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Editor's Note, September/October 2004

Landmarks in Life

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, September/October 2004 | Volume 25, Number 5

With Brown v. Board of Education marking its fiftieth anniversary this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige talks about progress in the nation's schools since desegregation.

His own childhood in Mississippi was a different world from today, Paige says. "The people in the community who were looked up to were teachers. There was the teacher, the preacher, and that was about it," he tells NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. "My parents and all the community people taught us that the way to get ahead is education: education would overcome any difficulty." That value system has suffered erosion lately, he says. "I'm not exactly sure why that is, but I'm facing it a lot in our challenge to close the achievement gap." He cites a thirty-point difference in reading and mathematics scores between black and white fourth graders these days, but he takes a measure of satisfaction that the No Child Left Behind Act is helping to bridge the gap.

In this issue of Humanities we pause for another milestone--not the front-page national story of Brown, but one focused on a narrow slice of Manhattan property. A modest 1904 news item tells of the opening of a new subway stop at a place called Longacre Square; renamed Times Square, the neighborhood would become synonymous with New York's booming theater district. A six-hour documentary tracing part of that history airs this October. Broadway: The American Musical takes the viewer from Florenz Ziegfeld's dancing girls to Show Boat in 1927 with its daring undercurrent of racial mixing and Of Thee I Sing in 1931 with its Pulitzer prize-winning spoof of politics. The debut of Oklahoma! in 1943 by the new team of Rodgers and Hammerstein rewrote the book and changed the genre from "musical comedy" to "musical."

One of the performers in Oklahoma! that year was a young dancer named Jerome Robbins. He was a choreographer as well, determined to expand the language of dance. The ballet he was working on--the story of three sailors on shore leave in New York--debuted the next year. "What Fancy Free did most impressively," critic Marcia Siegal wrote, "was to integrate classical and colloquial dances within a context of carefully observed characters." The ballet grew into the Broadway show On the Town, set to Leonard Bernstein's music. The successes continued with West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof. At the same time, Robbins choreographed for the New York City Ballet; then he founded a ballet company of his own and created dances for both. The output of his sixty-year career, from videotapes to costume designs, is now being cataloged and digitized by the New York Public Library with help from an NEH grant.

"If Broadway means anything," says critic John Lahr, "it's really a symbolic place in the American heart; it's the place where originally fame was manufactured."

The musicals give us pieces of the history and culture of their time, according to Laurence Maslon, a master teacher in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

The man who wrote the words to "Over the Rainbow" puts it still another way. Edgar "Yip" Harburg speaks as a lyricist: "A song is the pulse of a nation's heart, of its health. Are we at peace? Are we in trouble? Do we feel beautiful? Are we violent? Listen to our songs."