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21 December 2013


Tag(s): Languages & Culture
When I was very young my parents would take my sister and me to see a pantomime at Christmas. It was the done thing but I hated it. I couldn’t understand why the Ugly Sisters were actually two ugly men while Prince Charming wore tights and was just a slightly taller girl than Cinderella. I loved the story of Peter Pan and again was confused that he was also played by a girl be she slightly taller than Wendy. And so when it came to my turn to bring up children I decided we would not inflict this drivel on them. Instead we would give them some decent entertainment, sometimes a ballet but more often a musical. My wife was willing to fall in with this plan as being Chilean she had never suffered the torment of a pantomime and I don’t think our children have ever complained.

The musical evolved from a variety of sources: variety itself, light operetta, comic opera, revue and more. Its traditions developed on both sides of the Atlantic and, though the Broadway musical has emerged as the stronger and more fecund, from time to time major contributions are made on this side of the Atlantic which feed the tradition. And of course much of the literature off which musicals feed is European.

But what is a “musical”? Writing in 2010 in his excellent history of Broadway musicals, “Showtime[i]Larry Stempel says:

“The musical” eludes easy definition. The term itself is hardly satisfactory. Apart from its grammatical awkwardness – one might reasonably ask, “The musical what?” – one speaks of the musical as if the term had always been in use and as if the concept was self-evident. Neither is the case. As the term of choice, "musical” has only been in circulation for about half a century. Before the 1960s, musical comedy generally described the field; before that light opera and comparable terms served a similar function.

In any event the term does not refer to any single form but to a collection of many practices. These generally include dialogue, singing, usually accompanied by musicians out of sight of the audience, and dancing. The balance between these three forms varies hugely and dance may not always be present. Indeed in a sung-through musical like Les Misérables the talking has also disappeared. When a new set of writers brought something fresh to the genre critics struggled to define it. Today everyone would classify Oklahoma! as a musical but when it premièred in 1943 it was variously described as a book musical, a musical comedy, a musical play, an operetta, and a folk opera. In a sense, all were correct.

Italian opera has been sung-through for centuries but in the eighteenth century “English opera” evolved  consisting of several types of plays with added songs. The ballad opera, for example, often consisted of a satirical play interspersed with simple airs, popular tunes, and broadside ballads. John Gay’s landmark comedy of 1728, The Beggar’s Opera, not only served as the prototype, it continued to influence later developments on the musical stage to such an extent that historians now tend to view it as a forerunner of the modern musical. In America another landmark piece was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Countless adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental but important novel were staged but the most significant was scripted by George L. Aiken with six acts, eight tableaux, thirty scenes and a variety of songs, some inside the drama and some outside. First performed in 1853 the play was so successful it ran for over a year in New York, unheard of at that time.
In the last third of the 19th century the American economy boomed and leisure rose as a distinct cultural phenomenon for a growing urban middle class. In 1880 a future President James A. Garfield said “We may divide the whole struggle of the human race into two chapters. First the fight to get leisure; and then the second fight of civilization – what shall we do with our leisure when we get it.” New forms of consumption, recreation and diversion were developed that ingeniously catered for a whole variety of tastes at once. For consumption, for example: the department store. For recreation: the amusement park. And for diversion: the variety show.

Meanwhile in England the fortuitous pairing of librettist W.S.Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan backed by the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte created a body of work that ranks with any in musical theatre. They collaborated on fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896 of which H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado are among the most popular. D’Oyly Carte built the Savoy Theatre to present their joint works and his company was still performing them there and on regular tours a century later. I was lucky enough to be taken as a teenager to see them whenever they came to Manchester at a time when the great John Reed was performing the principal comic roles of the Major-General or Ko-Ko. Opposite him as bass was Ken Sandom with whose son I was to work years later at Pentland.

In the early part of the twentieth century George M. Cohan wrote, produced, directed and starred in a series of successful musical comedies which were later immortalised by James Cagney in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy. Then Jerome Kern emerged as one of the first of the great Jewish theatre composers.  Kern wrote more than 700 songs, used in over 100 productions, including such classics as “Ol’ Man River”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “A Fine Romance”, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, and "The Way You Look Tonight”. He collaborated with many of the leading lyricists of his era including P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Hammerstein II, Johnny Mercer and Ira Gershwin. Kern’s musical innovations such as the employment of syncopation and jazz progression built on rather than rejected earlier musical tradition.  Many of his shows were hits but today only Show Boat is regularly revived. But he paved the way for George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and others and then the genius Richard Rodgers who worked with Kern’s librettist on Show Boat, Oscar Hammerstein II, on a canon of great musicals from the early 1940s to the 1960s. Several of these are based on racism, perhaps the most successful in that sense being South Pacific. A young author James Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of short stories based on his experiences in the war, Tales of the South Pacific. Hammerstein saw the opportunity for a musical using two of these stories both involving inter-cultural relationships. They offered a fixed fee but Michener held out for a percentage of the gross and built the beginnings of a huge fortune which allowed him to write a series of best-selling novels.

Among my favourite musicals is My Fair Lady, which I was fortunate to see with Rex Harrison when he was 72, and the lady playing his mother was not much older, but he still had the charisma which had so defined the part of Professor Henry Higgins that few actors take on the role today. Similarly the great Robert Preston became synonymous with the role of the con-man Harold Hill in The Music Man but we saw a very creditable performance by Brian Conley in Chichester. Other memorable performances we have seen included Brian Blessed in Cats who met with the audience during the interval; a very young Catherine Zeta Jones in 42nd St; Lulu in Guys and Dolls; Tommy Steele and Roy Castle in Singing in the Rain; Michael Ball in Les Misérables; Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in Phantom of the Opera; Maureen Lipman in Wonderful Town; Diana Rigg in Follies; Elaine Page and John Barrowman in Anything Goes; Sally Burgess in Showboat; Patricia Routledge in Carousel; Judi Dench, Sian Phillips and Patricia Hodge in A Little Night Music; Barry Humphries in Oliver; Lyn Paul in Blood Brothers; Henry Goodman in Chicago; Thomas Allen and Felicity Palmer in Sweeney Todd; Sally Dexter in Billy Elliott – The Musical; Clarke Peters in Porgy and Bess; Phil Jupitus in Hairspray; and Tom Chambers in Top Hat.

But it doesn’t always require star names to make a great show. One particular favourite we found by chance. We were in New York for a family wedding. I walked along Broadway to see what was on. A production called Jersey Boys featuring the life and work of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons took my eye so I booked tickets for my wife and daughter. We all loved it and have since gone back to see it again with our son in London. That’s one I recommend.

So what are we going to see this Christmas? Well, we have tickets to see Jude Law in Henry V. “But that’s not a musical,” I hear you cry. I could argue that it is, or at least the Olivier film version was with stirring music by William Walton and the beautiful  French folksong, “Baïlèro” from Songs of the Auvergne, collected by Canteloube. But the truth is that there are few good musicals being made any more. Most of what passes for a musical in the West End these days is either a juke box musical where basically a tribute band belts out the greatest hits of some famous pop stars wrapped up in some feeble plot and you pay West End prices to see what you could probably see for a lot less at a local pub. Or it’s a musical version of a hit film that originally had no songs. The brand recognition of the familiar film sells the ticket. At least in the first type you know the music and can make your own mind up. In the second you don’t but it’s rare these days for a song from a musical to break out into the charts and the wider recognition of the public. Maybe I’ll just stick to carols.

Copyright David C Pearson 2013 All rights reserved

[i] Showtime, A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, Larry Stempel, Norton, New York, 2010

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