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Derived from the colorful traditions of vaudeville, burlesque, revue, and operetta, the musical has blossomed into America's most popular form of theater. Scott McMillin has developed a fresh aesthetic theory of this underrated art form, exploring the musical as a type of drama deserving the kind of critical and theoretical regard given to Chekhov or opera. Until recently, the musical has been considered either an "integrated" form of theater or an inferior sibling of opera. McMillin demonstrates that neither of these views is accurate, and that the musical holds true to the disjunctive and irreverent forms of popular entertainment from which it arose a century ago.
Critics and composers have long held the musical to the standards applied to opera, asserting that each piece should work together to create a seamless drama. But McMillin argues that the musical is a different form of theater, requiring the suspension of the plot for song. The musical's success lies not in the smoothness of unity, but in the crackle of difference. While disparate, the dancing, music, dialogue, and songs combine to explore different aspects of the action and the characters.
Discussing composers and writers such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Kern, The Musical as Drama describes the continuity of this distinctively American dramatic genre, from the shows of the 1920s and 1930s to the musicals of today.
"A scholarly work, with good supporting bibliographic footnotes, this book merits serious study. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice
"Scott McMillin is giving musicals the respect they deserve. If you want to know how a car is constructed, you might consult a Chilton's vehicle manual. If you want to know how a pie is constructed, you might consult the Fanny Farmer Cookbook. If you want to know how a musical is constructed, you might consult The Musical as Drama by Scott McMillin. This adoring yet studious book dissects familiar musicals as if they were biology frogs and academically discusses their skeletal and muscular systems."—Eve Lichtgarn, Westside Chronicle
"Rarely does a book come along that seems to elegantly summarize what has come before while taking its subject to the next level. The Musical as Drama is just such a book. ...This volume encapsulates an entire career's reflection on the nature and structure of musical theater....This well-written, lucid, and effective book should serve as a fine addition to the expanding scholarship on America's musical theater."—Elizabeth A. Wells, Notes
"Staunchly defending a much-maligned genre, McMillin sets his sights high. . . . Even if one disagrees with some of his tastes and arguments, his defense of the musicals of the last half-century is convincing and, appropriately, an entertaining one."—Heather Heckman, Screening the Past
"McMillin's specific examples are at once astute and persuasive and somehow obvious (and I mean this as the highest compliment). Anyone who reads this book (and all with even a passing interest in musical theatre should) will constantly be struck with a 'Why didn't I think of that?' feeling."—Stacy Wolf, Text & Presentation
Integration: From Wagner to Broadway
THE American musical has been accompanied by a theory easily believed so long as it remains unexamined. The theory is that of the "integrated musical," according to which all elements of a show-plot, character, song, dance, orchestration, and setting-should blend together into a unity, a seamless whole. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammer-stein II were articulate proponents of this idea, and the historical moment when integration arrived on Broadway is often said, not least of all by Rodgers and Hammerstein, to have been the opening of Oklahoma! in March 1943. As Rodgers later put it, "when a show works perfectly, it's because all the individual parts complement each other and fit together. No single element overshadows any other.... That's what made Oklahoma! work.... It was a work created by many that gave the impression of having been created by one." Hammerstein's version of the theory concerned the unity between music and libretto: the composer/lyricist "expresses the story in his medium just as the librettist expresses the story in his. Or, more accurately, they weld their two crafts and two kinds of talent into a single expression. This is the great secret of the well-integrated musical play. It is not so much a method as a state of mind, or rather a state for two minds, an attitude of unity."
There was nothing new about those statements insofar as they pertained to the action and character of what had long been called musical comedy. In 1917 Jerome Kern said that "musical numbers should carry on the action of the play, and should be representative of the personalities of the characters who sing them," and in 1924 Hammerstein refused to list the numbers in Rose Marie because he did not want to detract from the close fit between book and number he thought the show possessed. The best composers and librettists have always wanted that close articulation. The statements of Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1943 pushed the idea further. Read closely, they are about the unity of the collaborators who made the musical rather than about the unity of the musical itself. They have a "two minds as one" air about them.
Although the collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein is one of the high points of American drama, the musical has always depended on teamwork among composer, lyricist, librettist, choreographer, stage director, music director, designer, costumer, orchestrator, and others. When a show put together by so many creative minds takes to the stage via the creative minds and bodies of the performers and actually works, even comes across the footlights as something special, an experience for an audience to remember for the rest of their lives (as happened with Oklahoma!), one knows that the efforts of many have produced an extraordinary event. Great elation accompanies the run of a hit musical, and everyone involved knows the feeling. But that does not mean that the product of all this cooperation has been smoothed out into a unified work of art. When a musical is working well, I feel the crackle of difference, not the smoothness of unity, even when the numbers dovetail with the book. It takes things different from one another to be thought of as integrated in the first place, and I find that the musical depends more on the differences that make the close fit interesting than on the suppression of difference in a seamless whole. Difference can be felt between the book and the numbers, between the songs and dances, between dance and spoken dialogue-and these are the elements that integration is supposed to have unified. Sometimes the elements are integrated, but I still feel the difference. When the orchestra introduces a tune that causes characters who have been speaking dialogue to break into song or dance, the music has changed the book into something different-a number-and the characters acquire a different dimension, the ability to perform that number.
The disparity between speech and song was a problem long studied in opera, where integration became the governing aesthetic in the nineteenth century. "The passage from one to the other [speech to song] is always shocking and ridiculous," Rousseau wrote in the eighteenth century. "It is the height of absurdity that at the instant of passion we should change voices to speak a song." Recitative in the place of spoken dialogue was an attempt to avoid this problem. Let the dialogue be sung in melodic recitative, let the recitative lead into the aria, and music of one sort or another will be the single register of expression throughout. Nineteenth-century opera intensified the musical register by abolishing recitative and turning the entire drama into formal song. The through-sung operas of the nineteenth century thus had a basis of musical unity to build on, which Wagner further developed into the theory of the Gesamtkunstwerk and its titanic realizations in Tristan und Isolde and the Ring.
Wagner's influence in American culture ran deep in the twentieth century. The leading aesthetic theory at the time Rodgers and Hammerstein were becoming popular was the new criticism, which sought an organic wholeness in works of art, including poetry, drama, music, dance, and novels. Organic wholeness meant that the work of art should grow like fruit on the vine. Radically discordant elements could be yoked together in an integrated whole by the creativity of the artist, an operation that T. S. Eliot famously called "the amalgamation of disparate experience." Eliot came in contact with musical theatre by way of Joseph Kerman, whose influential Opera as Drama was solidly based on the new criticism, said nothing at all about musical comedy, and took Wagner and the theory of unity as crucial concerns. Other influential books about drama at mid-century were Eric Bentley's The Playwright as Thinkerand Francis Fergusson's The Idea of a Theater. Bentley took special delight in castigating the musical as "vacuous" (Oklahoma!) and half-educated (One Touch of Venus). Song and dance are only "embellishments" to drama, said Bentley, whose bias in favor of organic wholeness has a Wagnerian edge: "Every good play has a rhythmic structure and a symphonic unity." Indeed, Wagner was one of Bentley's four heroes of modern drama, along with Ibsen, Shaw, and Strindberg (although Bentley had a sharp eye for false Wagnerianism, too). In The Idea of a Theater, Fergusson wrote at length about the Aristotelian "unity of action," ignored the musical, and devoted a chapter to Tristan und Isolde.
Thus the best books on drama at midcentury took Wagner seriously and regarded him as a key figure whose influence extended beyond opera to nonmusical drama. They also disregarded the musical, a type of popular entertainment hardly worth study when unity of action was the important dramatic consideration. Rodgers and Hammerstein were aware they had a cultural bias to overcome. They did not mention Wagner (although they were well versed in opera) and did not pay much attention to new criticism. But they were among other serious practitioners of the musical who wanted to elevate the cultural status of the form (Gershwin had made the most notable gesture in this direction by writing the Broadway opera Porgy and Bess a decade earlier), and they were celebrating the achievement of Oklahoma! in ways that reflected the prevailing aesthetic of the mid-twentieth century. They were not alone. "A form which seeks to integrate drama, music, and dance," the conductor Lehman Engel calls the musical, sounding the quasi-Wagnerian note that can be heard in every version of the theory. But the real cultural work being carried out by these writers and practitioners of the musical, I propose, was that of turning Broadway's skill at song-and-dance routines into a new format in which the numbers had important work to do because they were being inserted into the book as a different element, a change of mode, a suspension of the book in favor of music.
My concern is to set the aesthetics of the genre into a perspective that includes earlier shows as well as later and that searches out the already existing principles that Rodgers and Hammer-stein used so well. A new theoretical perspective on the musical is necessary now that the form is more than a century old and is proving to be a major form of American drama. The musical has a different aesthetic form from that of nineteenth-century opera. There are musicals today that try to become operatic, as though the musical were a lower form that should strive for an elevated state, and this strikes me as a confusion of genres. The line of achievement that runs from Oklahoma! to the musicals of Sondheim in the second half of the twentieth century or from Show Boat to Oklahoma! in the first half is as important as the line of achievement that runs from O'Neill to Williams and Miller and then on to Shepherd in what is still sometimes called the legitimate drama. The musical is the illegitimate drama, and now that the illegitimate has taken its place as a major American artistic accomplishment, it deserves some theoretical thinking that holds true to its own history and form.
Two Orders of Time
The musical's complexity comes in part from the tension between two orders of time, one for the book and one for the numbers. The book represents the plot or the action. It moves (in terms borrowed from Aristotle's Poetics) from a beginning through a middle to an end. This is progressive time, in the sense that the ending is different from the beginning-things are not going to be the same after this. Bobby decides to get married, or doesn't, Gaylord returns to Magnolia and sees his daughter on the showboat, two rival gangs act together to carry away Tony's body, Japan takes up a Western way of life. The change occurs somewhere in the middle-the middle makes change possible, keeps the beginning apart from the ending, and lays out the terms by which the two will differ. Middles are crucial to the order of time in the Aristotelian idea of action. Aristotle himself favored moments of "recognition" or "reversal" as turning points leading toward an ending. The books of musicals have turning points, too, and we will read them this way.
What makes the musical complex is something the Greek drama had too-the second order of time, which interrupts book time in the form of songs and dances. The choral odes in the Greek drama were danced and sung, and if we knew how they were performed in any detail, we would find Greek tragedy more interesting. Aristotle recognized the need to incorporate the choral odes into the "unity of action" that he found in the best tragedies, but the extant text of the Poetics does not give considered thoughts on this problem. Song and Spectacle rank at the bottom of Aristotle's priority list of tragedy's components, as though they were separable from the top categories of Plot and Character. A theory of the musical cannot do this. It has to regard songs and dances as basic elements, equal to plot and character and influential on both.
The songs are stanzaic forms of verse against which the music asserts a broad repetitive pattern, and intricate smaller kinds of repetition occur within the stanzas. Characters who break into song are being enlarged by entering into the second order of time and displaying their mastery of repetitive, lyric form. Shaw's Henry Higgins in the nonmusical Pygmalion cannot be imagined breaking into a song. He exists consisently in one order of time. The Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady acts in this order of time, too, but he breaks into song in his first scene, and he sings several numbers thereafter. He even dances once. He is not a freewheeling song-and-dance man, but he joins the fandango that develops out of "The Rain in Spain" number, and Eliza is struck by this ("I Could Have Danced All Night"). I am not interested in the question of which is the better form of drama, Shaw's play or the musical based on it. I am interested in the difference between the two, for the change between the two orders of time involved in book and number makes Henry Higgins a different kind of character than he is in Shaw's play, or a character caught up in a different kind of action, and the theory of integration overlooks that difference.
Integration theory would say that songs and dances advance the plot. I can think of songs and dances that do advance the plot, and every reader will think of others. "Marry the Man Today," near the end of Guys and Dolls, makes the two heroines aware of the solution to their romantic problems. Remove the song and the plot will need some new dialogue. The act 1 finaletto in the Gershwins' Of Thee I Sing conveys elements of plot, as does "A Weekend in the Country," at the end of act 1 of A Little Night Music. These are special occasions. But most songs and dances do not advance plots. Usually the book sets forth the turn of plot and the number elaborates it, in the spirit of repetition and the pleasure of difference. Most songs and dances do not further characterization, they change the mode of characterization-difference again. These are the aesthetic principles that all songs and dances follow, including the special occasions that do advance plot and character.
When Sweeney Todd holds his razor over Judge Turpin's throat for the first time and is about to take his revenge (in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, 1979), he pauses to sing a number, "Pretty Women." It is an astonishing moment, the would-be murderer pretending to a bit of male bonding with the rapist he is about to slaughter. Sweeney is lingering over his big moment, changing the mode of expression, caught up in the sardonic delight of idealizing womanhood with the man who has destroyed one woman, Sweeney's wife, and is about to force another, Sweeney's daughter, into marriage. The Judge responds to Sweeney's tune. He sings along-it is a duet between the rapist and his would-be murderer! Then the young lover Anthony breaks in and ruins Sweeney's revenge.
This number gives its own dimension to the scene. It suspends the progress of events, formalizes the relationship between Sweeney and the Judge, turns it into melody and rhyme. Integration theory would say that "Pretty Women" arises out of the situation and is part of Sweeney's delay. It is what ruins the moment of revenge, allowing time for Anthony to arrive just as the razor is about to descend. That is technically true, but it does not account for the effect of the song, which is to add harmony, melody, and rhythm to the ghastly relationship between the revenger and his intended victim. The dimension of song suspends book time in favor of an incongruous moment of lyric time. These two have no business singing with one another, especially not singing so well. In Christopher Bond's Sweeney Todd, the source play for the musical, there is no such interplay between the men at this point. Todd draws out his revenge a little, talking as though he were about to reveal his identity. This is dialogue moving toward its goal, then Anthony bursts onto the scene to interrupt the revenge. There is no change of mode, no shift of perspective. It is a good scene, that is all.
The song inserts a lyrical moment into the cause-and-effect progress of the plot, a moment that suspends book time in favor of lyric time, time organized not by cause and effect (which is how book time works) but by principles of repetition (which is how numbers work). There is the repetition of the four-note musical phrase on "pretty women" itself, heard ten times. There is the metrical repetition of four syllables by which "pretty women" matches up to "fascinating," "sipping coffee," "are a wonder," and so on, always in four sixteenth notes compressed into the first beat of a measure. There is the strophic repetition of stanzas by which the song is cast in one of the traditional formats for popular tunes (ABAB'). There is the underlying repetition of a harmonic ninth in the orchestra, established against the tonic and then beating through the chord changes as a hint of something that cannot be resisted until the music itself comes to an end.
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List of Illustrations vii
CHAPTER ONE: Integration and Difference 1
CHAPTER TWO: The Book and the Numbers 31
CHAPTER THREE:Character and the Voice of the Musical 54
CHAPTER FOUR: The Ensemble Effect 78
CHAPTER FIVE: The Drama of Numbers 102
CHAPTER SIX: The Orchestra 126
CHAPTER SEVEN: Narration and Technology: Systems of Omniscience 149
CHAPTER EIGHT: What Kind of Drama Is This? 179