A brief history of the Musical

by Piero Scaruffi
A chapter of my History of Popular Music

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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Popular Music")
Continued from New York: the Musical

Post-war Musical


New York: the Post-war Musical

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

After World War II, the most adventurous musicals followed in the footsteps of Oklahoma (1944), and showtunes dominated American popular music.

Jule Styne composed High Button Shoes (1947), with I Still Get Jealous and Papa Won't You Dance With Me, and especially Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), based on Anita Loos' 1925 novel, with Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friends. His other musicals included songs such as It's Magic (1948), Three Coins In The Fountain (1954), The Party's Over (1956), Everything's Coming Up Roses (1959), until Funny Girl (1964), the musical biography of Fanny Brice, that launched the career of Barbra Streisand.

Frank Loesser delivered the hit of the decade: Guys and Dolls (1950), that included Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat, I've Never Been In Love Before and Luck Be A Lady Tonight. The Most Happy Fella (1956), with Standing On The Corner, was even more ambitious. He also composed See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have (1939), Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunitions (1942, his greatest hit), I Don't Want To Walk Without You Baby (1942), Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year (1944), On A Show Boat to China (1948), Baby It's Cold Outside (1949).

The new standard of quality was set by composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan-Jay Lerner. Loewe's score for the fairy tale Brigadoon (1947), that included Almost Like Being In Love and There But For You Go I, was typical of his delicate romanticism and eclectic style. After Paint Your Wagon (1951), with I Talk To The Trees, Wanderin' Star and They Call The Wind Mariah, the duo reached their zenith with My Fair Lady (1956), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1914) that boasted countless catchy tunes (With A Little Bit of Luck, I Could Have Danced All Night, On The Street Where You Live, that was a major hit for years). I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, They also penned Vincent Minnelli's film Gigi (1958), with Thank God For Little Girls, and the eccentric Camelot (1960), based on Terence-Hanbury White's The Once And Future King (1958).

Classical composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein brought to the musical his exuberant creativity: the jazz dance fantasia On The Town (1944), the eclectic Wonderful Town (1953), the comic operetta Candide (1956), based on Voltaire's novel, and finally West Side Story (1957), the decade's masterpiece, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in the world of street gangs, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and an endless parade of memorable melodies (America, Dance at the Gym, Tonight, I Feel Pretty, Gee Officer Krupke, Maria and Somewhere) set to rousing rhythms. This musical was, de facto, a most serious attempt at creating an American opera as a genre distinct from European opera. Leonard Bernstein also scored Elia Kazan's films On The Waterfront (1954) and East of Eden (1954).

In Europe, a notable musical was Marguerite Monnot's Irma La Douce (1956). In London, the first major sensation of the post-war musical was Lionel Bart's rock'n'roll score for Frank Norman's play Fings Ain't What They Used To Be (1959), set in the underworld, followed by Bart's most successful work, Oliver (1968). Leslie Bricusse composed Stop The World I Want To Get Off (1961).

Show tunes declined rapidly after the advent of rock music. Unlike jazz, that had coexisted peacefully with the Broadway musical, and the "fake" rock'n'roll of Elvis Presley and the Beatles (who were still, basically, singers in the old tradition), "progressive" rock music of the Sixties seemed antithetic to the whole notion of the show tune. The musical seemed to be dying a slow but unstoppable death, despite Jerry Herman's Hello Dolly (1964), a musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker, Sheldon Harnick's Fiddler on the Roof (1964), an adaptation of Sholom Aleichem's stories, and John Kander's Cabaret (1966), the most original productions of the Sixties. The age of the hippies was better represented by small-budget off-Broadway productions such as Galt MacDermot's Hair (1968), with Aquarius and Let the Sunshine In, Oh Calcutta (1969), an erotic revue devised by British drama critic Kenneth Tynan.

The rock influence peaked in the 1970s with Charles Strouse's Applause (1970), a rock adaptation of Joseph Mankiewicz's film All About Eve (1950), Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Jim Jacobs' and Warren Casey's Grease (1972), a nostalgic collage of rock melodies from the Fifties plus their own Greased Lightnin' and John Farrar's You're The One That I Want, Pete Townshend's Tommy (1975), adapted from the Who's 1969 rock opera, and Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), a spoof of horror and sci-fi stereotypes with strong sexual overtones, one of the greatest (and wildest) musicals of all times.

A country where the musical comedy boomed in those years was Italy, whose variety show had been strongly influenced by the American invasion of 1943. Armando Trovajoli composed the two most popular musicals: Rugantino (1962), that included his hit song Roma Nun Fa La Stupida Stasera, and Aggiungi un Posto a Tavola (1974).

The decline of the Broadway musical had several concomitant causes. First and foremost, the competition of television soap operas, that catered to the same audience as the musical. Then the escalating production costs, that simply made it too risky a venture for entrepreneurs who could invest their money in more reliable ventures (a film can be shown in thousands of theaters at the same time). In terms of "taste", the musical never truly managed to assimilate the new taste that developed with the advent of rock'n'roll, disco music and hip-hop. Somehow, the musical had successfully assimilated new genres (ragtime, jazz) up until the Sixties. In the Sixties, rock music introduced not only a new musical paradigm but also new forms of consumption (from Woodstock to the video clip) that were simply not compatible with the theatrical format. Finally, there certainly was a change in the national psyche: as the Cold War forced the USA to abandon its childhood (made of easy victories against clearcut enemies such as the Indians and the Nazis) and entered its adulthood (a difficult time of subtle strategizing and risky undertakings on a global scale), the musical had a hard time abandoning its childhood, and eventually fell out of synch with the rest of society.

New York: the Concept Musical

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Just when the musical seemed doomed to become only a footnote in the history of rock music, along came a new generation of literate, vibrant "authors", who actually redefined the very notion of the "author" as well as the very notion of "musical".

Bob Fosse's musicals were a first significant step in redefining the musical. Fosse showed little interest in storytelling, plots and characters. He was a musical artist for the sake of the art of the musical, in a sense a true post-modernist genius: his musicals were about the musical. Each musical was a manneristic exploration of themes prevalent in the history of the musical, whether sex or dancing. Pippin (1972), scored by Stephen Schwartz (Corner of the Sky), Chicago (1975), scored by John Kander (All That Jazz), Dancin' (1978), a loose collage of vintage dance-related numbers (famous as "the musical that got rid of the author").

The towering musical genius of the musical at end of the century was Stephen Sondheim, who revealed his complete persona of both creative composer and virtuoso lyricist with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), a cunning musical adaptation of the farces of Roman playwright Plautus. However, he best channelled his aesthetic vision into his later "concept" musicals, that, typically complex and dark in nature, confronted contemporary and universal issues, straddling the line between William Shakespeare and Ingmar Bergman, and, in the process, neglected the melodic aspect in favor of analytic depth: Company (1970), the manifesto of his major theme (middle-class alienation), Follies (1971), a meditation on nostalgy, A Little Night Music (1973), a musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of A Summer Night (1955), that, despite the intellectual setting, produced Sondheim's only hit song ever, Send In The Clowns, the kabuki pastiche Pacific Overtures (1976), that includes scene conceived as stand-alone mini-musicals, the operatic drama Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), a bold musical biography of French painter Georges Seurat, Into the Woods (1987), almost a multi-textured literary exegesis of the fairy tale (famous characters of the world of fables such as Cinderella and Snow White live out their stories in the same forest at the same time), and the bleak Passion (1994), that was almost the antithesis of the "musical comedy". Sondheim always seemed morbidly attracted by happiness like a man who can only envy it in others but never personally achieve it, and thus can only speculate on how it feels without actually feeling it. Basically, Sondheim destroyed the moral certainties that Rodgers and Hammerstein had created. Human life looked suddenly loose and undefined, awash in an ambivalent moral universe.

The influence of Sondheim and Fosse led to Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line (1975), mostly scored by Marvin Hamlisch, an era-defining event.

But the creative crisis of the musical was still raging, as proven by the nostalgic mood of the Seventies that prompted revivals of just about everything (musicals, burlesques, fairy tales, etc). The best manifestations of this trend were probably Charles Strouse's old-fashioned Annie (1976), inspired by the Little Orphan Annie comic strip, and Gower Champion's 42nd Street (1980), a remake of Lloyd Bacon's film of 1933, originally choreographed by Busby Berkeley. These productions seemed to poke fun at the musical while the musical was dying.

Andrew Lloyd-Webber was the (British) composer who single-handedly resurrected the musical. As a teenager, he and lyricist Tim Rice had already envisioned a futuristic production, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1967), influenced by the psychedelic age, followed by Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), the first Broadway musical entirely devoted to rock music (with the anthemic title-song). Lloyd-Webber and Rice successfully transposed the traditional musical into the technological age with Evita (1979), a musical biography of Eva Peron that included the hit song Don't Cry For Me Argentina (one of the last show tunes to be able to compete in the charts with pop, soul and rock music), and then did the same to the traditional revue with Cats (1982), based on Thomas-Stearns Eliot's book and relying more on effects than on melodies (Memory) and to the operetta with Phantom of the Opera (1986) and to the extravaganza with the truly extravagant (but high-tech) Starlight Express (1984). Lloyd-Webber's light-weight spectacles were the exact opposite of (almost the antidote to, or maybe complementary to) Sondheim's brainy meditations.

A similar style was pursued in France by Claude-Michel Schonberg, who attained world-wide success with Les Miserables (1980) a musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, and Miss Saigon (1989), which transposed Puccini's Madama Butterfly in Vietnam. He became the first French composer of musical theater since Jacques Offenbach to become a star in the USA.

Alan Menken's sci-fi spoof Little Shop of Horrors (1982), a musical adaptation of Roger Corman's horror film of 1960, started a vogue for animated musicals.

Veterans thrived in the new atmosphere, delivering some of the most adventurous musicals of the era, for example Jerry Herman's La Cage Aux Folles (1983) and John Kander's Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1993).

The nostalgic element was not dead yet, as Maury Yeston's Titanic (1997) and Lynn Ahrens's and Stephen Flaherty's Ragtime (1998) proved (two musicals inspired by the styles of the early 20th century).

Hans Zimmer's The Lion King (1997) marked two important changes: it was the first hit scored by a former rock musician (ex Buggles), and it was the first major hit produced for a corporation (the Disney Corporation) not a traditional impresario.

Hollywood: the Post-war Musical Films

Hugh Martin scored Vincent Minnelli's nostalgic epic Meet Me In St Louis (1944), that included Kerry Mills' Meet Me In St Louis (1904) and Martin's The Boy Next Door, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and The Trolley Song. The musical genre was declining in Hollywood, but Vincent Minnelli dominated whatever was left of it by employing Cole Porter for The Pirate (1948), George Gershwin for An American In Paris (1951), Frederick Loewe for Gigi (1958).

In the 1950s, Stanley Donen managed to compete against Minnelli with Singin' In The Rain (1952), starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, for which Nacio Herb Brown assembled a sort of personal anthology of hits. Gene DePaul scored Donen's second classic, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).

George Cukor's best musical were as light as his comedies: A Star Is Born (1954), scored by Ray Heindorf, and Les Girls (1957), scored by, scored by Cole Porter.

The best of the Doris Day musicals was probably David Butler's Calamity Jane (1953), scored by Sammy Fain.

But rock'n'roll, launched by a soundtrack, Richard Brooks' The Blackboard Jungle (1955), was pervasive also in musical films, particularly Elvis Presley's numerous vehicles: Jailhouse Rock (1956), Girls Girls Girls (1962) and Viva Las Vegas (1964), all based on his hits.

Robert Stevenson's Mary Poppins (1964), scored by Richard Sherman Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, (Chim Chim Cher-Ee, Feed The Birds, A Spoonful of Sugar), signaled that the musical was transitioning from entertainment for adults to entertainment for children.

Martin Scorsese's New York New York (1977), scored by John Kander (notably the title-tune), and Blake Edwards' Victor/Victoria (1982), scored by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, were the only notable musicals for adults for a while, a sign of rapid decline.

It was, in fact, the Disney corporation that dominated musical films in the 1990s. Alan Menken scored several Walt Disney animated musical productions: The Little Mermaid (1989), Robert-Jess Roth Beauty and the Beast (1991), John Musker's and Ron Clements' Aladdin (1992), Mike Gabriel's and Eric Goldberg's Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Elton John took over for The Lion King (1994).

Baz Luhrmann's futuristic Moulin Rouge (2001), starring Nicole Kidman and using a collage of new and old songs from differet songwriters (arranged and glued together by Craig Armstrong), was the first successful attempt at revitalizing the musical film in three decades.


See my list of the best musicals of all times.
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