The ‘revolution’ that the Musical experienced in the 1940s is generally credited almost entirely to Oklahoma!, but can really be traced to the innovations of no less than ten genre-busting stage and film musicals, of which Oklahoma! is but one (interestingly, four of these ten works have music by the same composer…but more on that later).
The first of these shows is arguably the greatest Broadway Musical of all time, Porgy and Bess. It appeared a little earlier than the others (1935), but took a few years to be fully appreciated by either critics or public, so its effect on Broadway’s future really kicked in around the same time as the others.
This is the show which introduced to Broadway an entirely new format, the Pop Opera, which took the sounds of the mainstream popular music in the ages of Jazz and Rock and elevated them to operatic intensity and ambition in a through-sung theater piece. Yes, those Rock- and Pop-flavored Broadway neo-operas that the critics love to hate are really just following in the footsteps of one of the most acclaimed shows of all time.
The show deals with one of the central tragedies of the human existence: the fact that love does not, in fact, conquer all. The two main characters…a desperately lonely cripple and the debased lover/slave of an abusive local brute…find solace in a love as real and deep as any you could ever hope to find, and yet circumstances still manage to tear them apart. It is also significant in that it deals almost exclusively with Black characters (the only whites in the show are non-singing walk-on parts), but it tells of a simple local tragedy in a rural community not especially different from the Italian verismo Operas. The reason the characters had to be Black has nothing to do with the story and everything to do with the music, which was designed to elevate traditional Black musical idioms to Operatic heights and breadths.
Gershwin blended the sounds of Classical music with those of Jazz, Blues, Spirituals, and Tin Pan Alley Pop songwriting to create one of the most sophisticated scores ever written for either Opera or Broadway. In terms of the score, Porgy and Bess contains two kinds of songs (or arias, if you prefer the term): the kind that are so famous that virtually everyone is familiar with them, and the kind that aren’t but should be. Surprisingly, the former category includes several songs that wear their Operatic ambitions quite openly, including the achingly beautiful duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, what is probably the saddest Torch Song of all time, “My Man’s Gone Now”, and above all the exquisite lullaby “Summertime”, which presents a sublime fusion of Blues harmonies with Classical lyricism.
In a more conventional “Jazz standard” vein, we have such staples as the profane anti-sermon “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, the seductive strut “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York”, and the wryly cynical “A Woman is a Sometime Thing”. The latter is, in terms of lyrical content, a Jazz version of Verdi’s famous aria “La Donne Mobile”, even retaining the implicit double meaning of “women are fickle” and “women are replaceable”.
But arguably the very greatest highlight of the score is the indescribably joyful up-tune “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’”. Some people who like to reduce everything to their pet political causes have acted snide about the idea of a Black character saying “Nuttin’ was plenty for (him)”, but the philosophy this song actually presents is closer to a Folk version of Zen Buddhism. It’s worth noting that the original Porgy himself, Todd Duncan, who was a College professor at the time and initially thought performing in a musical was beneath him, was in tears when he heard this song and said it was the point at which he knew he had to do the show.
The other half of the songs…the overlooked gems in the score…are every bit as wonderful as the hits; this is not a score with filler in it, even in the expanded Operatic editions that restore all the material cut from the original production. Many of them are just too embedded in the action to easily extract, but some just seem to have been inexplicably overlooked by the public.
Among the most brightly polished of these “hidden gems” are Porgy’s establishing soliloquy “They Pass By Singin’” and his defiant cry of freedom “The Buzzard Song”; Bess’s heartbreaking attempt at resistance when her former lover Crown tries to reclaim her, “What You Want Wid Bess”; the second, more dramatically intense duet for the leads, “I Loves You, Porgy”, as she begs him to protect her from both Crown and herself; the aching trio “Bess, Oh, Where’s My Bess” when Porgy returns to find her gone; the haunting, unearthly musical prayer “Oh, Doctor Jesus”; two thrilling gospel ensembles, “Overflow” and “Leavin’ For the Promised Land”; and a gorgeous, layered “Requiem” mourning those killed in a hurricane. The show even features what is probably the first ever use of what we would now call “Rap” in a theatre score, in the vicious diatribe “I Hates Your Struttin’ Style”.
The show also features one of the most exquisite handlings of a tragic ending ever seen on the stage. We know all too well that Porgy doesn’t have a chance of making it to New York alive, and that even if he did it wouldn’t make any difference, but his quixotic refusal to give up hope and his determination to try anyway adds a deeper dimension to the tragedy, and makes his closing anthem “Oh, Lawd, I’m On My Way” one of the most moving final numbers in any Musical Theatre piece, Opera or Musical.
The work that really got this revolution off the ground was the genre-defying fantasy classic The Wizard of Oz, which did for the Movie Musical what Oklahoma! and its ilk did for the stage musical. Indeed, just about the only thing you could say had a visible influence on this piece was the Laurel and Hardy Babes in Toyland, which in retrospect seems almost like a dry run for this world-changing cinematic landmark’s achievements.
The Wizard of Oz was not remotely beholden in any way to the genres that straightjacketed both stage and film musicals at the time, but it was, among many other things, a musical. Indeed, it had more music than the vast majority of film musicals at the time, with a total of twelve distinct numbers (thirteen if you count “The Jitterbug”, cut from the film because the producers feared it would serve to date what they already foresaw would be an immortal classic).
Harold Arlen wrote probably the single most indelible melody of his already illustrious career for the film’s legendary hit tune “Over the Rainbow”, and Yip Harburg’s dazzling lyrics on such songs as “If I Only Had a Brain” and its subsequent variants reportedly set the writing style for the whole film, with the script simply echoing Harburg’s idiom.
There is one set-piece showstopper (“If I Were King of the Forest”), and one largely extraneous musical sequence that exists mainly to show off the film’s visuals (“In the Merry Old Land of Oz”), but the rest of the score is as integrated as any musical, stage or film, had ever been up to that point. Apart from “Over the Rainbow”, none of the other songs would make sense outside the context of the film, and have only managed to become popular hits because the film is so galactically famous that anyone likely to hear them already knows the story.
Even the performing legends that make up most of the cast are almost universally agreed to have given their greatest performances in this film. Judy Garland gave the most touching performance of her career here, and became so iconically associated with the film that in later years she actually came to find it annoying (hence her famous quote on the subject, “I’m up to my ass in rainbows”). Famed dancer Ray Bolger outshone any of his great Broadway performances as the film’s Scarecrow, and Bert Lahr, arguably the greatest comic actor of his age, received his definitive showcase as the Cowardly Lion. Margaret Hamilton’s performance as the Wicked Witch of the West has been so widely parodied by now that it’s easy to forget how terrifying it still is when you actually see it.
In addition to practically inventing the Hollywood fantasy genre and having a heavy impact on pretty much every family movie ever made, it opened up the possibility for a musical movie to strive for more than the stereotypical clichés that had become associated with the genre.
Also, the year before The Wizard of Oz, another groundbreaking film that happened to use music, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was released. It’s not really all that different from the live action musicals of the era in some ways…Snow White is quite clearly an Operetta heroine, from her yearning romantic ballad “Someday My Prince Will Come” to her cheery production number “Whistle While You Work”, and her Prince is the stodgiest romantic hero yet seen. But the film’s comedy relief is vastly funnier and more charming than any Operetta up to this point, and the comic characters and songs, along with the terrifying villain, are what gave it a wholly unique style. This is the film that inaugurated the Animated Musical, a genre that would prove increasingly important in later years (particularly the Nineties, when it would be almost the only kind of film musical being made), and it forged a perennial link between animated feature films and musicals that is still in evidence today.
The next of these revolutionary works to actually appear on a Broadway stage 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 popularization of the Folk idiom on Broadway.
The second stage show in this sequence, 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. Only one of the show’s songs, “My Ship” was actually incorporated into the book scenes, and it repurposed the hoary old Operetta device of the “unfinished melody” (which dates as far back as Naughty Marietta) as a metaphor for the self-knowledge and self-acceptance that is the primary goal of psychotherapy, thus showing how even the most outdated clichés could be reinvented to serve the most modern purposes.
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’s score broke pretty much every rule in the Musical Theater handbook at the time, presaging the techniques of Rodgers and Hammerstein by featuring extended musical scenes rather than self-contained songs. Its innovations go beyond that, however…it also 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 show’s elaborate and surreal musical scenes even managed to somehow produce an enduring hit song, “The Saga of Jenny”.
Interestingly, the premise of Lady in the Dark is almost exactly the same as that of the cult Musical television show of the 2010s, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend…the story of a cripplingly neurotic career woman trying to sort out her issues amid conflicting romantic entanglements, punctuated by dream-sequence musical numbers. There are some dull stretches, particularly in the first act, but it’s impressive that even after all the years that have passed and all the shows it’s influenced, Lady in the Dark still seems genuinely strange. Its structure, format, and musical and dramatic content were clearly just as shocking and puzzling to the audience at the 2019 City Center production I attended as they were to Forties audiences.
The next major agent of change on Broadway, 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 sociopathic central character and be far franker about sexual matters than any Broadway show before it, trading the coy innuendo of traditonal Broadway for an (at the time) appalling bluntness. 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 former 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. The other song to have hung on outside the show, “Zip”, a brutal satire of the blatantly superficial literary pretentions of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, is a good example. Lee was roughly the then-contemporary equivalent of modern “celebutantes” like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, and while I don’t normally see why some people seem to view Pop culture references from sixty-plus years ago as more of a sign of sophistication than contemporary Pop culture references, I will admit that “Zip” just might be the greatest takedown of a phony celebrity ever heard in a Broadway show.
Every character is the show, except for the utterly brainless dupe of an ingenue, is an absolutely awful human being (although Vera, the wealthy, sex-starved married woman who “keeps” Joey, seems slightly less so today in light of changing cultural norms), and Joey is the most awful of all. While a pre-Hollywood Gene Kelly in the original production gave the character an enormous amount of charm, it still wasn’t enough to disguise what a scumbag this character was. But of course, that didn’t need to be disguised…it was the entire point of the show. Indeed, director George Abbott, in a rare stand against convention, insisted on throwing out the original “happy” ending, which was untrue to the inherently unwholesome nature of the story, in favor of a more flippant, cynical final curtain that was more suitable for the show’s spirit (although the show’s neutered film version reinstated that ending as part of its relentless effort to turn this sleazy black comedy into a traditional Hollywood romance). All of the Musical Theatre’s great satires, particularly How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Chicago, owe something to this pioneering work of ultra-cynical character writing.
Next in this sequence, we come to the much-vaunted Oklahoma!. While the perceived singleness of its role in the genre’s development is probably just a touch exaggerated, 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 to become enduring Great American songbook standards (the previous record for this, let’s remember, had been five songs per show).
While “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” was not, in fact, the first intimate solo ballad to open a Broadway show (hell, even Anything Goes had opened with “I Get a Kick Out of You”), it was still the most marvelously atmospheric opening number seen on Broadway until that point. Similarly, “Laurie Makes Up Her Mind” was not the first “Dream Ballet” seen in a Broadway musical (even Babes in Arms had featured one), but it was the first to use it for such cutting psychological purpose, and influenced every later example through more than just popularizing the form. And songs like the free-flowing multipart sequence “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top”, the bickering I-won’t-admit-I-love-you duet “People Will Say We’re In Love”, and the terrifying cry of anguished rage “Lonely Room” for the show’s psychotic villain Jud Fry really did break enormous ground in character songwriting for future Broadway shows.
The aforementioned villain is a particularly fascinating and chilling character because he’s not really evil…he’s just crazy. He’s genuinely too mentally ill to be able to control his actions, to the point where he manages to be a sexual predator and potential murderer and a pitiful outcast who just wants to be loved at the same time. He’s actually quite sympathetic in a tragic way, but he’s also dangerous and frightening enough that we understand why he has to be put down, like a rabid dog, in order for the main characters to safely go on with their lives.
Oklahoma! 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 so toned-down and sanitized as to be almost unrecognizable, 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 next landmark of Broadway’s reinvention, On the Town, finds the sunnier, more idealistic side of Musical Comedy bringing itself in line with the innovations of the earlier shows in this section. 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.
This show was the breakthrough work for a composer who would straddle the worlds of Broadway and Classical Music for his entire career, the always legendary Leonard Bernstein, and that duality was definitely reflected here: the music for the ballets was full-on Modern Classical, but the songs were fairly conventional Pop tunes of the era. Most of the score consists of joyous Musical-Comedy showstoppers like “New York, New York” or “I Can Cook, Too”, but the ballads, such as “Lonely Town”, “Lucky to be Me”, and “Some Other Time”, are monumentally moving, featuring an emotional resonance that would have been unthinkable in the Musical Comedies of the Twenties and Thirties.
This show 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! It even made for a surprisingly good movie, despite having the vast majority of its stage score replaced by forgettable Hollywood filler, which demonstrates how strong the show’s story really is in itself.
Then there 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. Like that work, the show featured all the melodic richness of a Romantic Operetta, but blended it with the kind of serious storytelling and gritty psychological realism you might find in a great play. However, 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 Opera status. Among the most notable of these are the twelve-minute duet sequence “If I Loved You” in which the central lovers connect and trade worldviews through impossibly lyrical arioso and a heartbreaking chorus that would become a huge popular hit outside of the show. Another is a scene early in Act Two that moves from the bitterly comic “Geraniums in the Winder” through the ruefully philosophical Folk pastiche “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone” into the devastating credo of the show’s heroine, “What’s the Use of Wond’rin”, in which she affirms her devotion to her ne’er-do-well husband despite knowing full well that the situation will end badly for everyone involved.
In fact, the central number of the score, “Soliloquy”, is so ambitious and psychologically insightful that it would seem unusual even in a classical Opera…apart from a few of Verdi and Wagner’s musical monologues, precious few ‘real’ operas had ever contained an aria that goes through so many varied and complex emotions in the space of a single number.
Some people right now are complaining that Carousel is “offensive” because it suggests that a domestic abuser is actually capable of being redeemed, an idea that is anathema to the current crop of politically correct thinkers. But frankly, Carousel was here before those objections were raised, and like all immortal works of art, it will still be here long after that kind of thinking falls out of fashion again. You might as well argue that the sky is offensive.
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.
Allegro’s main flaw was its archetypical fable-like structure, with stock symbolic characters rather than actual human beings and a purposefully predictable plot, which is a valid model but not really Rodgers and Hammerstein’s forte. The score did manage to produce four modest hits at the time…three ballads, “A Fellow Needs a Girl”, “So Far”, and “You Are Never Away”, and a jazzy, ruefully humorous torch song, “The Gentleman is a Dope”. The latter has actually hung on as a genuine standard, and is probably the show’s primary legacy in popular culture at this point.
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, Joe Layton and Bob Fosse.