and her leading man, Melvyn Douglas, were insecure about their performances both at the time and for years afterward, with Booth claiming she was miscast years after the fact and Douglas perennially disparaging his own gravelly singing voice. Neither ever seemed to appreciate how perfect they were for their roles, but the show’s Encores revival in the 2000s, starring the normally marvelous Victoria Clark, demonstrated how much the show really relied on Booth’s performing style. Clark performed the part as it would normally be performed in O’Casey’s play, as a rock-solid, almost grim pillar of resilient strength and determination. This worked fine in the book scenes, but the songs had been written specifically for Booth’s interpretation, in which this Gibralter-like strength of character lay just beneath a façade of delightful whimsy. Without that exuberant charm overlaying her toughness, Clark’s performance of most of the songs fell almost completely flat.
Meanwhile, there was a (very) short-lived trend of adapting Opera titles from centuries past into Broadway Musicals. Probably developing out of the long-standing craze for pasticcio Operettas started by Blossom Time, this approach worked exactly once, with Bizet’s Carmen, adapted into an all-Black, English-language modernization called Carmen Jones by Oscar Hammerstein. The high-profile failure of its most prominent follow-up effort, My Darlin’ Aida, killed the trend fairly quickly. It’s been pointed out that Carmen, being an “Opera Comique” with self-contained, songlike arias, straightforward popular tunes, and even a fair amount of spoken dialogue, proved much easier to adapt to a Broadway format than Aida‘s ritualistic, melodically complex score and sung-through structure (which might explain why, when the Aida property did eventually succeed on Broadway, it was with an entirely new libretto and score), but there was another factor at play as well. Charles Friedman, the adaptor of My Darlin’ Aida, did an ingenious job at resetting all the plot elements of Aida into a Civil War drama, but he didn’t really add anything to make you want to view his version rather than simply attend Verdi’s original Opera. Carmen Jones, on the other hand, had the addition of Hammerstein’s frequently superb lyrics, which were every bit as insightful about male/female relationships as his work on Carousel, and certainly far more interesting than the lyrics to just about any old-school Opera, the original Carmen included.
On the other side of the Atlantic, England was producing its first great composer of full-scale Operas since Purcell, and indeed the most popular and widely beloved Opera composer of the post-Turandot era, Benjamin Britten. He first came to prominence with two works built on the sounds of the ocean and tormented moral ambiguity, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd (the latter based on the Herman Melville novella of the same name). Peter Grimes was ultimately the better of two: while both works possess incredibly rich atmospheric music that captures the raging ocean better than any work of Music Theater since Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Billy Budd is sadly lacking in memorable vocal melody, whereas Peter Grimes is an embarrassment of vocal riches almost reminiscent of an old-school ‘Number Opera’.
Britten would also write an Operatic setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that many Opera buffs regard as among the finest musical adaptations of Shakespeare. To tell the truth, it’s still not quite as effective at musicalizing the play as Mendelssohn’s stage music, but its existence still should have discouraged such later attempted adaptations as 1964’s Babes in the Woods or 2014’s A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream.
He was also responsible for the only successful Operatic use of Arnold Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone technique in his Operatic version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. As I stated in a previous chapter, Twelve-Tone is not particularly well-suited for Opera because it violates the ‘content dictates form’ dictum that Musical Theater relies on by its very nature. Britten, however, only uses a single haunting Twelve-Tone theme as punctuation at the end of each of his scenes, probably the only viable way to employ that technique in a Music Drama, and the result is actually extremely effective in capturing the chilling ambiance of James’ novella.
The other truly great Classical composer for the theater at this time, now that Gershwin was gone, was America’s rough equivalent to Britten, the great Aaron Copland. Copland was an easy-going man in his own life, and he wrote easy-going, accessible, warm, and fundamentally American-sounding music. For the theater, his primary output consists of three wildly acclaimed ballets (Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid and Rodeo) and a sadly underrated Opera called The Tender Land. For some reason, perhaps because it focuses on ordinary people and events and never really indulges in heavy drama, The Tender Land has proved inexplicably unpopular with Opera audiences and is almost never performed, but it is a lovely piece of nostalgic Americana, reminiscent of an Operatic version of something like Meet Me in St. Louis or State Fair, and its score has the same gentle, folklike beauty as any other Copland composition.
Apparently, when Copland first composed the Appalachian Spring ballet, which would become his single most famous composition, he had not yet decided on a title and had no conception of the ballet’s eventual subject matter. Copland always expressed a great deal of amusement that people would routinely tell him things like “When I listen to your music, I can just see the Appalachians and feel spring”. However, I suspect that the reason the collaborator who had commissioned the ballet suggested this as a title for the finished piece in the first place is because, deliberately or not, that is exactly what the piece’s sound seems to suggest.
In addition to the more ‘legit’ Operas, the Pop Opera genre started by Porgy and Bess continued to flourish, producing one of its all-time masterpieces, The Most Happy Fella, in the mid-Fifties. Endless debate has gone into whether this or Guys and Dolls is Frank Loesser’s greatest score, and while I personally would lean more towards Guys and Dolls for that title, I will admit that this score is a remarkable achievement.
It doesn’t reach the same level of consistency as Guys and Dolls, with a few duds here and there like the annoyingly cutesy “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance” or the downright embarrassing “I Made a Fist”, but I suppose when you have this much music in a show that might be difficult to avoid. And it must be admitted that the score displays a level of ambition that Guys and Dolls doesn’t even approach, with full-blown Operatic arias like “Somebody, Somewhere”, “How Beautiful the Days”, and “My Heart Is So Full of You” side by side with hit Pop tunes like “Standing on the Corner”, “Big D” and “Joey, Joey, Joey”.
Apparently, the show was originally conceived as a musical adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s film La Femme du Boulanger, which would later be adapted by composer Stephen Schwartz into the beloved cult flop The Baker’s Wife. However, the rights to that work were unavailable, so Loesser instead took a very different drama called They Knew What They Wanted as the basis for his musical and rewrote it until it bore a strong resemblance to La Femme du Boulanger (albeit with quite a bit more plot, the lack of which would be the primary reason for The Baker’s Wife’s failure, so perhaps it was all for the best).
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 Iliad and Odyssey in small-town turn-of-the-century America. As I said, it was not a success, but it produced an enduring standard (“Lazy Afternoon”), and it has won a reputation as perhaps the greatest of all cult flops. I would question that superlative, as the score does have a few dull stretches, but it is unquestionably a superbly constructed and extremely entertaining piece and contains quite a bit of absolutely wonderful music. Particularly memorable are the aforementioned “Lazy Afternoon” (a bluesy, seductive ballad), the gorgeous love duet “It’s the Going Home Together”, the gut-wrenching lament “Windflowers”, and the risqué novelty semihit “Goona-Goona”. This show was not the initial progenitor of the comic Pop Opera (that would be Ballet Ballads, an earlier and similar work by the same creative team), but flop or not, it was the first to really register the possibilities of such a form in people’s minds. As such, it serves as the direct predecessor to such lighter, more comic takes on the Pop Opera formula such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or CATS.