The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musicalby Mark Grant
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A composer/writer who lives in the home city of the Broadway musical traces the history of the genre through three periods: the formative (1866-1927), the golden age (1927-1966), and the fall (1967 to the present). Grant views Mel Brooks's hit The Producers (2001) as quite accurate in satirizing the current "McMusical" studio system. He calls for more inspired writers and librettos, and a new economic model to wrest control of musical theater away from "concept showman." Illustrations are drawn from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection and other sources. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
“What makes Grant’s book well worth reading is his thoughtful, multipronged analysis of the Golden Age musicals.”—Current Musicology
“A serious, provocative dissection of tuners . . . a well researched, scholarly and opinionated book of regrets and hopes.”—The Hour (Norwalk, CT)
“The most important and provocative book on musical theatre in more than a decade . . . a must-read for anyone who cares about Broadway musicals, a book that will be discussed for years to come.” —John Kenrick, Musicals101.com
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The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical
By Mark N. Grant
NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2004 Mark N. Grant
All right reserved.
Chapter OneACT ONE
From Soaring Divas to Growling Rockers: How Changes in Singing Forged and Felled the Show Tune
New theatre music not only reprises what has been written before but, with few exceptions, does not do it half as well.... There is much to praise in the contemporary music scene, but it has not contributed any significant melodic material to the collective American unconscious. -Vocal coach David Craig
Irving Berlin. Jerome Kern. Richard Rodgers. Cole Porter. George Gershwin. Harold Arlen. Arthur Schwartz. Burton Lane. Harry Warren. Frank Loesser. Harold Rome. Vincent Youmans. Pick your own list of the great standards these and other song composers of the golden age created for the Broadway musical. Yes, Mr. Craig, they indeed repose in the collective American unconscious in a way that the show music, and arguably the popular music, of forty or fifty years since does not.
That "they don't write them like they used to any more" is piety, an item of faith by now with commentators from radio's Jonathan Schwartz (son of the composer Arthur) to a long bookshelf of pop historians and cultural philosophers. (Schwartz himself has called Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Out of My Dreams" from Oklahoma! "a cathedral.") Melodiesby songwriters who wouldn't have known a tonic chord from a dominant seventh have in recent years been vivisected fearsomely by musicologists like Allen Forte, Geoffrey Block, and Joseph Swain, and elevated to classical folk art by Alec Wilder's seminal book American Popular Song. That a group of contemporary songwriters created something wonderful is not doubted. The question of why were they all born at roughly the same time-genetics? God? chance?-can hardly be argued.
But these composers' undeniable gifts do not alone explain exactly what it is that made the melodies of golden-age Broadway shows so instantly catchy and enduringly memorable. Something else has been overlooked: namely, how tune writing was driven by the types of voices that sang them. Our musical theater as it evolved from 1866 to 1927 gradually demanded a new kind of voice and a new kind of melody writing never heard in any nation's light opera before, not even in Gilbert and Sullivan. As librettos and lyrics improved in literacy and dramatic integration, what had been operatic in Broadway voices had to change to a more speech-based style. At the same time the songwriters couldn't "speechify" the music so much that melody was sacrificed.
The results peaked in Broadway's second age: melody that enabled the voice to make a lyric's content clear, and a new kind of singing voice that delivered both melody and lyric equally. The need to stay on the lyric forced composers to write melodies that were not only singable by the new kind of voice but that were also immediately grasped by the ear.
But today, while there are still marvelous belle époque-style singing voices on Broadway, the song idiom of Rodgers and Berlin is being elbowed into oblivion by a new vocal style on Broadway and elsewhere that has created a new composing style with an emphasis on the beat and the eardrum. We have gone from Tin Pan Alley to Tympan Alley.
The great Broadway tunesmiths of the second age all but invented three "golden means" of theater song composing: a golden mean between melodic soaring and melody riffing; another between the art voice and the vulgar voice; and a third between song primarily as speech and song primarily as music. All three occurred at a time when the microphone, though in use, had not yet taken over the legitimate stage. Since ancient Greece, theater music had been written to be sung in live performance, not in a recording studio. Then came the microphone, and these golden means all were sundered. The microphone and its practitioners ultimately engendered a complete redefinition of the art of singing in public entertainment. And public singing, which had originally come out of the theater and had existed unmediated for three thousand years, now ate its parent alive. The new upstart, microphone singing, came to regard the theater as a colony of its own empire. Ultimately, the microphone destroyed the very cultural paradigm that had made the golden age of live musical theater a paradigm to begin with. It made "live," which had been a defining property of the art of theater for a few thousand years, a misnomer. And it made obsolete the cultural hegemony of the Broadway melody.
Scene One. Before the Microphone
The Pre-1910 Musical: Busman's Holiday for Opera Singers
In America circa 2004 the accepted mainstream model of singing in public entertainment is the pop singer. When a vocalist is trotted out for the national anthem at a sporting event, more often than not that singer is a rock or country singer, not the Three Irish Tenors. It is difficult to imagine that only a little over a century ago the standard for such public singing performance was the operatic, or "legitimate," voice-not the untrained voice but the voice one cultivates by learning to "place" the voice using head resonance and the diaphragm. The lines between opera, operetta, and musical comedy singing were not then so distinct as they were later. In 1900-1920, the divas of the Metropolitan Opera were as celebrated as rock stars today. (Even into the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, well-known opera singers appeared in Hollywood movies.) Today, the word "diva" itself is more often heard in a rock context. But in 1900 the trained voice was the predominant style of performance in everything, including musical comedies on the legitimate stage, and stage songs no less than operatic arias were usually performed by such voices. As the conductor and musical theater authority Lehman Engel wrote:
Up to about 1920, a singer was a singer. That is, he was someone with a highly polished and sizable voice that gave evidence of having been "trained." In the big Victor Herbert successes, commencing about the turn of the present century, the leading singers were quite often borrowed from the Metropolitan Opera. In Mlle. Modiste there was Fritzi Scheff, who became a bigger star on Broadway singing "Kiss Me Again" than she had been at the Met as Musetta in La Bohème. Later, Herbert used Emma Trentini (coloratura) of the Manhattan Opera House and Orville Harrold (the Met's Parsifal) in Naughty Marietta. In a sense, the vocal requirements of Broadway were at the time nearly synonymous with those of opera.
Even today, the term "legitimate" is generally understood to mean operatic singing in a nonoperatic context, with an emphasis on beauty of tone rather than on enunciating the syllables of the lyric (although great singers can do both). The singer in a legitimate style learns to manage the natural breaks in the voice so as to ensure continuity of sound between the head voice and the chest voice; when a singer breaks into a completely different timbre produced from the chest, she is said to be "belting." A legitimate voice has a larger range than an untrained voice, usually about two octaves (some legitimate singers have a three-octave range). Some pop and rock singers can and do sing "legitimate": Linda Ronstadt did so in the New York Public Theatre's 1981 production of The Pirates of Penzance, and currently the versatile singer-actress Audra McDonald sings both operatic arias and rock styles with equal aplomb.
The great-grandfathers of Broadway musicals were the late-nineteenth-century American operettas (or "light operas") that were performed on the legitimate stages in the district of Manhattan that by 1880 was coming to be known as Broadway (although it was farther downtown than the current Broadway of the West Forties). While Gilbert and Sullivan have endured, history has forgotten the composers of late-nineteenth-century Broadway, the most prominent of whom were Reginald De Koven (1859-1920), the British-born Julian Edwards (1855-1910), and the German-born Gustave Kerker (1857-1923); also among this group is John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), who wrote operettas as well as marches, and such stateside Europeans as Ivan Caryll from Belgium, Ludwig Englander from Vienna, and Lionel Monckton, Edward German, and Ivor Novello from England. De Koven led the pack with some two dozen shows, of which Robin Hood was his most successful and its "O Promise Me" his most famous song. Julian Edwards, an unjustly forgotten, very melodious composer, played Frederick Loewe to De Koven's Richard Rodgers. Kerker wrote The Belle of New York, the era's musical most popular with European audiences.
The vocal style of these light operas was not that of Guys and Dolls (1950) or Annie Get Your Gun (1946), much less that of Rent (1996) or Hairspray (2002). It was more like Offenbach. For one thing, the overwhelming majority of musical numbers in these shows were choral. There were few solos and thus little material to enable a great singing actor or actress to emerge as a theater star like a Sarah Bernhardt. The scores consisted of one four-part soprano-alto-tenor-bass ensemble after another, with the elaborate vocal parts characteristic of opera or oratorio but rarely encountered in contemporary Broadway writing (exceptions: Bernstein's Candide, Sondheim's A Little Night Music). The hit songs, such as "Brown October Ale" in De Koven's Robin Hood, were usually sung in unison by large choruses. The SATB choruses and the vocal duets or trios were not sung in the close-harmony style of turn-of-the-century barbershop, much less that of the 1930s Boswell Sisters or the 194os Andrews Sisters, but in chorale arrangements, a style still heard today in recent Broadway shows as various as Phantom of the Opera, Ragtime, and Titanic (but today heard certainly not as the only type of a musical's number). With large choruses onstage peopled with legitimate voices, audibility and projection were never issues, regardless of size of orchestra or theater. Yet despite all their choral singing, these shows were not through-sung; they had spoken dialogue, too, like opéra-comique.
Such operettas were at the time considered "musical shows." They were produced in legitimate theaters, not opera houses, and their tickets were sold to theatergoers, not to opera subscribers of the diamond horseshoe crowd. Even their comic relief numbers required legitimate singing chops: talkable patter numbers in works like HMS Pinafore and The Mikado sit cheek by jowl with full-fledged arias containing passages of vocalization on single syllables performable only by trained opera singers. And in the 1880s and 1890s even the comedic or farcical musicals on Broadway, like Charles Hoyt's A Trip to Chinatown, which had more solo singing, were usually performed in the legitimate voice.
The popular style and the legitimate style were thus nearly one and the same. How do we know? Because surviving pre-1900 recordings confirm this. Some fifteen to twenty hours of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century musical theater recordings exist, which recently have been transferred from the hundred-year-old flat disc and vertical cylinder originals to contemporary compact discs. Thus, one can hear the Savoyard tenor H. Scott Russell (1868-1949) in his January 1899 Emile Berliner disc recording of the song "Saturnalia" from the British West End musical of 1898 A Greek Slave, singing in an unmistakably legitimate, not a folk or music-hall, style. Even the songs of the nineteenth century we have come to regard as the pop songs of their time-those of Stephen Foster, for instance-are on early recordings sung in the legitimate style. Thus, in a 1904 recording of songs from the 1902 Civil War Broadway musical When Johnny Comes Marching Home, with added original music by Julian Edwards and words by Stanislaus Stange, Foster's "Swanee River" is rendered by William Thompson and Florence Quinn in an operatic duet style that could comport with a rendition of "Dite alia giovine" from La traviata or "O soave fanciulla" from La bohème. Yes, "Swanee River."
In elderly recording after recording, one musical theater performer of yore after another sings in the legitimate voice, even in light musical comedy. Edna May (1878-1948), perhaps the most famous ingenue of her time, star of the musical The Belle of New York (1897), in a 1900 recording sings two selections from that Gustave Kerker show in a pearly lyric soprano, negotiating unprepared leaps in the vocal line that would never happen in Rodgers and Hammerstein or Andrew Lloyd Webber. Marie Cahill (1870?-1933), a great comedienne and musical star of vaudeville, sings "Under the Bamboo Tree" in a 1917 recording of a song from the 1902 musical Sally in Our Alley in a legitimate lyric soprano, trilling her r's floridly but not otherwise making her consonants clear. And the most famous Broadway diva of the era, the buxom Lillian Russell (1861-1922), who epitomized the Gay Nineties and was mistress to Diamond Jim Brady, in her only recording, made in 1912, sings "Come Down, Ma Evening Star" from Twirly-Whirly (1902) in a light, flutey mezzo. On this antique recording one can clearly hear every gearshift of Russell's breath control, from inhalation to exhalation. This, despite the fact that Russell performed in the "illegitimate" music hall shows of Tony Pastor and Weber and Fields, and was widely regarded as a ballad singer (that is, what we mean now by "pop singer").
The earliest recordings of songs by original cast members reveal much the same type of singing. Cast members from De Koven's Robin Hood (1891) were recorded in the 1890s and 1900s. One, Eugene Cowles (1860-1948), a leading man of his time, sings "The Armorer's Song" in a 1906 recording with orchestra in a legitimate basso range from D above middle C all the way down to the D two octaves below that. By comparison, the operatic bass Ezio Pinza (1892-1957), who retired from the Met to go to Broadway, never sang such a two-octave range in songs from the musicals he starred in, South Pacific (1949) and Fanny (1954), nor ventured so low in pitch. In a 1906 recording of selections from Victor Herbert's The Fortune Teller (1898), all the singing is legitimate, and once again Cowles sings "Gypsy Love Song" in a bass voice, albeit this time a little higher, in a bass-baritone range. In the shows of the 1940s period, by contrast, the male romantic lead was almost always a baritone; true bass roles were rarely written, except for novelty numbers like the comic trio of suitors "Tom, Dick, or Harry" in Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate (1948).
Excerpted from The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical by Mark N. Grant Copyright © 2004 by Mark N. Grant. Excerpted by permission.
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MARK N. GRANT is a composer and writer. His concert music and theater pieces have been performed in the United States and Europe. He is the author of Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America. He lives in New York City.
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