The 1920s represented a turning point in the history of the Broadway musical, breaking with the vaudeville traditions of the early twentieth century to anticipate the more complex, sophisticated musicals of today. Composers Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and their contemporaries revitalized the musical with the sound of jazz and other new influences. Productions became more elaborate, with dazzling sets, tumultuous choreography, and staging tricks, all woven into tightly constructed story lines. These dramatic changes of the 1920s ushered in the "golden age" of the American musical theater.
Ethan Mordden captures the excitement and the atmosphere of Broadway during the 1920s in Make Believe. In captivating, lively prose, Mordden describes in superb detail the stars, the songs, the jokesthe sheer fun of this era. Here are shows great, interesting, or even bizarre Sally , The Student Prince, Rose-Marie, Lady, Be Good!, No, No, Nannette, Rainbow, Good News!, Ziegfeld Follies, The "Coconuts", The 5 Oclock Girl, Blossom Time, Whoopee. Early on, the charisma of entertainers such as the bragging Al Jolson ("You ain't heard nothin' yet!"), the bewitching Marilyn Miller, the madly prancing Eddie Cantor, the unpredictable Gertrude Lawrence, and the indescribable Marx Brothers were the essential element in a hit musical. But, as Mordden demonstrates, the stars lost power and the authors took control, as shows like Desert Song , Peggy-Ann, Strike Up the Band, and Sweet Adeline reinvented the old forms. The musical became more "adult," too, baiting the censor in the lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, and B. G. DeSylva. And Broadway became more racially integrated, with "blackface" acts dying out while all-black musicals such as Shuffle Along and the Blackbirds shows enjoyed mainstream success.
Make Believe reaches its climax with Morddens' deep look at Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's 1927 masterpiece, Show Boat. With its intricate story line spanning four decades, its gala interracial cast, its stunning physical production, its powerful score including "Ol' Man River," "Bill," "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Life on the Wicked Stage," and "Why Do I Love You?," Show Boat was the first American musical universally hailed as a classic. Fusing the decade's developments into one epic show, Kern and Hammerstein created something at once timeless and contemporary, the ultimate twenties show but, as producer Florenz Ziegfeld called it on the posters, "the all American musical comedy."