Broadway Book Musicals: Crash Course Theater #50
Hey there! I’m Mike Rugnetta, and this is
the LAST episode of Crash Course Theater. So get ready for like, 9 curtain calls at
the end. But for now, we’re grabbing our Playbills and our Twizzlers to spend an episode
with America’s greatest theatrical invention: the singing, dancing, orchestra-in-the-floor
sensation that is… wait for it… the Broadway book musical.
Why does the Broadway book musical matter? Well, it’s changed theater as we know it.
Along with Hollywood movies, it’s America’s most influential entertainment export, a billion-dollar
industry that has zoomed its way across the world, to every continent except Antarctica,
and onto cruise ships, too. Today we’ll focus on the Golden Age of the
Broadway musical, trying to figure out how song, story, and the occasional dream ballet
come together to create this singular sensation. Lights up!
INTRO Theater and music have always been closely
intertwined. Greek tragedies were mostly sung and danced. Liturgical dramas had key musical
components. Melodrama was originally a musical form. And most styles of traveling or folk
theater were strongly musical—not to mention the nineteenth-century rise of the opera—and
pretty much every style of Asian theater we’ve studied.
American theater, of course, has its own musical theater traditions, including the troubling
and unfortunately VERY popular minstrel show, which we looked at in an earlier episode.
In terms of imported forms, America also went big for vaudeville, pantomime, operetta, and
comedy burlesque—which is different from the modern tell-dirty-jokes-and-take-your-clothes-off
sexy burlesque. In the 1860s, we got what some consider the
first American musical, “The Black Crook.” “The Black Crook” basically happened because
a theater burned down, and a Parisian ballet troupe was stranded. So some enterprising
producers were like, well, we can’t just put French girls in flesh-colored tights onstage
and leave them there? The people demand a story! Do they?
Anyway, the producers paired the dancers with a totally incomprehensible play about black
magic and fairies and a really weird New Year’s Eve. And they tricked it out with scenery
and songs. The total package! … that lasted five hours and made nooooo sense.
The first American musical comedies on Broadway were created in the 1870s by a duo called
Harrigan and Hart. They started with a variety act that made fun of drunk neighborhood militias—armed
and hilarious!—and then expanded these sketches into song-filled shows like “The Mulligan
Guard.” They poked fun at all sorts of working-class
types, and they never met an ethnicity they couldn’t mock. Stereotyping was huge, and
the songs didn’t have anything to do with the plot. But these shows made audiences hungry
for more, more, more musical farces with more, more, more irrelevant songs.
At around the turn of the 20th century, there was a vogue for African-American musicals,
which we discussed in our episode on the theater of the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1907, the Follies were born and musical theater got very leggy. The Follies were evenings
of loosely linked sketches and popular songs, but the big draw was the chorus of Follies
girls. Each year, producer Florenz Ziegfeld assembled
a group of beautiful chorines who had to have, he said, “beauty of face, form, charm and
manner, personal magnetism, individuality, grace and poise.”
The scripts? They’re not great. In the first Follies, Captain John Smith and Pocahontas
drop in on 1907 New York and meet all kinds of people. Yeah.
The Follies walked the line between titillating and classy pretty much perfectly. They were
girlie shows that men could perv out to. While sitting next to their wives. Because middle-class
wives enjoy a kickline, too? Between 1907 and 1931, there was a Follies
every year, each leggier and more sumptuous than the last. Oh, and Ziegfeld’s Follies
were the tame version. Other producers just threw a bunch of nude showgirls and raunchy
comics on the stage and called it a day. Broadway could have gone on forever with classic
girlie shows and questionably hilarious ethnic stereotyping. But thankfully, instead something
wonderful happened: The birth of the book musical.
The father? That would be Jerome Kern, a guy who got his start fixing up imported British
musicals. The songs he contributed were really good, usually a lot better than what he’d
been handed. The melodies were catchy, and the lyrics conversational.
At the Princess Theater, Kern and the lyricist Guy Bolton started writing charming, low-key
musicals, which became even more charming when comic mastermind P. G. Wodehouse joined
them. Notable shows included “Oh Boy!” “and “Oh Dear!” Oh wow!
Maybe they seem like piffle now, but at the time book musicals were revolutionary: the
characters were recognizable. The situations were contemporary. The plot, lyrics, and style
of song actually /went together/! Bolton told an interviewer, “Every line,
funny or serious, is supposedly to help the plot continue to hold.” Whoa! Now I know
what some of you are thinking. Gilbert and Sullivan already did this. And you’re not
wrong, but those were operettas, mostly sung through. And they involved fantastical situations.
The Princess Theater musicals were different. By the late 1920s, this newfangled idea that
maybe the songs should have something to do with the plot and the plot could be minimally
coherent was really catching on. More than fifty revues and musicals crowded Broadway
every year. And there were so many new composers and lyricists!
Like Richard Rodgers or the romantic Lorenz Hart. Or the astonishingly witty Cole Porter,
a man who could rhyme anything. And, oh my god, George and Ira Gershwin, s’wonderful,
people! And hey, look, Irving Berlin! Probably the first thoroughly modern musical
was the 1927 “Show Boat,” which is tricky to revive today because its racial politics
are … a mess? But as written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein and set on a Mississippi
showboat, it pushed the musical in a more serious direction, towards an honest examination
of racism.. It offered rich roles for African-American
actors and gave them character-driven songs like “Old Man River” and “Can’t Help
Lovin’ that Man,” which are still standards. The Broadway musical made it through the Great
Depression. And while World War Two was being waged, the musical leveled up again, entering
a twenty-year Golden Age. The musicals of this era were defined by their
wit, sophistication, extremely hummable songs, and dazzling and often athletic choreography—and
by their willingness to allow genuinely complex characters to exist.
Now we’re going to take a look at the American musical that finally put it all together—music
and lyrics and book scenes and ballet—to tell a distinctly American story. Welcome
to “Oklahoma!” Note the exclamation point! This one is exciting, people! Even though
it’s set in …Oklahoma. No offense to my Okies out there.
This 1943 musical, written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, is based on Lynn Riggs’s
1931 play “Green Grow the Lilacs.” The exclamation point wasn’t all they added.
The play opens in 1906, when Oklahoma is still a territory, and a surrey wagon is a plausible
way to get around town. Help us out, ThoughtBubble! Cowboy Curly comes forward and sings “Oh,
What a Beautiful Mornin’” as though chatting to the audience. The Times critic, Brooks
Atkinson, wrote that after a magnificent song like that
“the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable.”
Curly and farm girl Laurey clearly like each other, but can’t seem to get along. Laurey
has another suitor: Loner farmhand Jud Fry, who is basically a Golden Age incel. The guy
is bad news. To make Curly jealous, Laurey agrees to go
to the box social with Jud, even though she’s kind of afraid of him. Curly takes the news
well, so well that he goes to see Jud and sings a joke/not joke song suggesting that
Jud kill himself. Jud, also a really mature guy, decides that he’s going to marry Laurey—whether
she wants to or not! Laurey is so confused that she buys a magic
potion from the Persian peddler Ali Hakim. She takes it and falls asleep, and that’s
when we get a fifteen-minute dream ballet, where Laurey imagines marrying Curly and Jud
murdering Curly. That is a bad dream. And a good ballet. When she wakes, Laurey is too
frightened to reject Jud, so they go to the box social.
There’s a scuffle between farmers and cowmen, and some comedy subplot stuff. Jud and Curly
fight over Laurey. And Curly sells all his things to win her heart. Jud confesses his
feelings. Laurey rejects him and then fires him.
Curly and Laurey are married, but drunk Jud shows up and tries to kill Curly, which is
not good wedding etiquette. They tussle, and Jud falls on his own knife. And Curly and
Laurey get to go off on their honeymoon. A happy ending! Except for the dead guy!
Thanks, ThoughtBubble. It’s hard to get across how innovative “Oklahoma!”—a
musical that includes a number like “The Farmer and the Cowman”—actually is. Rodgers’s
melodies had a distinctly American sound. And Hammerstein wrote the lyrics first, which
meant that the songs were way more integral to the story and were written in the voices
of the characters. Even more than “Showboat,” every song
had a purpose, and so did every dance number. Agnes de Mille’s dream ballet took the musical
to a daring, expressionist place. The story was allowed to exist with a level of tonal
and character complexity that no one thought a musical could handle. But the musical /could/
handle it. It’s so good! As we’re filming this in late 2018, a number
of American theaters have recently staged “Oklahoma!,” interrogating its depictions
of sexuality, violence, conflict, and community. These are radically different interpretations.
But maybe that’s one of the signs of a great work of art—that it can stand up to all
kind of interpretations and still tell us something truthful. With a fringe on top.
Oh, and this was also the show that pioneered the original cast recording, which is NOT
a small deal. You’re welcome. After “Oklahoma!,” the Golden Age continued
until the early 1960s. Maybe there were no other great musicals named after states and
territories, but Rodgers and Hammerstein followed “Oklahoma!” up with “Carousel,” “South
Pacific,” “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I.” Shall we dance, Yorick?
At the same time, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrote “Brigadoon” and “My Fair
Lady.” And let’s not forget “Guys and Dolls,”
“On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Damn Yankees,” “West Side
Story,” because somewhere there’s a place for us…
and “Gypsy.” Whew! There is sooo much more that we could
talk about! The counterculture musical! The mega musical! The concept musical! Sondheim!
There’s so much to say about Sondheim. Yorick loves Sondheim! I’m lukewarm myself but
NO SHADE, well.. Except…maybe literal shade… Because it’s time for our curtain call.
This is our final episode of Crash Course Theater and yet we have forty or fifty years
of theater history and contemporary performance still to go. Maybe we’ll meet again for
a reprise down the road. Still, we wanted to leave you with the book
musical, not just because it’s a hugely popular and influential theatrical form, but
also because it’s how a lot of us who make Crash Course Theater got hooked in the first
place. We saw a musical or a movie musical when we were kids, and it just knocked us
out. That’s right. Musicals are the gateway drug. First “Guys and Dolls” Then Artaud.
Book musicals are sometimes sexist and sometimes racist and sometimes really dumb. But they’re
also virtuosic and hopeful and big-hearted. Like many of the things in life we love, they
are big, and they are complicated. Speaking of love, We can’t actually see
or hear you, but you’ve been a great audience. Thank you for staying in your seats while
we explored more than two thousand years of people trying to put their world onstage.
We wish we could sign at the stage door, but you may have to settle for … like, VidCon
or … twitter I guess? We’ve seen sad theater, funny theater, dangerous
theater, avalanche theater, theater that wants to burn it all down, and theater that wants
to build a new and better world. So give yourselves a hand. And take
a bow, Yorick. That’s right, cue ball. You’ve earned it. And for now, for
the last time… curtain!