In honor of Valentine’s Day the topic is romance in musical theatre. We might as well be discussing the importance of air and water to life on earth. Searching for a handle, the idea of love at first sight popped into my head. It’s certainly ubiquitous in the early days of the genre, both in operetta and musical comedy. But what about once musicals grew up?
I decided to take a look at the work of some of our major musical theatre writers in the post–Oklahoma! world. Did they make use of love at first sight? And if so, how? What follows is by no means exhaustive, but I think it nevertheless instructive.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Let’s start at the very beginning, as it were. What did Rodgers and Hammerstein do? Well, interestingly, they didn’t use the concept very much, a mere three times. It’s there in the TV musical Cinderella, memorably articulated in the song “10 Minutes Ago,” but that, of course, is a fairy tale. It is arguably one of the weaker points of South Pacific, as Lieutenant Cable’s sudden, overpowering love for Liat, a young Tonkinese girl with no education who can barely communicate with him, seems awfully convenient (“Younger Than Springtime” is a gorgeous song but hardly a compelling basis for a long-term relationship). However, it is front and center in the dysfunctional coupling of Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow in Carousel, and the result is tragic. I would argue that Carousel is a pretty good argument against love at first sight.
Loesser makes use of the idea in two shows, and both treatments are memorable. In The Most Happy Fella, middle-aged vintner Tony Esposito is immediately taken with a youngish waitress he meets in a diner. Too shy to speak up, he leaves her a note and his “genuine amethyst tie pin” as a token of his feelings. But when she travels to meet him at his Napa Valley ranch, fantasy quickly runs headlong into reality, and they only make a successful marriage by starting from scratch and getting to know one another. In the satirical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, secretary Rosemary Pilkington falls hard and fast for young go-getting would-be executive J. Pierrepont Finch, though he is initially oblivious. But when she fantasizes about being “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” her love starts to sound awfully transactional.
Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
In seven Broadway musicals, Bock and Harnick made use of the device in only two of them. In their final show, The Rothschilds, young Nathan Rothschild falls in love (“it happened in a trice”) in Act 2 with an aristocratic English woman who initially resists his advances. Both authors are on record as considering its inclusion as a subplot a mistake, a sop to the prevailing view in 1970 that a musical needed a heterosexual romantic interest to succeed commercially. Indeed, when Harnick and book writer Sherman Yellen reconceived the piece in 2015 (after Bock’s death), under the title Rothschild and Sons, the romance—along with Hannah—was eliminated. She Loves Me neatly subverted the concept. Parfumerie clerks Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash are at each other’s throats from the moment she is hired, but the real reason is their tremendous romantic attraction, which it takes the whole show for them to discover, though other characters identify it early on. And of course by that time they know each other well enough to embark upon a pretty grounded marriage.
As perhaps befits one of the sunniest of musical theatre songwriters, Herman uses love at first sight in several Broadway shows. In his first, Milk and Honey, which I just saw this past weekend in a fine concert presentation at the York Theatre, it happens late in Act 2, when the man-starved widow Clara Weiss (a part created by Molly Picon) meets Israeli widower Sol Horowitz and ends up remarried before you can say mazel tov. My immediate reaction was to hope that he isn’t a serial killer. In his second, Hello, Dolly! (heading back to Broadway this spring starring Bette Midler), lowly store clerks Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker fall for milliner Irene Molloy and her assistant, Minnie Fay, respectively, in the course of a day. Of course, the show is pure fantasy, based on Thornton Wilder’s romantic period farce The Matchmaker. In his third, Mame, the instant love is between a bohemian blueblood aunt and her young orphaned nephew and is the most persuasive bond of the three. It is not, however, romantic love. Herman’s final four Broadway book shows—Dear World, Mack and Mabel, The Grand Tour, and La Cage aux Folles—eschew the notion entirely. A sign of maturation, perhaps?
John Kander and Fred Ebb
In the course of writing 14 Broadway musicals over a period of 50 years, Kander and Ebb rarely resorted to using love at first sight. Only two shows—Zorbá and Steel Pier—traffic in it at all. In Zorbá, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ classic novel Zorbá the Greek, the two central romantic relationships both develop speedily. However, that between Zorbá and the aging prostitute Hortense seems less a product of love and more one of mutual need, while the connection between the young outsider intellectual, Nikos, and a socially ostracized unnamed Cretan widow, is both hesitant and doomed. In Steel Pier we get love at first sight on steroids: Stunt pilot Bill Kelly actually comes back from the dead to pursue his instantaneous feelings for down-on-her-luck performer Rita Racine, though David Thompson’s unwieldy original book withholds his otherworldly status from the audience for most of the show. It’s entirely unpersuasive, which is in part why Steel Pier folded after only 76 performances. In both musicals we’re a long way from Margot and the Red Shadow aching for each other.
Surprisingly for the musical theatre’s reigning iconoclast, there are a number of examples of variations on love at first sight in his canon, the majority of them early in his career. The most iconic is West Side Story, which is based on Romeo and Juliet, so it came with the territory. Sondheim is, of course, on record as to how uncomfortable he is with the lyrics for the two songs that most dramatize the situation: “Maria” and “Tonight.” In Gypsy Rose and Herbie combine pretty instantaneously in “Small World,” but as with Zorbá and Hortense, it feels more like a seduction of calculated self-interest than love. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, however, young noble-born Hero goes gaga at the simple sight of the prostitute Philia and explains himself in the charming “Love, I Hear,” one of the most convincing expressions of love at first sight I’ve ever heard. Of course, it helps that the source material is the Roman comedies of Plautus. In Sondheim’s very first professional musical, Saturday Night, which went unproduced for more than 40 years, the romantic leads, Gene and Helen, are attracted quickly due to both of them being con artists. And in the TV musical Evening Primrose, poet Charles, who has taken up refuge living in a department store, sleeping by day and writing at night, is immediately drawn to the lovely Ella, imprisoned there since the age of six by others who had the same idea as Charles. However, she’s the only possible romantic partner for our scribe, so maybe it’s just a case of what’s available. And it doesn’t end well.
Once Sondheim reaches his maturity with Company in 1970, however, incidences of love at first sight decrease. It happens to the juveniles in Sweeney Todd, Anthony and Joanna, but the musical is based on a melodrama and Sondheim doesn’t take their love very seriously, using them mostly for comic relief. Mary Flynn falls for Franklin Shepard the first time she meets him in Merrily We Roll Along, on the rooftop gazing at Sputnik, but all that leads to is frustration, heartache, and alcoholism. The sickly Fosca develops her Passion for Giorgio even before they meet, but the unlikeliness of it being reciprocated coupled with her needy obsessiveness is hardly a traditional take on the situation. In Bounce and Road Show, Addison Mizner is immediately entranced by the young aristocrat Hollis Bessemer, who doesn’t return the feeling until he realizes what Addison can do for him. Ultimately, it dissolves in recriminations, though the relationship does allow for one of Sondheim’s most sincere and touching love songs, “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” repurposed most effectively from a slangy and breezy evocation of heterosexual lust in Bounce.
Alan Jay Lerner
I left Lerner for last because he is unquestionably the most starry-eyed romantic of all the writers being discussed. Much to my astonishment, though, he trails Sondheim in his employment of love at first sight. There is Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s attachment to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, which is a bit of a problem for contemporary productions, as the show simply accepts the situation without explanation. My favorite Freddy was Robert Sella, in director Howard Davies’ otherwise unsatisfying 1993 Broadway revival. Rather than play the expected clear-eyed, apple-cheeked juvenile, Sella rooted his nerdy Freddie’s attraction to Eliza in the realization, caused by her behavior at Ascot, that she is just as much a social misfit as he is. He was like a suffocating man given a sudden hit of oxygen and gasping gratefully. Lise and Gerry combust predictably in An American in Paris, but if your assignment is to write a 1951 MGM film vehicle for Gene Kelly constructed around the Gershwin songbook, isn’t that awfully inevitable? In Carmelina, our titular Italian war widow complains about her inexplicable attraction to the annoyingly importuning Vittorio in “Why Him?,” which is amusing but really doesn’t help the romance. And in Lerner’s final show, Dance a Little Closer, we see a flashback in which cheesy song-and-dance man Harry Aikens implodes like a ton of bricks for a brassy American singer who subsequently reappears years later as the haughty English mistress of a diplomat who denies that she knows him. That, however, is pretty much it for love at first sight and Lerner, with one glaring exception.
That would be Brigadoon, his 1947 musical fantasy about a Scottish town that only comes to life for one day every hundred years. American Tommy Albright meets and is drawn to the lovely Fiona MacLaren, who has earlier told us in “Waitin’ for My Dearie” that she would rather be a spinster than marry the wrong man. Fiona is equally smitten, but once Tommy discovers the truth about Brigadoon, he must decide before day is out whether to commit to the feeling or not. Unsurprisingly, he can’t and must return home to his hard-shelled fiancée before realizing that Fiona is the one and only woman for him. Rushing back to Scotland, he manages to awaken the town through his love, proving that “when ye love someone deeply, anything is possible.” It’s absolutely over-the-top romantic, but when done with conviction it soars. One of the most memorable theatrical moments I’ve experienced in more than 50 years of theatregoing occurred in director Vivian Matalon’s 1980 Broadway revival: As Tommy and Fiona finished singing their song of parting, “From This Day On,” the set split in two and waves of fog rushed in as the lovers were violently separated, hands grasping for each other in vain. It was glorious. In Brigadoon the 29-year-old Lerner set himself the task of making love at first sight believable, and he succeeded. Whenever I get too cynical, I remember that.
Of course, Brigadoon is now 70 years old and seems more a tip of the hat to the operettas that preceded it than a musical theatre innovation. That said, a 2014 production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, which featured a somewhat rewritten book by Brian Hill, charmed even the New York Times’ curmudgeonly Charles Isherwood (who just left the paper this week) and proved that the show can still sway contemporary audiences. And any Broadway season that has Aladdin, Wicked, Waitress, and The Phantom of the Opera still running can hardly be said to disown love at first sight. Nevertheless, the admittedly anecdotal evidence submitted here suggests to me that the Broadway musical is at least a bit more adult than it is often given credit for being.
Ah love! Characters both human and otherwise have long sung the glories of love. But it’s a tricky subject for lyricists. Oscar Hammerstein II was a firm believer that one should write the words “I Love You” in a song. That would be too easy and a cliché also. So he wrote songs like, “If I Loved You” from Carousel.
Cole Porter did write a song titled “I Love You” for Mexican Hayride, but he also wrote “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “You’re the Top” for Anything Goes. He also wrote “Do I Love You?” for DuBarry Was a Lady, and audiences knew the answer as soon as the question was asked. (To take a listen to this one, take a listen to Colleen McHugh's Prêt-à-porter). And another list song by Porter, “Let’s Do It” from the musical Paris and sung to great effect at one point by Ella Fitzgerald, suggests that two people can will themselves into falling in love.
It’s the same thing for Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye asks “Do I Love You?” Bock and Harnick and the audience knew what the answer would be. However, in one production, when Zero Mostel couldn’t stop fooling around with the woman playing Golde he asked, “Do You Love Me” and she answered, “I’m not sure” and walked off the stage!
And when someone protests too much about love in a musical comedy you know they’re deluding themselves. In Two Gentlemen of Verona (an underrated score by the way) when Diana Davila’s character sang Galt McDermott and John Guare’s “I Am not Interested in Love,” she wasn’t fooling the audience or herself. The same goes for “I Don’t Think I’ll Fall in Love Today” from the Gershwins’ Treasure Girl. And the same goes for Norman Wisdom and Louise Troy when they sang, “I Don’t Think I’m in Love” in Walking Happy. And who was Babe kidding when she sang “I’m not at All in Love” in The Pajama Game.
But not all characters in musicals are in love with love. Some love other things equally well. The Sound of Music’s Maria Von Trapp loved kittens with whiskers when she listed “My Favorite Things.” And in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown Snoopy loved nothing more than “Suppertime.”
With Valentine's Day just around the corner, we figured that we'd send some musical hearts and flowers your way and just maybe inspire you for the day on which Cupid reigns
And just to spice things up…. We all know relationships can be rough, so I've decided to offer up a pair of songs that capture both the highs and lows of romance:
Remember, if you need to add any of the recordings mentioned here and in the guys' blogs to your collection, you can find links to them in the carousels on the BwayTunes.com homepage.
If you don't feel like sorting through your own music library, this week's playlist on Spotify will give you just over an hour of music that could be the perfect soundtrack for Feb. 14.
There are lots of classics to be found on the playlist, along with some delectable rarities, and I'm hoping it serves as the equivalent of a bouquet of long-stem roses for your ears!
Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, who won a slew of awards for their dramatic family musical Next to Normal, now have the frothy tuner Freaky Friday, and we've got a great track from the new album for you as this week's free song download!
Take a look at the marvelously diverse array of new music that we've gotten for you, particularly:
In addition to these albums, you’ll want to check out these new releases, which can be found in the main carousel at the top of the home page and in the “New and Recommended” one at the bottom of the page.
When you get the next newsletter, we'll be less than a month away from spring, and with the arrival of tulips and warmer temperatures will also come a bumper crop of new musicals.
I've asked Ken and Erik to talk about some of the shows opening this spring that they're particularly looking forward to (either in N.Y. or around the country).
They've got very different perspectives and tastes, so you should get a pretty grand sense of what's just around the corner. One thing that I'll be curious about is the new stage version of Roald Dahl's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a maverick is “a person who shows independence of thought and action, especially by refusing to adhere to the policies of a group to which he or she belongs.” I guess that means that we are not discussing James Garner musicals, which is good, as I’m only aware of one (Victor/Victoria), and he doesn’t even sing in it.
I will take that definition and move it one step further. For me, a maverick is someone whose work is so idiosyncratic that it resides strikingly outside the mainstream. Some mavericks reinvent the mainstream, others affect it in various ways, while others remain apart and often unknown. Here’s a sampling of all three kinds.
Oscar Hammerstein II
At first glance Hammerstein would seem an unlikely choice. After all, he was born into theatrical royalty and spent his early career toiling in the highly commercial, sweetly scented world of operetta. Nevertheless, he staked his claim to the title with Show Boat in 1927, which addressed the fraught topic of race in America head on and thoroughly upended all notions of what musical theatre could and could not do.
It took him another 16 years before he could establish the character-oriented, plot-driven, musically integrated book musical as the dominant commercial form, which he did with Oklahoma!, though along the way shows such as the anti-authoritarian Rainbow and the operetta-musical hybrid Music in the Air attempted to expand boundaries. And even once Rodgers and Hammerstein became a cottage industry, his willingness to unflinchingly address such serious topics as spousal abuse (Carousel), racism again (South Pacific), and feminism (The King and I) in complacent post-WWII America kept his maverick status intact.
When I attended Northwestern University in the early 1970s, Brecht was the god of the theatre department. I didn’t like what I knew of his work, so I decided to choose him as my subject in directing class. I had to give two one-hour lectures about him and his oeuvre, and I figured that by immersing myself in it I might come to see what everybody else was seeing. At the end I remained unpersuaded that the alienation effect would work on audiences as he intended (I continue to believe that people are more vulnerable emotionally than intellectually), but I also came to see it as a powerful tool that could be used in conjunction with other means of ensnaring an audience.
Certainly The Threepenny Opera, which he wrote with composer Kurt Weill in 1928, has influenced a host of more mainstream musical theatre writers, including Stephen Sondheim (Assassins, Pacific Overtures, hell, even “Rose’s Turn”), which is odd as he claims not to be a fan. There are also the lighter but equally cynical Happy End, the thunderous Mahagonny, and the waspish ballet cantata The Seven Deadly Sins, all written with Weill, to reckon with. Brecht’s musical theatre works still feel idiosyncratic today. He was definitely sui generis.
Indisputably a child of Brecht (his biggest success was his 1954 off-Broadway translation of Threepenny), Blitzstein may not loom as large, but what he accomplished remains both singular and vital. Indeed, his signature work, the scorching 1937 The Cradle Will Rock, employs Brechtian alienation to look at all forms of prostitution—sexual, moral, political, religious—an approach suggested by Brecht himself. Regina, his 1949 opera based on Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, improves on the play while still making for an utterly uncompromising look at the rancid side of American machismo and untrammeled capitalism. Even Juno, his unsuccessful 1959 Broadway musical adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, for which he only wrote the songs, features a powerful dramatic score unique in the annals of the Great White Way.
Blitzstein began his career as an experimental “serious” composer only to decide that he’d rather reach the masses after becoming a Communist. He knew what made a great popular tune, but that wasn’t in his wheelhouse, as he himself lamented more than once. I’m glad that it wasn’t. His spiky, thorny, yet often rapturously beautiful musical vocabulary married to outstanding verbal felicity and fervent political commitment stands by itself.
When I was asked by the York Theatre Company in 1999 to create a musical revue based on the life and work of Latouche, I knew next to nothing about him. Most of his work had never been recorded or published and little was known about his life. Research rectified the situation, and I was stunned that someone so gifted and original could be largely lost in the mists of time, thanks to his sudden death at age 41 in 1956 from a heart attack.
A bit of a Blitzstein acolyte and openly gay at a time when that was nearly impossible, he was equally at home with avant garde artists and Broadway veterans. He wrote scripts and/or lyrics to everything from musical comedies (Cabin in the Sky) to operettas (Candide) to dance cantatas (Ballet Ballads) to musical dramas (Beggar’s Holiday, a then-contemporary interracial gloss on Threepenny) to operas (