A Goodbye To the Music of Broadway
Just before the recent Tony Awards, a New York Times critic sounded the alarm that the Broadway musical seems to have lost its voice. A glance at the current paucity of musical offerings justifies his complaint.
I hope it is temporary, for the loss would be greater than we can foresee. This is music that touches the lives of even people who have never seen shows.
For decades, the Broadway musical was uniquely American; it evolved from old-fashioned operettas infused with the virile jazz of the Gershwins and Cole Porters until songs like “I Got Rhythm” and “Anything Goes” supplanted “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” music. Together with hummable melody we also heard right-on-target lyrics that ranged from the sophistication of a Lorenz Hart to the beautiful simplicity of an Irving Berlin or Oscar Hammerstein.
These are some of the creative geniuses who realized early on that lyrics are not poems but rhyming thoughts that perch on musical notes. The proof of their genius lies in the fact that these songs that date back to the 1920s are still sung and heard today. As are the shows, themselves.
Back in my day, revivals were relegated to summer stock, community theater and festivals like Lincoln Center. But today, revivals are a staple of Broadway itself.
No season in years has come and gone without big hits of yesteryear being reprised. Today it is “A Little Night Music” and “Promises, Promises.” Other years brought us “Damn Yankees,” “South Pacific” et. al. There is even a category for the Tony Awards for Best Revival, which some of us think is ludicrous. I think the reason for so many revivals is that nobody is writing originals like they used to. Is this because the audience no longer cares? Hardly, when you recognize the success of the revivals.
Part of the reason may be that Hollywood no longer cares. During the heyday of the great MGM musicals, Broadway composers and lyricists could support their habit by spending a year or two writing for the screen. Thus, we were rewarded by movies like “Gigi,” “Mary Poppins,” “An American in Paris” and “Singing in the Rain” — to mention just a few.
Audiences in tiny towns also got a look at and a listen to the Fred Astaires, Gene Kellys and Kathryn Graysons, who sang and danced for people who never got near live theater.
I consider myself extremely fortunate that I knew many of those geniuses who brought us the voice of the Broadway musical. I never met Cole Porter, Irving Berlin or Oscar Hammerstein. But I did know Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Alan Jay Lerner and Jerry Herman, as well as Arthur Schwartz (“Dancing in the Dark”) and Burton Lane, who gave us “Finians Rainbow.”
They all seemed like friendly, ordinary people, yet I have to believe that they morphed into giants when they closeted themselves with piano or typewriter. How else can you explain the pouring-out of music that sent us whistling, humming, singing and walking on air as we exited the theater?
Is this all gone? Does it even matter in an age when we face economic and social woes? I think it does. I have to believe that someday in the future there will be another glittering opening of a brand-new musical that will rival “Carousel” or “My Fair Lady” or “Guys and Dolls.”
In some faraway attic, a young lyricist is scribbling away and searching for that rhyme within a rhyme that will tug at our heart. In another attic, a composer hovers over a piano, seeking the lost chord and the magic note that will get our toes tapping and our lips puckered in perfect whistle format. When that happens, it will be time for that great Cole Porter song from “Kiss Me Kate”:
“Another op’nin’, another show, / In Philly, Boston or Baltimo’ / A chance for stage folks to say hello. Another op’nin’ of another show.”
Allan Jefferys, a former New York theater critic and newsman, lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at email@example.com.
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