1950 to 1978 were despondent ones for the musical. American musical theatre had been showing signs of exhaustion. This most seemingly anti-intellectual of genres carries its own ‘ideological project’. Before this, the musicals not only exhibited singing and dancing; they were about singing and dancing, explaining the magnitude of that experience. They not only gave the most intense pleasure to their audience but also supplied the justification for that pleasure. The pop songs of the day were the songs from the shows.
With the increase in number of radio stations and the availability of portable radios recorded music became the music of the masses. With the arrival of the Beatles in 1964, Rock music exploded across the land sending other musical trends into hibernation! The occasional attempt to break out of the old moulds were unsuccessful and led nowhere. They showed inadequacies; being unmelodic and formless. With rare exceptions, audiences rarely left the theatre singing the show tunes. Rock and roll couldn’t be assimilated in a dramatic structure. The songs didn’t tell a story.
If rock and roll was used it would mean songs did not enhance and push the story forward, they would be separate from the story. Not until 1960 did Broadway face up to the emerging vogue. Musical theatre accepted rock music grudgingly. The eminence of the British musical has been the most significant theatre phenomenon in the world over the last twenty years. It has not only given British theatres a greatly needed financial boost but has changed ‘popular’ theatre indefinitely. Never will audiences see new musicals in the style of Oklahoma! , Brigadoon and South Pacific.
With these musicals there was a danger of tipping from musical into melodrama. They never throbbed with subtlety because someone was always bursting into song about how every thing ‘was looking just swell’. The musical not only wanted to sing away your troubles, but your thoughts as well. The ‘old style’ musical theatre had no social conscience. Always presented in the traditional proscenium arch, the musical isolated the audience from new ideas and innovations. Due to television broadcasting daily updates on world affairs it is now impossible to believe in the benevolence of the Universe that the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote about.
Today’s audiences can almost find it abhorrent. They are socially aware and informed of current affairs. Musical theatre has advanced technically, intellectually, is universally popular and overflowing with cultural relativism. From 1960 onwards, Broadway came to rely more on its directors, librettists and lyricists. The emphasis of importance being on the directors. Tom O’Horgan, Gower Champion, and most of all, Bob Fosse gave the period some of its sustained achievements. These musicals are one of the most collaborative of art forms.
Actors no longer had chunks of dialogue interspersed with musical interludes. The musical became seamless, with characters singing when their emotions became too overbearing for speech. The songs encouraged the musical to move forward and not stand still whilst the ‘star’ sang their showstopper! Stephen Sondheim advocated the “conceptual musical”. He subordinated every aspect of the work to his personal vision. As a result increasing intellectualised musicals confronted audiences that had frequented the theatre as a means of escape.
When a writer is responsible for the book and the lyrics – as, for example, Oscar Hammerstein and Alan Jay Lerner, were – that writer may be more able to regularly address the same concerns than a composer-lyricist can. Nonetheless, Sondheim has managed to create a body of work that is clearly of a piece, despite the fact that many of the shows that he has co-created have been projects that were brought to him by his collaborators, not ideas that he originated. Undoubtedly, part of the explanation for this is that he tends to work with writers and directors who are in tune with his worldview.
Furthermore, however much Sondheim may see himself as someone who enjoys and is good at imitating another writer’s style (as he stated in a conversation with Sam Mendes that was broadcast when Mendes’s production of Company was shown on British television), he clearly influences his collaborators as much as he is influenced by them. And then there are those who seem able to assimilate the innovations of their predecessors, raising the level of craftsmanship in their chosen genre to an unprecedented high level, while simultaneously exploring new areas of expression and form.
It is to this latter group that Stephen Sondheim belongs. While the musical theatre had not been entirely insulated from the social developments of its audiences, realism was still the orthodox aesthetic. Sex and swearing, prostitution, infanticide, incest, and drink ‘distressed’ the audience, as the New York Herald Tribune said. Audiences attended the theatre to watch the middle class ‘American dream’ to be told that, ‘… The best things in life are free, that everything is coming up roses, and that if you don’t have a dream how you gonna have a dream come true? The musical was supposed to be a form of cathartic entertainment.
Yet the music was a subliminal advertisement for the sought after ‘American dream’. Musicals satisfied the middle class consumer mentality. Stephen Sondheim changed the emphasis of the musical. It was now intelligent and sometimes brimming with disenchantment. He is the conscience of the musical. In West Side Story (Appendix 1 – A) he combined classical music, ballet and straight theatre seamlessly. ‘ It’s an American Musical.
The aim of the mid fifties was to see if all of us – Lenny Bernstein who wrote “long-hair” music, Arthur Laurents who wrote serious plays, Oliver Smith (designer) who was a serious painter – could bring our acts together and do a work on the popular stage… ’# West Side Story showed how singing, dancing, acting and design could merge into a single unity. Presenting itself as a social play with a tragic ending, reminding audiences and critics alike about how elusive tragedy had been in Broadway musical tradition.
It had been atypical for the hero to die a tragic death in a Broadway musical, but fights and untimely deaths became the fortitude of the commercial musical. Many of the great musicals focus on a conflict between an individual and a community, or sometimes on a conflict between two communities, and this is a dramatic situation that often appears in Sondheim’s shows. Often the individual will be an outsider who wishes to be accepted by the community and has been rejected or cast out from it. Other times it is the outsider who has rejected the community and its values and beliefs.
It is a world filled with moral uncertainty, a world in which all values are relative, but one in which the inhabitants keep trying to find redemption and salvation Although West Side Story is one of the shortest books in Broadway musical history, it is packed with action. The plot is communicated, mostly, without dialogue – pointing to the collaborative nature of the piece. Originally setting out to tell the story by movement throughout, there was no attempt to separate dance, music, dialogue, acting, and lighting or stage decor.
The lyrics are witty, stylish and clever, creating multi-dimensional characters. Heavily rhymed and inner rhymed, they are married to the music almost to the point of perfection. It was intellectual to use the tragic story and theatrical components to express a melancholy drama. It aspired to a level far higher than that of the usual Broadway musical, being a rare instance in Broadway history where the emphasis was on youth. These new faces in Broadway offered a new attitude to the musical. They brought a new vitality and prevailing urgency to the stage.
In many of the shows, we see a young person (or sometimes more than one) who has led a sheltered existence and who loses his or her innocence during the course of the action, so this new approach was refreshing and realistic. West Side Story demanded to be taken seriously whilst not appearing doctrinaire. It entertained without patronising the audience. It never pretended to be an alternative to Shakespeare but had obvious links to Romeo and Juliette. This play was just the start for Laurent’s adaptation. It is impossible to not discern the similarities in the opening scene of each play.
Shakespeare wrote of the Capulet’s and the Montague’s feud – Laurent wrote of the skirmish between the Jets and the Sharks, rival adolescent street gangs. It was a marvel on its dbut, especially because it did not attempt to feature any particular theatrical aspect. It is doubtful if without West Side Story there could have been later musicals with such vociferous social consciences. Cabaret (Appendix 1 – B) combines high drama, realistic if unconventional morality, and strong characters with astounding melodies. It was based on the play I Am a Camera by John van Druten.
John Kander, the composer of Cabaret pushed the music into serious moral and musical terrain. With the emergence of popular music threatening his career as a theatre composer he took his chances and tried a new style of musical. ‘When popular music seemed to stop caring about theatre music, People who wrote for the theatre stopped writing for the market. The musical naturally became more experimental. ’ # Set in the Kit Kat club where the cabaret encourages you to leave your troubles behind and believe that life is beautiful.
This musical confronts the era of Nazism in Germany, even including a Nazi song, ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’. In 1966, the Holocaust was still very fresh in everyone’s mind. The story follows the life of Sally Bowles, an English girl, working in the Kit Kat club. The emergence of the Nazi party’s power is charted alongside the story of Sally. The musical was no longer singing about how wonderful life is but actually challenging a complex, poignant political era. It was an ‘intelligent’ musical that was not solely about entertaining but also about thinking.
By setting it in such a provocative era a huge step towards political musicals was being taken. Never before had Broadway tackled such a sensitive subject. Cabaret also used the theatrical form of ‘a show within a show’. While we are watching actors on the stage, we are also watching them act on a primary stage. This theatrical device can almost be seen as a form of alienation. We realise we are not the audience being entertained, they are on the stage, we are the privileged audience that sees the ‘real life’ story.
We are thus encouraged to absorb the meaning of the story and the subtext. Described as a tribal love-rock musical, Hair (Appendix 1 – C) was an innovation of its time. It was a presentation of a way of life, not a story. The play was written by two ‘hippies’, who took starring roles, and the rest of the original cast were not trained performers but real people showing the audience how they lived their life. It was a simply a depiction of their lifestyle, the alternative to the strived for American Dream.
It was to offer the audience a different view of life, to show that there is freedom in love and sex, freedom from the constraints of society and the freedom to take drugs. It was the first musical of the hippie peace and love generation. It is still poignant today, as the social comments are still true. Corporate wealth, challenged in Hair, still rules in society today. Strong language and nudity ensured a measure of shock value. ‘… It (Hair) finds in the vocabulary of life a language which is free from clich, which has a coinage that is funny, surprising, and rich.
The characters speak of sex, masturbation and drugs. All taboos in previous Broadway shows. They confront the audience and ask why we find these words abhorrent. It is the bourgeois middle class theatre audience that expected these constraints. While being entertaining, Hair also had a strong message about their disapproval of the Vietnam War. The song ‘3-5-0-0’ is a song about the average number of American casualties every month in Vietnam. It is easy to just mistake it as a ‘nice song’ on first hearing it.
Because of its irreverence and contemporary attitude Hair was received favourably by both critics and audiences alike. It tested musical stage conventions and opened up new ground for future projects. It proved that escapism could also work when social questions are asked and the audience is confronted with honesty and ideology. The audience does not view a recognised history or the status quo lifestyle, but witnesses something new and exciting. Hair was heaving Broadway into a new era. Although it now seems deeply conservative and highly sentimental, in its time it was groundbreaking.