For the rest of the Forties and most of the Fifties, things more or less followed the patterns set by the aforementioned groundbreaking shows. Rodgers and Hammerstein in particular continued to build on their own innovations, creating two 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 the exception of one Carousel-style musical scene, “Twin Soliloquies”, this score consisted of a collection of self-contained and largely extractable songs that still perfectly served the needs of the story and characters in context. This alchemy of combining the hit tune with the integrated character score might explain why this is the only one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s scores where every single number in the finished score is famous (their other four megahits all had one or two numbers that remain obscure to non-theatre fans).
The score’s immense popularity might also have something to do with its overall tone. The show is, at its heart, a surprisingly ahead-of-its-time indictment of racism, which was released more than a decade before the Civil Rights Movement began and in fact was probably a positive cultural influence on that trend, given its immense popularity and uncompromising presentation of its message. But apart from four immensely moving ballads (“Some Enchanted Evening”, “Bali H’ai”, “Younger than Springtime” and “This Nearly Was Mine”) and one biting message song (“You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”), this very serious story is told largely in songs that would not sound out of place in a Musical Comedy. This is particularly true for the part of the plucky heroine originally played by the great Mary Martin, who sings items like the sunny credo “A Cockeyed Optimist”, the lighthearted breakup song “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”, the ebullient declaration of love “A Wonderful Guy”, and the campy performance piece “Honey Bun”. Other shows would attempt this balancing act in the future, but unlike Shenandoah or The Grand Tour, to name two other examples of Musical Plays with Musical-Comedy scores, South Pacific manages it without scanting the emotional impact of their story or diluting the show’s message.
The team’s next masterpiece, The King and I, is best known to the general public for its cute kids’ songs like “Getting to Know You”, but it 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. Especially impressive are two elaborate musical monologues in the vein of Carousel’s “Soliloquy” for the show’s two main characters. “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You” perfectly sums up the show’s comparatively progressive English heroine’s ambivalence toward her conflicts with, and subconscious attraction to, the King of Siam, while the King himself receives an introspective solo called “A Puzzlement”, which lays out his own internal conflicts and makes him much more than the simplistic sexist tyrant he initially seems to be.
The show really deserves better than to be seen as mere kiddie fare. To its credit, while some of its portrayals of the Far East seem slightly dated today (the song “Western People Funny” is a bit uncomfortable to listen to these days, and is not helped by never having been all that funny in the first place), I’ve always admired how it offers fair arguments for both sides of its colonialist conflict without clearly endorsing either stance. Yes, there are serious problems with forcing your way in and trying to rewrite another culture, but there are usually some equally big problems with how more “primitive” cultures treat people…especially women and/or the lower classes. It’s a complex issue with no easy answer, and the show acknowledges that. Anna “wins” in the end because that was what happened historically, but the ending plays as deeply ambivalent, with the audience actively uncomfortable with the final tableaux, even more so because they can’t support the alternative unreservedly either. And Anna is hardly portrayed as saintly…remember what she says in the crucial scene between her, the King, and Tuptim, when she’s supposed to be trying to talk the King down but instead tries to vindictively hurt him. She’s “civilized”, compassionate, and (comparatively) enlightened, but she’s also self-righteous, controlling and ideologically myopic…traits that are associated between her and colonialist England. Similarly, the King is responsible, intelligent and self-aware, but also arrogant, sexist and brutal, traits which are (both positively and negatively) associated with the regime he represents. It’s a very balanced perspective, which is exactly what ultimately makes the show so sad.
The real reason current audiences would feel uncomfortable at the show is that right now, many people (especially those of the “politically correct” ideological stripe) are actively afraid of ambivalence in theatre (or media in general), and The King and I is, by its nature, a study in ambivalence. It honestly seems as though a lot of people are afraid that if people aren’t told exactly what to think by their media, they might come to the “wrong” conclusion because of something they viewed. Letting the audience make up its own mind on what to think is not in vogue right now. This will pass, but until it does, some people will be very afraid of the uncomfortable truths this particular Rodgers and Hammerstein Musical brings to light. But shows that illuminate great truths about the human condition never really date…they just go through stages where people are afraid to hear what they have to say. And these stages always pass, because political trends come and go, but the truths about the human condition never change.
After The King and I, the team did three pleasant but ultimately disappointing shows in their declining years. Me and Juliet was originally conceived as a meditation on theatre itself, a kind of proto-A Chorus Line, but wound up as little more than a rip-off of the love triangle from Oklahoma! set backstage at a Broadway musical. Pipe Dream had the best score of the three, with such lovely and moving songs as “Ev’rybody’s Got a Home But Me”, “All At Once You Love Her”, and “The Next Time It Happens”, but its source material (John Steinbeck’s comic novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday) proved awkward to adapt to the stage…even though Steinbeck wrote the second novel in the series specifically to provide a more plot-driven source for the prospective musical, the show’s story was still too thin and uneventful to really work in the R&H musical model. It was also not a great fit for R&H’s family-friendly style…it’s still pretty clear in the musical that the show’s leading lady is supposed to be a prostitute, but that information is delivered in an insufferably coy manner that clashed with Steinbeck’s trademark earthy frankness, especially in one of the show’s weaker numbers, the euphemistic “The Happiest House on the Block”.
Flower Drum Song was a study in generational conflict and culture shock under a light-hearted veneer, and was designed so that serious, ambitious “Japanese” numbers abutted more contemporary and Pop-sounding “American” numbers. Unfortunately, while the “Japanese” numbers were often exquisite (particularly “You Are Beautiful”, “A Hundred Million Miracles”, “I Am Going to Like It Here” and “Love, Look Away”), the “American” numbers, apart from the hit tune “I Enjoy Being a Girl”, are nowhere near as interesting or memorable, which throws the show off balance.
Still, the original show deserved better than the godawful rewrite by David Henry Hwang that is the only available licensed version today. There were admittedly some jokes in the original book that had not aged well by the Nineties, but the show needed a few dialogue rewrites, not an entirely new plot, especially not one as idiotic as the one Hwang supplied. Hwang decided to merge the characters of the patriarchal, conservative father and the small-time gangster/nightclub owner who serves as the romantic rival into one character, which is every bit as stupid and ridiculous as it sounds. His script doesn’t even have the excuse of being politically correct anymore, since he included a stereotypical gay character among his many unnecessary additions to the show. Unfortunately, the current owners of the rights to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows will whore out their material for wholesale desecration to anyone who hands them a dollar bill, and this isn’t even the worst perversion of their work to result from that state of affairs.
After these shows, R&H would of course manage 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 a later chapter.
I do, however, want to note one particular number from Me and Juliet, because it illustrates a point that many of my readers may want to take to heart. As I stated, Me and Juliet never really fulfilled its ambitions of being a serious treatise on the art of theatre, but it did have a couple of numbers where its original concept shone through, namely “The Big Black Giant” (a touching and thought-provoking meditation on the relationship between performers and their audience), and the second-act opening, “Intermission Talk”. This number is essentially a stern response to, and satirical takedown of, the people who were claiming at the time that “the theatre was dead”. That’s right…in the Fifties, the supposed peak of the theatre snobs’ imaginary “Golden Age”, there were already enough people making that claim that Rodgers and Hammerstein devoted a whole song to the subject.
There were several attempts to capture the Rodgers and Hammerstein zeitgeist by other authors, but none of them have really lasted. Harold Rome, the composer of Pins and Needles, was responsible for two of the more prominent ones, the Pagnol adaptation Fanny and the Musical Western Destry Rides Again. The former featured former R&H stalwarts William Tabbert, Ezio Pinza, and Florence Henderson in an adaptation of a trilogy of Pagnol plays. The score was certainly intense enough for an R&H Musical Play (Hammerstein had actually wanted the team to adapt it themselves), but it was strangely lacking in memorable melodies, and alternated between cloying cliche (“Welcome Home”, “To My Wife”, “Be Kind to Your Parents”) and blustering melodrama (“Restless Heart”, “I Have To Tell You”, “The Thought of You”). It also featured a couple of spectacular clinkers in “The Octopus Song” and “Shika, Shika”. This, combined with a book that tried much too hard to make a serious story funny, seems to have doomed it to the scrapheap after its initial success.
Destry Rides Again had a somewhat better score, with Dolores Gray’s numbers as the leading lady being particularly good, but rest of the score still indulges in a lot of Fifties corn and schmaltz that hasn’t aged especially well. Also, for all the yodeling, self-consciously Western refrains in the Destry score, the ambience of the Western frontier had been captured much better almost a decade earlier in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon.
This show has fallen into somewhat ill repute due to its unfortunate movie version, but since that movie has virtually nothing in common with the stage show beyond about half of their songs and the names of two of the characters, we’ll ignore it altogether, at least for the time being. In any case, the original stage show achieves its authentic Western atmosphere by alternating between the two prevailing moods of that ambiance, raucous joy and wistful lyricism. The first category is conveyed in four of the most thrilling choral numbers in Broadway history, “I’m On My Way”, “Whoop-Ti-Yay!”, “There’s a Coach Comin’ In”, and “Hand Me Down That Can of Beans”, as well as in two delightful comedy numbers, “What’s Goin’ On Here” and “In Between”, that manage to be ribald and innocent at the same time. (Neither of these made it into the movie, as they would not have fit in with the film’s much more overtly raunchy sense of humor, which was frankly one of its many problems).
Balancing out this exuberance is a series of lyrical ballads about the beauty and loneliness of the frontier wilderness. Three of these, “I Talk to the Trees”, “They Call the Wind Maria”, and “Wand’rin’ Star” have become widely recognizable standards, but the more obscure “I Still See Elisa” and “Another Autumn” are every bit as beautiful. It tells you something about how well the authors captured the Folk idiom that “They Call the Wind Maria” became one of the signature numbers of one of the inaugural groups of the Sixties Folk revival, The Kingston Trio.
There was, of course, a narrative in the show as well, but it was of lesser importance: this was very much an atmosphere show, and the story was less important than the spell cast by the music and dances. This may seem odd, given that Lerner and Loewe would later be known as pioneers of the content-rich, intellectual Broadway musical, but their style wouldn’t change until a few years later with the success of My Fair Lady. We’ll get to that.
Probably the most blatant of the Rodgers and Hammerstein derivant, however, was the Musical version of Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was transparently trying to be Carousel without the supernatural elements. This becomes especially obvious if you look at the source material, which was primarily a coming-of-age story about Smith’s author avatar Francie. The musical rewrites the plot to put almost all the focus on Francie’s parents, well-meaning wastrel Johnny and long-suffering Katie, who are essentially retreads of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan in this adaptation. Even the score is blatantly derivative of Carousel, with almost every song corresponding to a number in the earlier show. The beautiful ballads “Make the Man Love Me” and “I’ll Buy You a Star” are the show’s “If I Loved You” and “Soliloquy”, respectively. “Love is the Reason” corresponds to “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”, “He Had Refinement” to “Mister Snow”, “Is That My Prince?” to “Geraniums in the Winder”, “Don’t Be Afraid of Anything” to “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, and the fatalistic Folk song “That’s How It Goes” to “Stonecutters Cut It On Stone”. None of these imitations are badly done by any means…the score to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is actually one of the best of its decade…but I imagine the show’s failure had something to do with the fact that we already had a Carousel.
Meanwhile, two massively successful works built on the innovations of On the Town to create a kind of hybrid between the frivolity of Musical Comedy and the stylistic consistency and dramatic cogency pioneered by the Musical Play. The first, Annie Get Your Gun, has fallen under something of a cloud in modern times because of its treatment of Native Americans, which was actually fairly progressive in a subversive way at the time it was written…note that Chief Sitting Bull is the show’s only intelligent character in a cast otherwise composed of white buffoons. But most modern audiences can’t look past the pidgin English in which the character speaks, even though it’s subtly suggested that this style of speech may be just another ploy to get the white characters to underestimate him.
Then, of course, there’s the song “I’m an Indian Too”. This song is cut from nearly every modern production and is today regarded by many as an offensive caricature almost on the level of the Minstrel-Show “coon songs”, only aimed at another minority. But while there are certain undeniable pressures to not perform it anymore, its negative reputation, like most politically correct overreactions, is something of an oversimplified exaggeration. Unlike the numbers for the “Indians” in Peter Pan, which were completely innocent and unironic and thus are much more uncomfortable to watch today, this song was already intended as a tongue-in-cheek sendup of stereotypes when it was written. Remember that the proudly ignorant and dangerously naive Annie has no real knowledge or understanding of what Native American culture really entails, so she substitutes a laundry list of cliche cultural trappings associated with them…and from the very beginning, that was intended to be the joke. (There’s also the perceived sexism of its she-stoops-to-conquer ending, but that can be fixed without changing a single line if the actor playing Frank can convey that he realizes Annie lost their final shooting match on purpose).
Nonetheless, nothing has been able to completely destroy its perception as a classic, due to a combination of a colorful setting, two extremely strong lead characters, and Irving Berlin’s best theatre score. The relationship dynamic between Frank Butler and Annie Oakley was so compelling that twenty years later, shows like Wildcat and The Unsinkable Molly Brown were essentially recycling its central conflict in their own love plots. The trope of the straightforward, easily contented male with a fragile ego set against the defiant, brassy tomboy with ambitions to be more than she already is would become a such a defining influence in Musical Comedy romantic entanglements that today it almost comes across as a cliche, but this show is where it really started.
Berlin attempted a mild Country sound in places, particularly on the ribald ode to ignorance “Doin’ What Comes Naturally”, the comic lament “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun”, and the tongue-in-cheek Pop tune “Moonshine Lullaby”, but he mostly relied on the characters’ inflections to create the illusion of a setting-appropriate sound. He also indulged in one moment of old-fashioned “we have this great song, and we’re gonna sing it whether it makes any sense or not” mentality in the unforgettable, but nonetheless completely irrelevant to the story, “I Got the Sun in the Mornin’ (and the moon at night)”.
But this is nonetheless one of theater’s finest scores, featuring Berlin’s almost Schubertian gift for melody along with a greater degree of dramatic integration than any previous Berlin score. This is the show that gave us the all-time definitive showbiz anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, the breathtaking ballad “They Say Its Wonderful”, and the challenge duet to end all challenge duets, “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”, among many other indelibly famous songs.
Guys and Dolls, based on the stories of quintessential New York writer Damon Runyan, built on these same innovations, but added a symmetry of plot construction and general 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. This, combined with a genuine Runyanesque sensibility in the dialogue (courtesy of Abe Burrows, who would go on to become one of Broadway’s most famous librettists) and one of those scores where every single number is absolutely amazing in its own right (a rare feat even among the classics), make this one of Broadway’s most brightly polished gems.
The score is right up there with South Pacific and My Fair Lady in terms of consistency: even most of the classic titles of the Forties and Fifties had at least one song that wasn’t up to standard (e.g. Oklahoma’s “It’s a Scandal, It’s an Outrage” or Gypsy’s “Mr. Goldstone”), but there isn’t a single song in Guys and Dolls‘ original stage score that is anything less than superb. It features one of the biggest Pop hits of the era, “A Bushel and a Peck”, an unforgettable hit love ballad in “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”, one of Broadway’s funniest comedy numbers, “Adelaide’s Lament”, and one of the most epic eleven-o’clock showstoppers of all time in “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”. The intense gambler’s prayer “Luck Be a Lady” would become one of Frank Sinatra’s signature songs, even if he didn’t get to sing it in the movie version due to Samuel Goldwyn’s frankly bizarre decision to cast Sinatra as the comic Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando of all people as the romantic leading man Sky Masterson.
That movie is really a testament to how strong Guys and Dolls‘ book is simply as a play. Brando acted the part of Sky beautifully, but his singing could be charitably described as “unfortunate”. Five of the stage songs were cut (including one that was incredibly key to the plot, the female leads’ personal resolution “Marry the Man Today”), and three fairly uninteresting new songs were added in their place. Several awkward attempts were made to build up Nathan’s singing part for Sinatra, since in the stage version Nathan hardly sings at all. Really, the only numbers to survive completely unscathed in the movie were “Adelaide’s Lament” (which they wisely kept as a straightforward soliloquy delivered directly to the camera), and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” (in one of the better casting decisions, both Stubby Kaye as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Viviane Blaine as Adelaide were retained for the film). But in spite of all this, the film is still a minor classic based purely on the cleverness of the script and the quality of the actors’ delivery. Even among the classic musicals of that era, few could have survived being stripped of their musical splendor, but Guys and Dolls is clearly that rare exception.
The first two numbers Guys and Dolls are particularly fascinating: “Runyonland”, a choreographed comedic sequence in mime set to an overture-like medley of tunes from the show, and “Fugue for Tinhorns”, a three-part counterpoint piece built out of three gamblers talking about which horse they plan to bet on. Also pushing the boundaries of what a Musical Comedy ‘song’ should entail was “My Time of Day”, a kind of vocal tone poem in Jazz painting a haunting picture of the deserted New York streets in the wee hours of the morning. These numbers sound so natural that few people noticed how unconventional and daring they really were, but they unobtrusively broke ground for future Musical Comedies to employ more sophisticated song models.
The Pajama Game, written by two of Loesser’s personal proteges, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, was even more Pop-friendly in its sound. Even in those days when most of Pop music was just poppier rearrangements of songs from Broadway musicals, this score must have sounded almost like Stephen Schwartz’s work does today…as a harnessing of blatantly Pop-based sounds to serve a conventional Musical-Theatre narrative.
This might be one of the reasons The Pajama Game is one of the few top-level classics from before the 1970s that is occasionally dismissed because of its lack of dramatic pretension, much like some modern classics like The Producers are today. Despite a tongue-in-cheek joke that it makes in its first scene, this wasn’t an ambitious drama with serious themes like the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, nor was it even a more subtly ambitious stylistic tour-de-force like Guys and Dolls. It was, essentially, just a standard potboiler musical comedy of the period, albeit one that has transcended potboiler status by proving to be perennially popular in the long term.
That said, the book is not the primary reason for this continued success, and in fact has done more to hamper it over the years. It’s still funny in a trashy sort of way, and it provides some memorably colorful and likable characters, including a genuinely compelling leading man who masks his deep insecurities with false bravado and provided a marvelous opportunity to the show’s original star, John Raitt. Even so, the book has also dated severely in a number of ways. Not only has the show’s setting…labor vs. management at a pajama factory complicated by a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance…consigned it to being played as a period piece, since business practices have altered out of recognition multiple times since then, but its sexual politics have a very Fifties feel to them, and several scenes can admittedly feel a little uncomfortable to modern audiences.
What makes the show a classic is the two things musical comedy lives for…the songs and the dances. The choreography was Bob Fosse’s first work for Broadway and remains some of his most iconic even today, especially the sexy trio number “Steam Heat” and the mock tango “Hernando’s Hideaway”. In addition to Fosse’s contribution, the show’s other claim to fame is the score, which, while it may never reach the heights achieved by the top-level Broadway classics, is notable for its sheer degree of consistency and enjoyment value. While Adler and Ross would go on to score one more hit (Damn Yankees) and Adler would write three more shows after Ross’ death (including the beloved cult flop Kwamina), neither of them would ever write anything this good again (it helps that a couple of the songs have some co-writing contributions from the team’s aforementioned mentor, Frank Loesser).
The melodies sparkle, especially on the immortal ballad “Hey There”, the lilting waltz “I’m Not At All In Love”, the driving Country-flavored showstopper “There Once Was a Man”, and the pop-tango sound of “Hernando’s Hideaway”. As for the lyrics, they are frequently superb, especially on the numbers for Hines, the show’s comic relief figure, such as the riotously risque “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” or the gloriously absurd “Think of the Time I Save”. Even the songs added for later revivals are uniformly delightful, with “The World Around Us”, “The Three of Us”, and “If You Win, You Lose” basically living up to the level of the original score (“The World Around Us” was actually written for the original production and was even present in the show on opening night, but it was cut immediately thereafter and not used again until much later revivals). Hell, even the song Adler and Ross wrote to be added to the movie version, “The Man Who Invented Love”, which wound up being cut at the last minute, became surprisingly popular in its own right, with Doris Day’s rendition even making it onto at least one of her greatest hits albums…not at all bad for a cut song from a musical.
This score is unambitious, unashamedly pop-friendly, at times blatantly derivative (I’m not the first person to notice how much “A New Town Is a Blue Town” sounds like “Lonely Town” from On the Town in both music and lyrics), and one of the finest scores of the 1950s. I have to acknowledge that most of the musical-theater classics that have shown this level of endurance are actually more artistically interesting than this one, but I also have to acknowledge that precious few of them are as much fun to see or hear.
But probably the most direct successor to On the Town‘s legacy (given that it had virtually the same creative team as that work) was Wonderful Town. The difference between the two shows is that, while On the Town had been both wildly exuberant and, in its own subtle way, deeply moving, it had only intermittently been funny. Wonderful Town was far less ambitious and certainly less moving than its predecessor, but it contains some of the funniest comedy numbers in Broadway history.
The casting of non-singing actress Rosalind Russell in the lead somewhat limited the show’s musical palette, although there were two very beautiful ballads for the supporting characters, the giddy “A Little Bit in Love” and the touching “A Quiet Girl”. But Comden and Green’s lyrics here are unmatched by any other score in their oeuvre, except perhaps On the Twentieth Century. Numbers like “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” (a dazzling comic lament about men being actively turned off by women who are smarter than them), “What a Waste” (a ruefully funny account of artists’ failed careers in the brutal competition that is New York), “Conversation Piece” (a musical scene perfectly capturing what it’s like to be on a date and realize that you and your companion have absolutely nothing to talk about), and “Conga!” (a riotous dance sequence that just keeps getting more and more out of control as it goes on) represent some of the best work of the team’s career.
Even the music itself contributes to the comedy, as on “Swing!”, a deadpan parody of a Fats Waller-esque Jazz cooker that suddenly turns into a real one as Russell’s character finds her inner hepcat, or the oddly irresistible musical novelty “Wrong Note Rag”. One could argue that Wonderful Town and Comden and Green’s later follow-up piece in the same vein Bells Are Ringing (with composer Jule Styne) are really Thirties Musical Comedies in a Fifties disguise, with their improbable (a less charitable critic might say “absurd”) plots and lack of dramatic substance, but at least they took note of the form’s innovations in character writing during that interim.
Two other shows built on the fable-like structure and supernatural elements of Cabin in the Sky, becoming in the process the two archetypical Broadway fantasies. The first, Finian’s Rainbow, was in a sense a sort of follow-up to The Wizard of Oz. It may have been a stage musical rather than a film, but it was written by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, the genius-level lyricist who had wound up as The Wizard of Oz’s primary textual auteur, and it was another fantastical fable built around a heavily implied statement about the American experience.
The thing that separates Finian from both Wizard of Oz and Cabin in the Sky, however, is that it is a satirical fantasy, with a message that was actually fairly subversive for the time. In this sense, it draws as much from the Gershwins’ Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque collaborations with George S. Kaufmann (such as Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake) as it does on Cabin in the Sky’s Folk fantasy or The Wizard of Oz’s homespun allegory.
Accordingly, the score mixes lyrical, folklike ballads (“How Are Things in Glocca Morra”, “Look to the Rainbow”, “Old Devil Moon”) that would not have been out of place in Cabin in the Sky, and playful expressions of pure whimsy (“If This Isn’t Love”, “Something Sort of Grandish”, “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love”) straight out of The Wizard of Oz, side by side with wickedly funny social commentary (“That Great Come-and-Get-It Day”, “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich”, the subversive mock-Gospel number “The Begat”).
The show takes on racism, government corruption and the oppression of the poor by the rich, which makes it rather surprising that it is yet another classic show currently under fire from the political correctness crowd. This is partly because, for all its satire of capitalism, it ultimately approves of the system, but mostly because the racist senator who serves as the show’s villain is temporarily turned into a Black man in order to show him how it feels to bear the brunt of racism. It’s perfectly possible to do this without putting the actor in blackface (all you need is a Black actor as a double and some creative staging to “magically” substitute one for the other), but the very concept itself seems to make the PC types uncomfortable, for reasons that frankly don’t make a lot of sense.
Harburg would later attempt an even more whimsical follow-up to Finian’s Rainbow, a satire of McCarthyism and big business with singing puppets, a laughing doll and a Genie entitled Flahooley! Unfortunately, this one did much less well commercially. Part of this could possibly be chalked up to a somewhat more uneven score. Granted, the tunes were pretty much the best Sammy Fain had ever composed (certainly better than his work on Ankles Aweigh or the Disney Peter Pan movie), and the ballads and charm songs (“Here’s To Your Illusions”, “The World is Your Balloon”, “He’s Only Wonderful”, “The Springtime Cometh”) were every bit as good as those in Finian. But the satirical numbers, such as the opening “You Too Can Be a Puppet”, the ironic up-tune about economic issues “Jump Little Chillun”, or the villain song “Spirit of Capsulanti”, mostly just come off as strange, and not necessarily in a good way. But the real issue was that at that particular moment a big enough portion of Broadway audiences and critics still agreed with McCarthy’s tactics that they apparently didn’t want to see him publicly pilloried in a Broadway show (this was just after the Korean War had broken out…it would be years before Candide came out, let alone The Crucible).
Another example of the “contemporary” Musical Fantasy (albeit one with much less satirical bite) is the second hit for the team of Adler and Ross, Damn Yankees. Both of Adler and Ross’ hits were masterminded by director George Abbott, who had been the dean of old-style Musical Comedy but was becoming increasingly irrelevant in this new era. Granted, as we’ve previously discussed, The Pajama Game managed to transcend its potboiler beginnings and emerge as a genuine classic.
Damn Yankees, however, did not achieve this feat…its score left behind a few still-recognizable semi-standards, but there’s a reason no-one really performs it anymore. On paper, it had a much more interesting story than The Pajama Game…a middle-aged man makes a deal with the Devil (here going by the name of Mr. Applegate) in order to enable his favorite baseball team to win the Pennant, and is transformed into a young, unstoppably gifted baseball player. Despite the aid of Lola, a Satanic temptress who is sent to seduce him but instead falls in love with him, he very nearly loses his soul, but is ultimately saved by his genuine love for the wife he left behind.
Unfortunately, this colorful story was told by way of a cluttered, sloppily-written book that made it seem far more conventional and mundane than it actually was. And the score was much more uneven than that of The Pajama Game. There were gems, to be sure…the irresistible cheer-up ditty “You’ve Gotta Have Heart” was a massive hit for a reason. And Lola’s signature numbers “A Little Brains, a Little Talent” and “Whatever Lola Wants” represent some of the best Musical Comedy writing of their time, as does Applegate’s deadpan villain song “Those Were the Good Old Days”.
But the ballads were on the dull side, with “A Man Doesn’t Know” in particular being stiffer and more stilted than any Operetta ballad. This impression was only enhanced by the casting of Stephen Douglas as Joe’s younger self…Douglas, a popular leading man of the era, had a fine voice but was so stodgy that he made Nelson Eddy look like Carol Channing. Even worse, Bob Fosse’s two big dance numbers, while splendid as choreography, were attached to some of the weakest songs he would ever be offered, with “Who’s Got the Pain?” in particular ranking as one of the worst songs to be found in any enduring hit musical. Damn Yankees serves as a good reminder that even many of the canonized classics of the so-called “Golden Age” are not really as perfect as some people like to remember.
The other great fantasy show of this era was Brigadoon, the first top-shelf masterpiece by the team of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe. This show is essentially a Mass with a plot, like Bach’s sacred Oratorios such as The Passion of St. Matthew. It tells the story of a miracle, and in its sacred atmosphere and solemn, ritualistic dance sequences, it really does resemble a kind of religious service: even its love songs have a hymn-like feel to them. Indeed, one of the first lines of the show is “There’s something about this forest that gives me the feeling of being in a cathedral”. The hero’s best friend, a hard-drinking, wise-cracking pessimist, serves as the voice of the hero’s doubts and ingrained cynicism, in a device that is as old as the medieval morality play but somehow timeless in its effectiveness.
The often ravishing score was instrumental in creating this atmosphere, with lilting Gaelic-flavored ballads like “The Heather on the Hill”, “Come To Me, Bend To Me”, and “There But For You Go I” and a breathtaking chorale of a title-song. Two bawdy showstoppers for the female comic part help to provide a sense of contrast and keep things from getting too weighty. The score even managed to produce a massive hit tune, the delicately jazzy “Almost Like Being in Love”, which became one of Frank Sinatra’s all-time signature songs.
It’s been pointed out that Brigadoon’s plot bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the novel and film Lost Horizon, both in its basic premise and in the overall structure of its plot. But Brigadoon has far more emotional weight and impact than the campy, dated and somewhat pretentious Lost Horizon. And certainly, the two attempts to musicalize the Lost Horizon property, Harry Warren’s short-lived Fifties stage musical Shangri-La and Burt Bacharach’s disastrous musical film version from the Seventies, both turned out infinitely inferior to Brigadoon, so if you really must think of it as a rip-off of Lost Horizon (which is as short-sighted as calling The Yeomen of the Guard a rip-off of Maritana), think of it as the great musical version that franchise never got.
Unfortunately, Brigadoon’s reputation has long been marred by the mediocre movie version. For one thing, the score is vastly cut to make room for extraneous choreography, but even with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse doing the dancing, the results were never interesting enough to justify the loss of “Come to Me, Bend to Me”, “There But For You Go I”, “From This Day On”, or “My Mother’s Wedding Day”. For another thing, Gene Kelly is a wonderful dancer and a winning actor, but his singing voice, while suitable for his usual Musical-Comedy roles, isn’t up to this kind of Operetta-caliber music, and he ruins much of the remaining score. Cyd Charisse had her singing dubbed here by a reasonably pretty-voiced studio ringer, but she comes across as uncomfortably modern and sophisticated for a role that is supposed to be a sheltered Scottish country lass. The movie was also very obviously filmed on a studio back lot, which sabotages the rich atmosphere of the Scottish hills the stage show captured: if this story had to be filmed at all, it should have been shot on location.
The only thing the movie seems to have done right is casting Van Johnson, who does a potent job as the resident voice of cynicism. But making the cynic who is supposed to be proven wrong by the story more compelling than any other element is arguably even worse for the film’s intended message. In addition, the villainous Harry Beaton, who is supposed to be the symbolic embodiment of bitterness, self-pity and spite, (in other words, the Devil in the show’s religious construction…even the song about him sounds like the Dies Irae portion of a Requiem), comes off in the movie more like a voice of reason with a perfect legitimate and understandable grievance against The Miracle. In the stage show, Beaton is supposed to be a cautionary example of people who dwell so deeply on the things they can’t have that they come to hate themselves and everyone else, and while we are supposed to feel a certain measure of pity for him, he’s certainly not intended to offer any valid insights.
Worst of all, with all the religious atmosphere stripped away, audiences are naturally going to interpret the film’s plot as a fantasy that is meant to be taken more or less literally, like Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. And the show cannot survive that treatment, as once the story is treated as a literal event a myriad of logical flaws immediately crop up that make it completely implausible, even as fantasy.
Of all the fantastical Folk fables to follow in Cabin in the Sky‘s footsteps, however, the most authentically folksy of all was Sing Out, Sweet Land!, a Forties flop where the score quite literally consisted largely of actual Folk standards. It starred legendary leading man Alfred Drake: he would do a series of failed musicals between his roles in Oklahoma! and Kiss Me, Kate, but this was easily the most interesting of them. He played a wandering singer cursed with immortality by a vindictive Puritan parson who disapproved of his love of music and dancing. The cast also included the great Folk singer Burl Ives, who had, after all, gotten his start as a Broadway performer, and seemed to be returning to pay his dues to the two forms of music he loved together.
The picaresque plot took us throughout American history, from the Civil War to World War II, and the music varied from Folk chestnuts like “The Blue Tail Fly” to Black spirituals and blues songs and even a couple of Great American Songbook standards. Only three of the songs were originals, but those three songs were as memorable as the classics they stood beside, especially the finale, “More Than These”, an inspirational ode to America and America’s music that offered a message of hope for the country in the middle of the still-raging second World War.
The Theatermania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings (which is possibly the most useless “guide” to audio recordings ever published) disparaged and dismissed this show’s cast recording, saying it would be “of very little interest” to fans of Broadway musicals. But frankly, if Musical Theatre listeners are too ignorant to appreciate seminal Folk classics like the songs heard in this show, then I am ashamed of them.
Perhaps the most important remaining show of the Forties (though admittedly not the most successful or popular) was Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars. This show’s great achievement was being the first “Concept Musical” in the modern sense to be an unqualified artistic success. The two earlier examples of the form, the aforementioned Allegro and Weill’s own Love Life were deeply flawed, but this show, while too esoteric to have ever been a smash hit, is damned near flawless as a composition.
The reason becomes obvious when you examine the show stylistically. Allegro and Love Life, generally speaking, fell short of their goals because of the parts of them that were beholden to traditional Musical Theatre…the humor, the conventional storytelling, the tired character archetypes. This show, on the other hand, bears no resemblance to any other musical of its time beyond the fact that it is a stage drama with songs. There is no comedy, no dancing, and no attempt at sex appeal: the closest the show ever comes is the sleazy nightclub number “Who’ll Buy (my juicy rutabagas)”, but it is written to come across as more disturbing than funny or sexy, much like “Lovely Ladies” in Les Miserables decades later.
The show, based on the beloved South African novel Cry, the Beloved Country, tells of a Black Anglican preacher in a small South African town who journeys to Johannesburg in search of his estranged son, only to find that son has accidentally killed a man in the course of a robbery. It has a book and lyrics by the great playwright Maxwell Anderson, who had already written a sort of political Comic Operetta in the Of Thee I Sing vein with Weill in the Thirties. That show, Knickerbocker Holiday, was much stranger than anyone seemed to notice at the time, but frankly it looks positively conventional next to Lost in the Stars.
Even the distribution of the songs is highly unusual for a musical. The central character of Stephen Kumalo has four major songs, of which two (the poetic “Thousands of Miles” and the warmly inviting “The Little Gray House”) are gentle and loving ballads and the other two (the cosmically despairing title-song and the Carousel-esque freeform soliloquy “Oh, Tixo, Tixo, Help Me”) are anguished cries of confusion and desperation.
But apart from two torch ballads for the son’s girlfriend, “Trouble Man” and “Stay Well”, the rest of the songs are mostly the Greek Chorus’ commentary on the action: their keening laments for their nation’s tragedy in “The Hills of Ixopo” and “Cry, the Beloved Country”; their analysis of the dark side of human nature in “Fear” and “The Wild Justice”; the sublimely lyrical closing number “A Bird of Passage”; and what must be the scariest “Train song” in all of Musical Theatre, “Train to Johannesburg”. It actually features vocalists imitating the sound of a moving train, but with hair-raising music and lyrics that chant a prophecy of doom.
This Musical, tragic as it is, features one of the most inspiring endings of all time, as two men, one a white former racist whose son was murdered, and one a Black man whose own son is about to be hanged for that murder, make their peace with each other and say, “I have a friend”. It is a very idealistic ending, and some have taken issue with it because of that (the author of show’s source novel famously hated the musical and its ending in particular), but it is a shining beacon of exactly the kind of love and forgiveness Nelson Mandela himself preached, so it’s hard to fathom where the objections come from.
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