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American Musicals: 1927-1969

A confession: I love American musicals. I’ve loved them ever since the day my older brother brought home a long-playing record player and the original cast recording of South Pacific (1949), newly issued on an LP album. I was immediately addicted and as a soon-to-be teenager began following the openings of Broadway musicals and reading Brooks Atkinson’s reviews in The New York Times at the local public library a block away. As soon as the original cast albums were available, I’d buy them, listen to them for hours, quickly learning the songs from dozens and dozens of Broadway musicals. When the scripts were published, I’d read them also. It was years before I’d actually see one of the shows—not on Broadway but in St Louis where we schlepped (a long distance from southern Iowa) to see Yul Bryner in the touring production of The King and I. That would have been sometime in the mid-50s, a production I’ve remembered for more than half a century.

I still love musicals but my addictions have moved elsewhere. These are some of the reasons I welcomed one of the latest additions to The Library of America and delighted reading the scripts of many of the American musicals over four decades. The two-volume collection (with dozens of black-and-white and color photographs of the plays) contains the texts of sixteen American musicals, from 1927 to 1969. I know all of these musicals, have seen all of them (some of them multiple times) with the exception of one and you, reader, do not know it either.

Here are the fifteen I am familiar with: Show Boat (1927), Pal Joey (1940), Oklahoma! (1943), On the Town (1944), Finian’s Rainbow (1947), Kiss Me, Kate (1948), South Pacific (1949), Guys and Dolls (1950), The Pajama Game (1956), My Fair Lady (1956), Gypsy (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Forum (1964), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Cabaret (1969), and 1776 (1969). The first one of these that I actually saw on Broadway was My Fair Lady, still my favorite musical of all times. I saw the original cast a few weeks after the musical opened—when it was sold out for months—by standing in front of the Mark Hellinger Theatre box office overnight in order to get two standing-room tickets for the following evening. Was it worth it? Of course, and because I was young, I a stood there the following night and scalped my tickets and earned my first money from the theater.

I’ve seen all the others staged, or as movies, with multiple variations from what was originally intended. A couple of years ago, Arena Stage in Washington, remounted My Fair Lady, with race-blind casting. Eliza Doolittle and her father, Alfred, were both Asian. Freddy Eynsford-Hill was Latino. Although I generally favor this approach to casting, I did not think it worked for that production, especially Asians with Cockney accents. I can think of other productions of some of these musicals that struck me as a bit forced, which is not to say that all roles need to be filled by actors of the ethnicity implied. I saw the original production of My Fair Lady in Spanish, in Mexico City, and thought what I observed was superb. But I think some roles (Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof) produced in English shouldn’t be altered beyond their original intent.

Let’s turn to the sixteenth show: As Thousands Cheer (1933). This is the first time the text has ever been published, though if you have followed American musicals, you are familiar with some of the songs: “We’re Having a Heat Wave,” for example, sung by Ethel Waters; or “Easter Parade,” by Irving Berlin, which most people attribute to the 1948 movie of that title, but there it is in the 1933 production of As Thousands Cheer, which was more of a review than an actual story with a plot. The 1933 musical also featured such songs as “Supper Time” and “Harlem on My Mind,” but also the curious “Debts,” because As Thousands Cheer is very much a Depression musical. I’d call it, in fact, the real find of this collection of sixteen musicals.

As Thousands Cheer must have been controversial since the sequences include one with President Hoover about to depart from the White House for the last time; another about J.D. Rockefeller, called “World’s Wealthiest Man Celebrates Ninety-Fourth Birthday” that has no song); another titled “Unknown Negro Lynched by Frenzied Mob,” that includes “Supper Time,” again sung by Ethel Waters; then there’s “Gandhi Goes on New Hunger Strike” (again, with no song); then “Prince of Wales Rumored Engaged” (no song); and “Josephine Baker Still the Rage of Paris,” to wit, it’s a genuine melting pot of racial and social issues. Laurence Maslon, the editor of the two-volume collection, says that the production ran for 400 performances, which isn’t bad for such cutting-edge material. There has never been a subsequent production, which the show sadly cries out for.

The racial issues in As Thousands Cheer are present in a number of other musicals in the collection, suggesting that they will not go away: Show Boat, of course, but also South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret. It’s clear that the criteria for being included in the collection is that book, lyrics, and music be written by Americans. Still, I have never thought of My Fair Lady as an American musical. The same could be said of Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret. The settings of all three are Europe and the issues are largely European. Show Boat, Oklahoma, and Guys and Dolls are quintessentially American. To a lesser degree, that argument can also be made for Pal Joey, On the Town, The Pajama Game and 1776. I can show my biases by saying that I’ve never enjoyed Gypsy and 1776.

So we’re asked, in part, what is a genuine American musical? American conflicts and issues and American settings for certain, and if the two volumes had stretched a little further—or included additional scripts—I would have argued for Carousel (1945), Hair (1968), and A Chorus Line (1975), which immediately come to mind. There are plenty of others, of course, and it’s easy to ask, why doesn’t the collection include Damn Yankees (1955), about the all-American sport: baseball? Well, the possibilities are extensive, and as most critics have long agreed, the musical comedy was once a genuine American form. But, then the Europeans took over, with some of the most dazzling musicals of the last few decades. I’ll mention only Les Mis (1987) and Evita (1979), my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of a string of hits.

Yes, I’ve failed to mention all the great lyricists and composers who have filled our hearts with so many memorable songs from so many dazzling musicals. It all started with them, which is only to say that reading through the sixteen musicals in Laurence Maslon’s American Musicals, you can’t stop tapping your foot and silently singing the melodies to all these great songs. Reading them is pure delight.

PS—The two-volume boxed edition comes with sixteen color postcards of the original Broadway posters. What a nice addition, but I’m being sentimental.

Laurence Maslon, Ed: American Musicals: 1927-1969.

The Library of America, Two Vols., 1442 pp., $75. Boxed

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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