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Dazzling Magical Spectacular Madcap Broadway

By Scott Ethier | HUMANITIES, September/October 2004 | Volume 25, Number 5

When Florenz Ziegfeld arrived in New York City looking for an act for the Chicago world's fair, there were no theaters north of 42nd Street. But further down on Broadway, he found comedy acts from vaudeville, blackface minstrel shows, and European-style operettas with beautiful maidens and heroic princes. Ziegfeld brought all these elements together in a dazzling spectacle and transformed himself into Broadway's first great showman. His Follies, a mélange of song, dance, and comedy, took the French Folies-Bergère and made it American.

In Broadway: The American Musical, filmmaker Michael Kantor tells the story of the Broadway musical from its inception. The six-part documentary begins its story with the opening of the Times Square subway station and the creation of the modern theater district in New York City, and follows the development of the musical through the 2003-2004 season and the opening of Stephen Schwartz's Wicked.

The documentary features hours of archival footage and provides a historical context for the stories, characters, and songs from the past century that audiences have come to cherish. "While the Broadway musical is an entertainment, the series is meant to entertain and educate," Kantor says.

Most histories of the American musical emphasize the "musical" aspect, but Laurence Maslon, adviser to the series, says that this film is the first to deal with the "'American' part of the equation, and how the musical reflects American history and trends in American history, and in turn creates American history."

Broadway chronicles the lives of many familiar characters, from George Gershwin and Cole Porter to Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. But it also tells the stories of some less familiar characters--stories that show how American culture and history are reflected in the musical comedy.

One such story is that of Bert Williams, an exceptional comedian and performer in the early days of Broadway. He got his start in vaudeville at the end of the nineteenth century. Williams was not only a great talent, but also an educated and refined man. As a light-skinned African American performer, he was expected to perform in blackface and to play the stereotypical characters of turn-of-the-century minstrelsy. In the 1910s, Williams joined the Ziegfeld Follies, scripting a good deal of his own material. He did a routine with the white comedian Leon Errol, becoming the first black performer to appear alongside a white performer on Broadway.

Ziegfeld protected Williams, and when some performers threatened to quit rather than appear onstage with Williams, Ziegfeld told them, "Go if you want to. I can replace every one of you, except the man you want me to fire."

Williams once told American Magazine, "I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient."

In November of 1926, Ziegfeld heard the first act of Show Boat, with Jerome Kern's music. The next day he told his secretary, Goldie, "This is the best musical comedy I have been fortunate to get a hold of. This show is the opportunity of my life."

Kern had read Edna Ferber's novel about a Mississippi show boat, and teamed up with a thirty-one-year-old writer named Oscar Hammerstein II to turn the epic tragedy into a musical. "It was seismic then, that's for sure; the earth shook," says director and producer Hal Prince. "There was this incredible centerpiece of a scene in the first act, the miscegenation scene, which had about eight leading characters, all interrelating, no songs, and an incredibly complex political plot about miscegenation."

"What Oscar Hammerstein did, I think primarily, was to marry European operetta and American musical comedy tradition," Stephen Sondheim comments in the documentary. "And Show Boat is the apotheosis of that, in which you tell a story, but unlike European operetta, a serious story, or a story that has some realism, if you want to use such a word. And I think that one of the reasons Show Boat turned out as well as it did is that Kern knew what Oscar was trying to do and he was just as interested in doing it."

During the Great Depression, many of the musicals produced on Broadway took a turn from light and dazzling entertainments to more explicitly political material. Songwriter Harold Rome wrote a revue sponsored by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called Pins and Needles. George and Ira Gershwin wrote Strike Up the Band, a political satire that won a Pulitzer Prize. Irving Berlin created As Thousands Cheer, a revue based on newspaper headlines and featuring the song "Suppertime," which addresses the lynching of a black man in the South.

"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," wrote Edgar "Yip" Harburg, lyricist of such Depression-era songs as "Brother Can You Spare A Dime" and "Over the Rainbow."

One of the great achievements of the thirties was George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Gershwin's inspiration, like Kern's, came from a novel. DuBose Heyward's best-seller, Porgy, tells the painful love story of a crippled black man in a Southern tenement. Gershwin set out to create what he called a "folk opera" based on the story and traveled with Heyward to Folly Island, South Carolina. "As we sat listening to their spirituals, to George it was more like a homecoming than an exploration," Heyward recalls. "The Gullah prides himself on what he calls 'shouting.' This is a complicated rhythmic pattern beaten out by feet and hands. At a Negro meeting on a remote sea-island, George started 'shouting' with them, and eventually, to their huge delight, stole the show from their champion shouter."

"I decided against the use of original folk material because I wanted the music to be all of one piece," Gershwin said. "Therefore I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs. But they are still folk music."

The show was unusual in that it was an opera--performed in a Broadway house--that explored the black experience with serious intentions and a tragic tone.

"It is a Russian who has directed it, two Southerners who have written its book, two Jewish boys who have composed its lyrics and music, and a stage full of Negroes who sing and act it to perfection," John Mason Brown wrote in the New York Evening Post. "The result is one of the far-famed wonders of the melting pot, the most American opera that has yet been seen or heard."

Gershwin's portrayal of African American life did not sit well with everyone. "Grand music and a swell play," wrote composer Duke Ellington not long after the show premiered, "but the two don't go together. . . . The first thing that gives it away is that it does not use the Negro musical idiom. It was not the music of Catfish Row or any other kind of Negroes.

"What happened when the girl selling strawberries came on the stage?" he asked. "Did he get the rhythm, the speech, and the 'swing' of the street-vendor? No, sir, he did not; he went dramatic! Gershwin had the girl stop cold, take her stance, and sing an aria in the would-be Negro manner."

Porgy and Bess played 124 performances in its 1935 premiere production, but it was a financial failure. It was George Gershwin's last work for the Broadway stage--two years later, at the age of thirty-eight, he died of a brain tumor.

That same year Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, a Brechtian pro-labor musical, was padlocked on its opening night by its sponsor, the Federal Theater Project. The actors and musicians were prohibited by their unions from taking part in the production, but Orson Welles and John Houseman, the director and producer, led the audience and actors twenty blocks uptown to another theater. There, the playwright appeared onstage without props or scenery. "And in the next two hours, all the actors in the cast, with one or two exceptions, stood in the house, stood in boxes, stood in the aisles, ran around, changed their positions, sang songs, duets, separated by the whole width of the theater, did all kinds of extraordinary pieces of improvisation," says Houseman in a 1976 interview for The Cradle That Rocked Broadway. "The net result of this was one of the most thrilling and extraordinary world premieres I've ever been--anyone has ever been--at."

Broadway would change during the next few decades and become less ready to take on controversial material. "In the thirties, during the Depression, the Broadway musical is very political, very intense," Maslon says. "Rodgers and Hammerstein in the forties and fifties, and for a long part of the sixties, took all that away."

In popular culture, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein are known for some of the great songs of the last century: "My Favorite Things," "Getting to Know You," and "You'll Never Walk Alone." But in musical theater Rodgers and Hammerstein occupy a singular place. Their 1943 show Oklahoma! was not only the longest-running show of its time, but it also broke new ground in the form of the musical comedy, or the "musical play," as Rodgers and Hammerstein named their new creation.

"Musical comedy, which is what it was originally called, stopped, really, with the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows," says John Lahr, theater critic for The New Yorker. "The word 'comedy' got dropped, it was then the musical. And from that point on, the creative drive of the shows was from the writers of the show."

With a few exceptions, the centerpiece of Broadway musicals of the twenties and thirties had been the songs and the dances. The spoken dialog, known as "the book," was often little more than a way to get from one song-and-dance number to the next. "Oscar invented the musical book. It started to take form in Show Boat, and when he got finally to Oklahoma!, he was dealing with a book that was quite difficult. He made the score follow the book instead of the other way around," says Peter Stone, a musical book writer, in the documentary.

Oklahoma! tells the story of a young farmhand named Curly in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma, who tries to win the heart of a young woman named Laurey.

Lyricist Patrick Cook says one of Hammerstein's great gifts was the ability to allow his characters to speak poetically, and with a poetry that was true to character. When Jud, a malcontent and outsider, wants to express his yearning for Laurey, he uses simple yet fresh and effective images to express his emotions.

The floor creaks,
The door squeaks,
There's a fieldmouse a-nibblin' on a broom.
And I set by myself
Like a cobweb on a shelf,
By myself in a lonely room.

But when there's a moon in my winder
And it slants down a beam 'cros my bed
Then the shadder of a tree starts a-dancin' on the wall
And a dream starts a-dancin' in my head.

But when Oklahoma! premiered in 1943, it was not the formal innovations or the mastery of craft that drew audiences. Writer Max Wilk explains that with the onset of World War II, Broadway produced "more musical comedies and they did more vaudeville because it was for entertainment . . . that's the secret of the success of Oklahoma! It was one of those shows that came out in 1943 in the dead of World War II. And there was one of the biggest hits there ever was.

"The first time I saw it, it was staggering," Wilk says. "Wherever I go and talk about Oklahoma!, somebody who's my age will come up to me and say, 'you know, I was in the theater at the St. James Theater and I saw that show in 1943 and it was the most exciting night of my life and I never forgot it . . . and wasn't it wonderful because it gave you hope that someday the war would be over and everybody would come back and there was kind of like a golden glow coming off that stage.'"

From the premier of Oklahoma! until the mid 1960s--the period known as the "Golden Age of Broadway" --the "book musical" became the dominant type of show with the production of musicals such as Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof.

When Rodgers and Hammerstein approached social issues, they did so gingerly. Scholar Lawrence Kramer says their shows "studiously ignore" the presence of black people in America and "deal instead with safely remote cultural others," as they do in South Pacific.

One of the themes of South Pacific is racial prejudice, but Hammerstein's lyrics deal with tensions far from home; they speak of the discomfort that the main character, Nellie Forbush, feels because the French planter she is in love with has two children who are half-Asian. In the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," Hammerstein writes,

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

Largely absent from the shows of the Golden Age was an acknowledgment of the increasing social turbulence in America. "The Broadway musical left the sixties behind almost completely," Maslon says. "You could go to Broadway and not see a single thing that had anything to do with the real world."

And then Hair made its debut. Broadway's disengagement with the outside world came to a halt, at least temporarily, when the musical opened on Broadway in 1968. Hair was unlike anything Broadway had seen in decades. It spoke to current issues and attitudes using the language and music of the day, and in that way, was reminiscent of the politically charged shows of the thirties. Its score was made up entirely of rock music, the cast mingled with the audience, and moreover, the show contained cursing, drug use, and protests against the Vietnam War--and the first act culminated in a nude scene.

"Vietnam was a major plot point in the show, but the war wasn't really the main thing; the main thing was the lifestyle," says Hair's composer, Galt Macdermont. "It seemed to be more about hippies, you know, growing their hair long and wearing different kinds of clothes."

Hair was first presented Off Broadway, and after it became a downtown hit, it was moved to a more expensive and high profile run on Broadway. Hair marked the start of Off-Broadway's role as a breeding ground for new Broadway shows.

Hair laid the groundwork for shows such as Stephen Schwartz's Godspell and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, both of which use rock music in their retellings of the Gospels. But the show's influence was not as pervasive as that of Oklahoma! twenty-five years earlier. In many ways, the seventies were an aimless period for the Broadway musical. The old masters of the form seemed to be lost. When two of the greatest writers of the fifties--Alan Jay Lerner, lyricist for My Fair Lady, and Leonard Bernstein, the composer of West Side Story--wrote a show together in 1976, the result was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one of Broadway's legendary flops.

One of the most important events of the seventies--from an artistic if not a commercial standpoint--was the arrival of Company, created by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim, who cut his teeth as a songwriter during the Golden Age, was too much a part of the previous generation to be influenced by Hair; he was forty years old when Company opened in 1970. But Company provided a fresh approach to the Broadway musical. It tells the story of Bobby, a thirty-five-year-old man in contemporary New York City who is grappling with the question of whether it is time to get married.

Company was what became known as a "concept musical." It has no plot; the story does not progress linearly from one event in the character's life to the next. Rather, it is a series of vignettes through which the audience gets acquainted with Bobby and sees him grapple with this one issue. The songs are smart, the attitude is cynical, and nothing is resolved--Bobby never comes to a decision.

The songs of Company had strong roots in the Broadway tradition, but their tone of ambivalence was right in tune with the times. An ensemble of men sing to Bobby about what married life is like:

You're always sorry
You're always grateful,
You're always wondering what might have been,
Then she walks in.

By using the materials, language, and craft of the Broadway musical to tell a story that was far removed from the values of the Golden Age shows, Sondheim created the most subversive show of his day. "Musicals for decades have had no doubts about if you find the right person, you may go the rocky road of love, but it would always lead to the so-called happy ending," Sondheim says in Broadway. "We were saying something ambiguous, which is, actually there are no endings. It keeps going on is what really Company's about."

Lahr says in an on-camera interview, "Broadway was always about fun, about joy. Whereas the city was a plaything for Gershwin, in Sondheim's world it's a place where you lose things, where you can't find yourself, where you're alienated, where 'another hundred people' come out of the subway. So it's an ambivalent ending. But I think, to the extent that those endings are earned, they are more mature, and more interesting to sing about."

Sondheim continued to break new ground throughout the seventies with director Hal Prince, but his shows had limited commercial success. The theater district was in decline. Times Square was increasingly overrun with crime and pornography, and the musical suffered as theatergoers avoided the neighborhood. Broadway needed a real hit to lure audiences back.

That hit was A Chorus Line, which opened on Broadway in 1976. Like Company, it was a concept musical, and the concept was deceptively simple: a number of dancers audition for a part in a chorus, and through the course of the auditions, the audience gets to know the usually anonymous dancers as individuals. As in a real audition, some of the dancers get a part and some are cut.

The characters of A Chorus Line were modeled after real Broadway dancers the writers interviewed. The show was developed and refined through months of workshops and first opened at the Public Theater, a nonprofit Off-Broadway theater, before moving to Broadway.

A Chorus Line incorporates many of the innovations of Hair and Company. The attitude and style was contemporary. The characters talk and sing openly about their parents' affairs, coming out of the closet, masturbation, and being ethnically stereotyped. But A Chorus Line ultimately rejects cynicism and ambivalence and ends with a love song to show business and an old-fashioned Broadway production number. Audiences responded enthusiastically, and A Chorus Line became the longest running Broadway show of its time.

A Chorus Line helped lure audiences back to the theater district and opened the way for hits such as Annie in 1977, Ain't Misbehavin' in 1978, and 42nd Street in 1980. The theater district's renaissance continued through the eighties and nineties.

The next wave of Broadway hits were introduced by British impresario Cameron Macintosh, who brought audiences back in droves and charmed them with the biggest spectacles Broadway had seen since the time of Ziegfeld. Starting with Cats in 1982 and continuing with Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon, Macintosh produced the shows that have become synonymous with Broadway during the past twenty years.

His formula was simple and effective. Macintosh would find a show that had been a proven hit somewhere else--usually London's West End--and transplant the production to Broadway. After Broadway, Macintosh would launch productions all over the world, turning the show into an international franchise.

At about the same time Macintosh opened Cats, Sondheim left Broadway. Sondheim's shows had never been great commercial successes; his 1980 collaboration with Hal Prince, Merrily We Roll Along, ran only sixteen performances. Sondheim continued to create in a workshop at Playwrights Horizons, a nonprofit Off-Broadway theater company located almost in the shadow of Ziegfeld's New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street. In ten years, he created his next three shows there, in the 150-seat theater: Sunday in the Park with George, about painter Georges Seurat's passion for his work; Assassins, which deals with the history of presidential assassinations; and Into the Woods, which blends the fairy tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood.

Each of these shows eventually found its way to Broadway for modest runs, although it took Assassins more than a decade to make it there. Some saw Sondheim's shows as the antidote for the Macintosh spectacles. "What Sondheim has is an avant-garde sensibility in a popular art form," Lahr says in Broadway. "But when we start to see musicals about pointillism and making art, the musical has gone a long way from its original popular roots. And I think that is the strength and the weakness of Sondheim."

While Broadway has always been part art and part business, the most ground-breaking and inspired shows were often the most successful. Showboat, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, and other landmarks found both critical and commercial success.

But the Sondheim/Macintosh divergence that began in the early eighties set the tone for the next two decades. In one corner are big-budget commercial shows, and in the other, shows that push the limits of the form but are almost guaranteed money-losers. In today's Broadway, Disney, Clear Channel, and other corporations have largely taken the place of Macintosh as the producers of the extravaganzas. Developing innovative shows is left to nonprofit organizations such as the Public Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, and Manhattan Theater Club.

While some lament the rise of corporate producers, the money and resources Disney has poured into revitalizing Times Square has made the theater district a more inviting destination than it was thirty years ago. And there is plenty of room for both kinds of musicals to thrive. In the last decade, a number of critically acclaimed shows that started in the nonprofit world, such as Rent, Urinetown, Contact, and Avenue Q, have equaled or surpassed the commercial success of their corporate competitors.

Kantor's film sees post-9/11 audiences looking for diversion and light entertainment in such shows as Hairspray. "At first it seemed inappropriate to go to the theater, but in fact it became almost like medicine: top-notch performers doing their best to make you have a little relief from that grief," says Susan Stroman, director of The Producers. "Right now, people want more of an escape, as they did after World War II. So for the next five or ten years I think we're going to see more musical comedies."

Despite commercial pressures and changing times, the theater caricaturist Al Hirschfeld believed in the ability of Broadway to offer new and important shows. "The form changes, and that's difficult for a lot of people to accept," he said in a taped interview. "They're stuck in their one period and they think that's the period that's important, but it could be just a passing fancy that nobody will even take seriously in another fifty years. It changes, and you have to roll with the punches.

"I've been hearing about Broadway disappearing ever since I put on long pants," Hirschfeld said. "It's been the fabulous invalid, you know, but it survives, it survives."

About the Author

Scott Ethier is a composer and freelance writer in New York City.

Funding Information

The Educational Broadcasting Corporation has received $1,074,540 in NEH support for Broadway: The American Musical, which will broadcast on PBS in October. A companion book of the same title, along with CD, DVD, and VHS versions of the series, will also be released. An educational website for middle and high school students will be launched at in October.