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Ken Bloom

Producer & Historian

Ken Bloom is a leading authority on American popular song and musical theatre. His books American Song, Hollywood Song, and Tin Pan Alley are seminal works, documenting over 300,000 songs.

His Broadway: An Encyclopedic Guide to the History, People and Places of Times Square was named one of the top reference books of the year by The New York Times and has recently come out in an updated third edition. His Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, written with Frank Vlastnik, won the American Library Association’s prestigious George Freedley Memorial Award.

Bloom's newest book, Show and Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes, was released by Oxford University Press earlier this fall.

In addition to his work as a writer, Bloom has served as on-air talent for outlets as diverse as Sirius Satellite Radio, WKCR-FM, NPR, and the CBC. Ken also co-founded, with Bill Rudman, the 33-year-old Harbinger Records. For the label Ken has produced more than fifty albums, including the Grammy-nominated Maxine Sullivan Sings Great Songs of the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler.

Apr
05

On Vacation...

.Ken is away this week and will be back soon!

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Mar
22

Wikipedia Musicals

Today I’d like to discuss a relatively new form of musical theatre. We had the revue and the book musical. Both of which had original songs either as one-offs like in a revue or songs that propelled and commented on the plots. But now we have a wholly new variety of musical theatre, one that I have dubbed the Wikipedia musical. I’m thinking of Jersey Boys, Summer, Cher, and now the Temptations musical, Ain’t Too Proud.

Some call them jukebox musicals but I don’t quite think that’s right. But before we go into that let’s have a look at the genesis of the Wikipedia musical. How did they evolve from traditional musical comedy.

Way back in 1968, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman opened a little show at the Village Gate downtown. The show was Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Blau and Shuman along with a fantastic cast gave us a musical revue of the songs of French composer Jacques Brel. It ran for four years downtown, was performed all over the world, including Paris, and in 1975 there was a film version that was basically a film of the stage show. It was a tremendous success.

Uptown at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s E. 75th Street theatre a little revue based on the music of Fats Waller opened. The show, Ain’t Misbehavin’, opened in February of 1978 and was such a success it quickly transferred to Broadway in May, opening at the Longacre Theatre. The show ran over 1,600 performances. Pretty impressive for a little five-person musical revue.

These shows were what I would call “staged radio.” Though one thing that separated Ain’t Misbehavin’ from other songwriter revues was that the five characters each had separate personalities which added to the fun. And like in today’s Wikipedia musicals, there were lots and lots of copycats many of them unsuccessful. Think of Eubie! (Blake), Side By Side By Sondheim, Jerry’s Girls (Herman), Perfectly Frank (Loesser), Words and Music (Sammy Cahn – who also narrated the show!), and many others.

Flash forward to Mamma Mia!. Here was the first jukebox musical that actually had a plot. And the show was tremendous fun even though nobody really paid attention to the machinations on stage. But all was forgiven because the show didn’t take itself seriously. It opened in London in 1999 and then toured around the US finally opening on Broadway in 2001. Flimsy or not, the show was a true musical utilizing (squeezing in) the ABBA songs to the plot. No one begrudged the astounding worldwide success of this fun, breezy show.

Now, we have a sort of amalgam of the jukebox revues and the full-fledged jukebox musical. Only, in the case of the newest shows, the stories are told chronologically with the songs having little relationship to the plots. And there aren’t really any full-fledged characters and, in the case of Jersey Boys, Cher, and Ain’t Yoo Proud, not a whole lot of dialogue scenes. Mostly, it’s the characters speaking directly to the audience filling them into the timeline of the events. And that’s why I call them Wikipedia musicals.

One current exception today is Beautiful that is basically is a timeline of the career of Carole King. The difference in this bio-musical is that Beautiful has an excellent book by Douglas McGrath with strong characterizations, actual, traditional Broadway sets, and a very strong production. Beautiful is really a play with music because the music doesn’t further the plot. Only two times do the characters actual sing their feelings. So the score is almost a soundtrack to the play. But it all works, if you’ll excuse the expression, beautifully.

Though Ain’t Too Proud, Cher, and their ilk mostly have excellent production values, costuming, lighting and really terrific performances, they’re mostly variety shows with narration. And it should be said that the form has its hits and also its flops. Summer didn’t last long this season, and Cher is, perhaps surprisingly, not the success we expected. Maybe this is just a fad and the pendulum will swing back.

Only time and the box office will tell.

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Mar
08

Cole Porter

Each of the great American songwriters had their own voice through their lyrics. And Cole Porter is no exception. Like Irving Berlin, he supplied the lyrics to his tunes an enviable talent. Of all the great lyricists, it was Porter who expressed his difficult emotions in his songs.

He wrote of the upper classes that, despite all their wealth, were sometimes depressed. Think of “Miss Otis Regrets” wherein Porter adds a rueful humor with the proper language of the lyric contrasted with the depth of despair. After all, she’s lynched by a mob while still averring “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.” (Take a listen to Elisabeth Welch delivering it.)

The same note is reflected in Red, Hot and Blue’s “Down in the Depths on the Ninetieth Floor.”  At El Morocco and the Stork clubs people are living it up. But she’s downhearted and depressed in her regal eagle’s nest. These women can be very, very droll and proper while still being deeply unhappy. For the “Laziest Gal in Town” she can’t be bothered to make love. She lets us know that it’s not that she wouldn’t couldn’t and it’s not that she shouldn’t, and not that she couldn’t. She’s just the laziest gal in town.

Not everything was as deeply regretful as those songs. Porter could also be silly, almost to a fault. Think of Du Barry Was a Lady’s, “Well, Did You Evah!” (a tune later used in High Society) or Anything Goes’ advice song, “Be Like the Bluebird.”

And his list songs are unparalleled. Take “Anything Goes” where “Grandmama whose age is eighty in night clubs is getting matey with gigolos. “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” (heard in the 1928 musical Paris and later covered by multitudes, including Eartha Kitt) proves its points by examples. “Dragonflies in the reeds do it” as do “Sentimental centipedes,” “refined ladybugs, “ katydids, as well as bugs and, moths in your rugs, bees do it, as well as educated fleas, chimpanzees in the zoo, courageous kangaroos. Well, the message is they all do it. And in the song Porter defines “doing it” as falling in love though Porter himself might have been thinking of something more carnal. And that’s part of the joy of Porter. He can put a laugh or glossy lyric over something definitely bordering on the risqué. Sometimes even crossing the border!

But, Porter’s ballads could be serious and deeply emotional. Even when presenting a humorous front behind the clever rhymes is a deep sadness. “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” from Seven Lively Arts, is one of the saddest songs in the Tin Pan Alley tradition (an example could be Lena Horne’s rendition). The singer is happy when with her love but when the lover is gone she wonders why a little. It’s as if she cannot accept complete happiness; happy being in love and equally happy being alone wishing she could fully accept that love.

Even “Love for Sale,” which was first heard in The New Yorkers in 1930 and in which a prostitute stands under a lamppost (it was a white woman in the original staging but that was too much for audiences so she was replaced by a black lady of the evening). It seems with Porter whether you were “The Top” or hanging around a street corner looking for some unemotional, unfeeling intimacy, it was hard to be happy.

In Porter’s last show, the television musical Aladdin, there’s a song that encapsulates Porter’s feelings. For in the song the Emperor, the richest man, the most famous man, the man who has everything and knows everyone surmises, “Wouldn’t it be fun not to be famous? Wouldn’t it be fun not to be rich? Wouldn’t it be pleasant to be a simple peasant, and spend a happy day digging a ditch?” And that’s the theme that keeps winding through Porter’s long career. Living the high life when deeply unhappy. Porter opens a window to his psyche more deeply than any other lyricist. The giddy highs and the lowest lows.

 

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Feb
22

The 1940s...

So, I was looking through the list of musicals that opened in the 1940s, a particularly turbulent time in America that began with World War II and its horrors and proceeded to the rise of the middle class. And looking through the list I realized there’s a lot of shows that have serious subjects at their core like South Pacific and Bloomer Girl to name a couple. And there’s outright entertainments including Best Foot Forward and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

But one thing that all these shows had in common as did every other musical of the decade was a devotion to craftsmanship, a seriousness of theme and test by the writers, and the idea that the musical theatre was for adults. Sure, children could also enjoy these shows but the vast majority contained messages as part of the entertainment. None resorted to lectures or speechifying but there were reasons these musicals were written in the period. At the time, people took life very seriously and could use some divertissement but even the lightest of musical comedies had messages also even if they were delivered amid the jokes, music and dancing. The theatre was for adults and the tired businessman could also be affected. It’s 180 degrees away from the majority of musicals on Broadway today.

It’s hard to choose favorites because many if not most of the musicals of the ‘40s are written so well. And each of them, even the flops, have something that is good if not extraordinary. Of course, we can never experience these shows as they were but the cast albums and other artifacts like the scripts, and scores perpetuated on original cast albums can help bring these shows to life.

So, here’s a generalized rundown of shows of the 1940s.

Amazingly, there were three shows featuring black casts: Vernon Duke and John Latouche’s Cabin in the Sky, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars, and Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s St. Louis Woman. And other musicals had major plot lines about blacks and racism in general. These included Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg’s Finian’s Rainbow in which a racist Senator is turned black so he could get a first-hand view of discrimination and Arlen and Harburg’s Bloomer Girl with the song, “The Eagle and Me.” And there was even a white show written by a black composer, Early to Bed with music by Thomas “Fats” Waller and lyrics by George Marion. South Pacific also spoke of racism against all ethnicities with the song “Carefully Taught” and Nellie’s trepidation of marrying a man with Asian children.

Richard Rodgers had a banner decade: With Lorenz Hart he wrote Pal Joey and had a major revival of their show A Connecticut Yankee. With Oscar Hammerstein II he wrote three classics: Oklahoma!, South Pacific and Carousel. And he and Hammerstein produced two smash hits: the evergreen Annie Get Your Gun as well as Best Foot Forward, which introduced the great Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (neither Rodgers nor Hammerstein took credit for their involvement in this latter show, however).

Speaking of Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin, while still writing Hollywood  musicals, also wrote This Is the Army and Miss Liberty. Oh, he also owned the Music Box Theatre where Lost in the Stars opened.

There were shows revolving about politics and patriotism and what it means to be an American, including the last two Berlin shows I mentioned, particularly Army, where actual soldiers made up up the company.  During the decade, you could also find Harold Rome’s Pins and Needles which opened in the ‘30s but kept current through the early ‘40s, playing as well the aforementioned South Pacific and Oklahoma!, Leonard Bernstein and Comden and Green’s On the Town, and Dietz and Schwartz’ Inside USA. Oh, and Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Fields’ Up in Central Park was a nostalgic love letter to New York in the 19th Century.

Kurt Weill hit his stride as a new American with Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, Johnny Johnson, The Firebrand of Florence, and Street Scene all of which commented on American life.

Most of these musicals revolved around two lovers as did Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and Jule Styne and Leo Robin’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

The golden age of the American musical was at its apex in the 1940s. Yes, there were important musicals written in every decade including now but no other decade could compare to the 1940s in the American Musical Theatre.

 

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Feb
08

Valentine's Day and Lorenz Hart

Ah, the most romantic time of the year. But for some, it seems love is will never come. Or it won’t be recognized. And without it the heart goes cold while the longing persists. All this could be said about lyricist Lorenz Hart. As Alan Jay Lerner wrote about him, “There is a tenderness in some of Larry’s lyrics that always catches me off guard and brings a tear to my eye. His wit was delicious and pithy. When the subject was love—the love he never knew—well, there is that tear.”

And yet he just might have been the most romantic of lyricists and the one who’s need for love is the strongest. So, on Valentine’s Day if you have a love be grateful. And if you don’t, never give up. And keep the hope in your heart. That’s what Larry Hart did even if it was never realized.

So, while some writers like Ted Koehler write, “Hooray for Love” let’s turn to Larry Hart’s more nuanced (some would say skewed) view of love and follow the early evolution of his thoughts on love. Yes, he was writing for characters but as all writers do, they call on their own emotions as a basis for their characters feelings.

He didn’t start his career with a jaundiced view of love. Way back in 1919, he and Richard Rodgers wrote their first published song, “Any Old Place with You,” which offer up on Songs by Cole Porter & Rodgers & Hart: The 1953 Walden Sessions. In it the singer proclaims:

I’ll go to hell for ya
Or Philadelphia,
Any old place with you.

There’s a guy who’s willing to do practically anything for the girl he loves. A year later he expressed the physical manifestations of being in love in the Columbia University show, Fly with Me. The song is “The Third Degree of Love” and the effects are downright terrible:

You feel the fever,
You can’t deceive her
When first she looks into your eyes;
You think you’re wise—
You’re otherwise!
And little birdies seem to sing in your brain!
You start to tremble,
You can’t dissemble,
She asks you what you’re thinking of,
When of your love you’d speak,
Your knees get weak—
That’s the third degree of love

In 1922, though a love song, “I Know You’re Too Wonderful for Me,” shows some insecurities creeping into the lyric:

I know that you’re too wonderful for me!
I know it’s much too wonderful to be!
You’re so beyond compare,
I never dreamed you’d care,
It’s just like magic to be loved by you,
I can’t believe it’s true!
You’ve always seemed a princess far away,
And now I find you in my arms today!
The reason you should care at all
Is more than I can see,
You’re too wonderful for me!

Things accelerate two years later with The Melody Man’s, “I’d Like to Poison Ivy.” And a rejection of love when it does come. He just couldn’t win. Loved or not he couldn’t be happy. [You can hear this rarity on Ronnie Whyte and Travis Hudson’s The Songs of Rodgers and Hart.]

I’d like to poison Ivy
Because she clings to me!
She grabbed me the moment when we met,
Just a Jane you want to forget.
Like Barnum stuck to Bailey,
She sticks to me, you see;
I’d like to poison Ivy,
Because she poison’s me.

By the time of Rodgers and Hart’s breakout hit, The Garrick Gaieties in 1925 there are definitely some chinks in the armor.

In the song “April Fool” [sample it here], the verse says it all:

My poor heart goes
Any way the wind blows’
Spring is a habit with me;
Girls refuse me
But they cannot lose me;
Plato and I can’t agree;
I am burdened with a fondness
For girlish blondness
That I can’t explain;
When I’m doleful,
I become most soulful;
I like my sunshine after rain.

Calling Doctor Freud! Later on in the same show, he asks the musical question that has echoed through the eternity of lyrics, “Do You Love Me?”

Do you love me?
I wonder, I wonder,
I wonder, can it be?
My poor heart’s all
Asunder, asunder,
It’s under spells cast by you.
Will you answer me clearly, sincerely,
Or merely banter with me?
Do you love me?
I wonder, I wonder
I wonder if it can be.

Going through the lyrics we find the same themes though, of course, there’s also your typical love songs. But still… there’s that wistfulness and reluctance to believe that things will turn out right.

Our last quote will be from Dearest Enemy and the song, “Here in My Arms” which sort of wraps up Larry Hart’s immeasurable longing and belief that he’ll never realize his dreams.

Here in my arms it’s adorable!
It’s deplorable
That you were never there.
When little lips are so kissable
It’s permissible
For me to ask my share.
Next to my heart it is ever so lonely,
I’m holding only air,
While here in my arms it’s adorable!
It’s deplorable
That you were never there.

As he got older his personal travails continued. Gay in an era where admittance and acceptance were difficult especially when working with a collaborator who was often detached, he sought solace in drink. His short height made him feel he was a lesser person and exacerbated his worsening depression. He died in 1943. A tragedy for sure but we are left with some of the most personal and deeply felt lyrics by a master in his field.
 

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Jan
25

In the 1970s..

There were 180 musical mounted either originals or revivals. When discussing which are my favorite musicals I think there’s three categories since every musical is a favorite for different reasons. There are enjoyable productions that may not have become successes. There are shows in which the original was possibly not the greatest but have gone on for fame and fortune And there’s shows that were so remarkable in their original production they can never be revived as successfully as the original production.

For the sake of this article I’ve decided only to list original musicals and revues (I’ll cheat a little). And I’m listing them alphabetically (and not counting articles like “A” or “The” as the first word alphabetically (take that New York Times A B C’s – do they actually exist anymore?).

If you’d like a more in depth opinion on some of the most noteworthy shows see Frank Vlastnik’s and my book Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time.

Ain’t Misbehavin’
This show was perfect in every way. Most songwriter revues since this show are basically staged radio. Ain’t Misbehavin’ didn’t have a plot but it had a cast of characters that were as fully realized as any musical. It was simple, didn’t take itself too seriously, wasn’t full of shtick, and respected the material. Every cast member had Personality (note that capital “P”). And it put the songs forward. Not the sets or false dramatic moments. But it did have subtext and that’s because of the exemplary cast and direction. Too many revues since then have bland performers who sing and dance well but have no individuality. This show was a joy in every regard. And it wasn’t ballad heavy like a lot of other songwriter revues.

The transfer of Ain’t Misbehavin’ to Broadway was a great success. If you’d like, jump down to Jacques Brel…, where I peruse two other shows that made the leap and what lessons we can learn from them.

Annie
I gotta admit I wasn’t bowled over by Annie when I first saw it in tryouts at the Kennedy Center. But it was clearly fully professional in every regard, and no cost was spared in scenery, costumes, lighting, orchestration—you name it. And it treated what might be called a “children’s show” with respect. It was equally enjoyable for audiences of all ages. Of course, since then it’s become one of the most successful musicals of all time. And the current national tour, directed by librettist/lyricist Martin Charnin, is perfect in every way.

Company
It’s difficult for audiences today—OK, it’s impossible for audiences today to respond to Company in the same way as audiences did in the original production. It had a libretto like no other show. It had a set like no other show. It had a finger on the pulse of America at the time like no other show. Its construction, orchestration, and score like no other show. It truly was a revelation. It was hip and current and smart. And, most importantly it didn’t pull back on emotional impact. When Dean Jones (and Larry Kert) sang “Being Alive” it was the perfect musical moment. Songs in shows are supposed to be there when spoken words alone can’t express the emotions of the moment. And “Being Alive” elevated the whole show and the experience of seeing the show like no other show before it. Just as we can’t see Oklahoma! through the eyes and minds of the original audience, no other revival of Company can ever equal the sheer heart-stopping moments and exhilaration knowing history was being made on stage at the Alvin Theatre. Aside: When Elaine Stritch sang the lyric, “Everybody rise!” in “The Ladies Who Lunch” many if not most of the audience were so caught up in the moment that we thought, “are we meant to stand up?” And if we had, we wouldn’t have felt like fools.

A Chorus Line
Another show like no other. Like Company, A Chorus Line was unlike any show before (or since). There was no real plot. There was no set to speak of. But the personalities of the characters were front and center. And Michael Bennett truly revolutionized staging with its cinematic elements. It sounds strange if you didn’t see that original production, but when you left you would swear there were close-ups and wipes and montages. What’s bad about A Chorus Line is that when it moved uptown from the Public Theater and became a smash hit every other non-profit theatre hoped that their show would move too. (The same thing can be said for when Chicago moved to Broadway from City Center’s Encores). Board members now expect lightning to strike again with big returns and that means moving the show to a Broadway theatre.

Follies
Speaking of Michael Bennett, he happened also to co-direct this landmark musical. I think it was Harold Prince that opined that Follies could never be revived satisfactorily. And he was right. Because the whole show was about resonance. While watching Ethel Shutta or Alexis Smith or Yvonne de Carlo you weren’t just seeing the characters but also the whole rich history that came along with them. The entire show was based on a nostalgia that wasn’t exactly as it’s recalled. And though you may not have seen Ethel Shutta on Broadway in the ‘30s, you knew she was the real thing. Her whole style of performing was antiquated (and I mean that in the most positive way). The way she sang, her posture, her attack on the lyrics was all reflective of a bygone era.

Hal Prince was correct. You can never mount Follies again. It was at once of its time and of the entire past of the Broadway musical at the same time. And it made us personally reflect on our own lives, the roads we didn’t take, nostalgia for past times that were probably both better and worse that the present. For me, the closest a revival came to the original was the Paper Mill production. It was a shadow of the original but it had the right almost wistful feeling of a time that was truly gone with the wind. Yes, it was more MGM than Broadway but it still rang many of the same bells, albeit much toned down from the original.

Okay, you made me say it: Follies was the greatest experience in my decades of theatergoing. When my friend Harry and I left the theatre we literally found it difficult and even redundant to say anything. It took over a half-hour for us to gather our wits together.

Grease
For better or worse (probably the latter), Grease helped create the whole 1950s nostalgia. The best thing about the show was that it didn’t comment on itself. It really loved the ‘50s. The pastiche score was sincere even if it was silly. And it didn’t have any message at all! It just wanted to entertain. Is the score great? No. Is the libretto great? No. Were the performances great? You got it, no. They were all very good but there was really nothing special to act. The cast had to simply believe in their characters without commentary. Believe it or not, it’s the show I’ve seen most often. Yes, there were the Broadway revivals. But I’ve seen it in London, Paris, Milan and probably a few more cities. Somehow the simplicity and sincerity of the show translates even in countries that never went through the whole ‘50s greaser culture.

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
What do these two shows have in common? And before we get to that, yes, I know they both opened off-Broadway in the 60s. But I’m including them because, like Ain’t Misbehavin’ they transferred to Broadway and there’s a lesson for us all in that jump to The Main Stem. But first let’s talk about each show individually.

Jacques Brel: Shall we love this show or hate it? This off-Broadway revue of the songs of Jacques Brel was, like Ain’t Misbehavin’ a simple revue. It played over four years at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village and then made the jump to Broadway where it closed after only 52 performances.

 Jacques Brel (the show) had even less going for it than Ain’t Misbehavin’. First, most Americans never even heard of the great French singer-songwriter. And it was produced decades before “singer-songwriter” was even a thing. But the excellent cast and the power of the music created a unique theatrical experience. No special sets or costumes or lighting or staging. Just terrific talents and terrific tunes.

Now, why should we hate it? And the aforementioned Ain’t Misbehavin’ too? Because the success of these two “jukebox musicals” led to seemingly hundreds of songwriter shows of lesser worth. And no, putting a jukebox musical on stage with a script doesn’t guarantee success. Most of these shows, including some on Broadway now, fall flat because they’re produced to make money not for artistic reasons. Beautiful is an exception because of its top-notch script, direction and it having a real story to tell and does it respectfully and seriously.

Now let’s have a look at You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the smallest of the bunch but just maybe the most successful show of any on this list. Yes, even Annie. Is there a school anywhere in the United States that hasn’t had at least one production of this show? Or a recreation center or summer camp or church? With nothing but a scrim and some variously colored and shaped blocks this show charmed us and moved us too. The cast was just perfect with Gary Burghoff, Bill and Skip Hinnant, Reva Rose, Karen Johnson, and Bob Balaban as the Charles Schulz characters. Songwriter Clark Gesner couldn’t make lightning strike twice in his career but this show is a hugely enjoyable miracle.

You know, it’s very difficult taking as beloved a comic strip as Peanuts where millions of readers each have their own imaginative idea of how these people talk. The genius was in having everything so stylized. Bill Hinnant wasn’t wearing anything that would identify him as Snoopy. No tail, no long ears. But for the entire show, the audience used their imaginations to conjure up the characters. And isn’t it rare for shows to ask the audience to use their imaginations while watching a show? Not just sit back, keep your eyes open and take it in but actually let your mind fill in the blanks as if you’re collaborating with the artists. It’s interesting to note that the original off-Broadway run was 1,597 performances. When a different cast made the trek to Broadway the show lasted 32 performances. So, we’ll leave you with the saddest thing of all in looking at this show and Ain’t Misbehavin’. Basically, now there is no off-Broadway. Can’t make money off-Broadway. So, everything that is produced in a resident theatre company or for Encores has the staff, consciously or not, hoping that lightning will strike and the show will move to the Great White Way. And that’s not always the wisest thing to do.

And that brings us, believe it or not, to Fiddler on the Roof, the Yiddish production of which is also moving. But its producers are, like Tevye, very wise. They are moving to an off-Broadway theatre. Because what many producers don’t realize if you’re a hit in a smaller theatre with, say, 250 seats what makes you think you can make the leap to a 1,000 seat theatre and sell that out.

A Little Night Music
Here’s the third Harold Prince show on the list. No surprise there. And the second Sondheim show. I don’t have much to say except that every facet of the show was elegant and excellent. Sounds simple, no?—to paraphrase a great show from the ‘60s (again with Hal Prince at the helm). The score was witty in a fun way not a show-off way. And the emotions were real. And “Send in the Clowns?” Nothing more to say except it’s a perfect song.

Music Is
What you never heard of this show? It only played eight performances. It was one of the last shows directed by George Abbott, who also wrote the script. Richard Adler and Will Holt composed the score. It really harkened back to Abbott’s glory days of The Boys from Syracuse and its ilk. But the timing was wrong. I saw the show at least three times at its DC tryout, and it was just a lot of fun. No message. Catherine Cox, Joel Higgins, Christopher Hewitt, David Holliday and Sheri Mathis were perfect in their parts. It was silly. It was fun. It was entertaining. Shouldn’t that be enough? Well, maybe not now as Head Over Heels proved. Not at ticket prices what they are.

No, No, Nanette
Here’s a show that was (be patient) a cross between Grease and Follies. You had the nostalgia quotient for what we look back on as a simpler time (though what about that nasty crash of the stock market?) and a past star, Ruby Keeler, back on Broadway decades after her last appearance. Again, produced, written and directed in the best Broadway style. It really broke new ground and like all shows that are unique and successful others tried to make lightning strike twice. Good News with Alice Faye instead of Ruby Keeler. And Harry Rigby again producing. But it only lasted 16 performances. It was a lot of fun but audiences had already seen the real thing and perhaps years after or years before No, No, Nanette it might have been a success. Harry Rigby will, however, make a return appearance on this list.

On the Twentieth Century
Here’s another statement by me that you might agree with or might get you pissed off. Here goes: On the Twentieth Century was the last great traditional musical. Note that I did put “traditional” in the statement. And I wouldn’t have put it in if it wasn’t for Hamilton. I won’t go on listing its many accomplishments. Let’s just say it was a perfect production. Hal Prince again, I might add. And where was this show in the recent documentary on the director? Yes, it didn’t have an impact on Broadway history but it was perfect in every regard. Not revolutionary or emotionally impactful. But just smart, and witty (not the same as smart), and perfectly designed and directed, and acted… Have I gone on too long?

Pacific Overtures
Now here’s a really great show that just might have been a little too esoteric for the tired businessman. Prince and Sondheim again with a brilliant, intelligent, insightful show. Beautifully written, produced and designed (Aaronson and Klotz and Musser!!) but possible too intellectual for your typical Broadway audience. Those girls in kimonos didn’t show any leg.

70, Girls, 70
More nostalgia casting but with a wonderful score and the always delightful Mildred Natwick leading the cast. She was one of the consummate performers that doesn’t quite get her due. From the comedy of Barefoot in the Park to Blithe Spirit there’s nobody who was more in control of her own character and the audience. Her likes will never be seen again. And there was also Hans Conreid, Lillian Roth, Herbie Faye (also in Sugar Babies with Joey Bishop), and Lillian Heyman. Not big name stars but seasoned performers with decades and decades of experience. I didn’t see the show, apparently it was somewhat of a mess. But here’s a show whose original cast recording of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s songs makes it sound like the funniest shows ever on stage.

Sugar Babies
Here’s a show that had legs aplenty. Legs physically on view on stage thanks to Ann Miller and also legs at the box office. It was a surprise hit. Talk about a show that celebrated the past but wasn’t particularly nostalgic even though the stars Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller were certainly stars of the long ago past. But the show wasn’t designed for nostalgia. It was out only for fun. And when Mickey Rooney left and comic Joey Bishop took his place the show worked just as well. Harry Rigby back again celebrating the past by making it just as entertaining in the present. And it boasted the brilliant Hilary Knight poster design (actually three different designs all superb).

Sweeney Todd
I guess by this point you’ve figured out that the team of Prince and Sondheim ruled the Broadway stage of the 70s. And this show was no different. It was immense and intimate at the same time. Quite an accomplishment. All the more amazing given the subject matter and the fact that the protagonist and leading character was a murderer who was abetted by the a woman who cut up corpses for ingredients in her meat pies. When I saw it for the second time I was sitting next to a woman who had no idea what the show was about. And I was worried that she’d take offence at the tone of the piece where the characters you root for are the most despicable of people. But the brilliance of Prince and Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler (not to mention Cariou and Lansbury) entertained her mightily. Perhaps if she had known what the show was about she wouldn’t have attended. But isn’t it the nicest thing to sit in a theatre and know you’re in good hands. That people who know what they’re doing are in charge? Not that the aforementioned gentlemen and lady haven’t had their share of flops but even the “failures” are strong and steady and sure.

Working
Like 70, Girls, 70, a show that people say works better as a cast recording than the show itself. What’s most remarkable about the high quality of the score is that it was made up of songs by a whole bunch of people with completely different styles and backgrounds. You’ve got Stephen Schwartz and Mary Rodgers and Micki Grant and Craig Carnelia all working at the top of their game. Maybe it’s Kirk Nurock’s orchestrations that tie everything together so seamlessly. It’s a surprisingly excellent score with more variations of mood, style, message, and breadth of subjects than any other Broadway score. Get the cast album and you won’t be disappointed.

We thought the 70s were a disappointing decade as far as musicals went. But looking back now with the knowledge of what’s on Broadway now it seems like the most exciting of decades. And it was.

 

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Jan
11

Food,Glorious Food

Rodgers and Hart wrote the song “I’ll Have a Little of You on Toast” for an obscure radio mini-musical featuring Helen Morgan. All I can say is, the song’s quality is equal to its title.

But food and drink commemorated in song have long been metaphors for the human condition. Think of the song that’s the title of this column. The workhouse boys in Oliver! eating their gruel dream of their idea of a feast. No, not the beef Wellington of the upper classes but only something simple -- hot sausage and mustard. Songwriter Lionel Bart knew of what he was writing. He was one of seven children and food wasn’t exactly plentiful as he grew up. His father was a tailor and his workshop was the garden shed behind their house. So even “pease pudding and saveloys” sounded good to young Lionel when he was young. By the way, “pease pudding” is a pudding made out of split peas and “saveloys” are bright red boiled sausages.

The Italian farmers and ranchers of the Napa Valley in California have more on their minds. They celebrate the grape harvest with a “Sposalizio!” where the wine is flowing and the smell of mozzarella is in the air. But another character in Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella views food in distinctly another way. For Cleo, a waitress in a little café with aching feet only sees the “seven million crumbs.” And she’s not talking about the patrons of the café—or is she?

To others, namely Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan in Charlot’s Revue, a simple shared meal is heaven. They sing, “A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich and You.” (You can hear her delivering it on The Incomparable Gertrude Lawrence.) The Joseph Meyer, Al Dubin, and Billy Rose song title was inspired by a line in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, "A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou. "

Sometimes it’s not the food that’s the object of affection. It’s the meal itself. At least it is for Snoopy as he extols the glories of “Suppertime” in Clark Gesner’s You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. And in Company, Stephen Sondheim proposed a toast to “The Ladies Who Lunch.” He also commented to Richard Rodgers’ music on the disgusting meals on airplanes with the song, “What Do We Do? We Fly!” from Do I Hear a Waltz? Remember when you’re flying, “Anything that is brown is meat” and “Anything that is gray, don’t eat.”

Drinking is also celebrated throughout the history of musical theatre and even flop shows can have hit songs.

“How Does the Wine Taste” was covered by Barbra Streisand and other lesser lights. The song came from a Pancho Villa musical, We Take the Town that starred Robert Preston. Harold Karr and Matt Dubey wrote the score. You may know them from the Merman vehicle, Happy Hunting.

The Student Prince has perhaps the greatest drinking song, aptly titled “Drinking Song.” Sigmund Romberg and lyricist Dorothy Donnelly had a big hit with the song and the show. And the mega-team of George Gershwin, Herbert Stothart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Otto Harbach wrote the song, “Vodka” for the 1925 hit Song of the Flame. Obscure, yes. But the great Dorothy Loudon memorably sang it on television. And you should definitely stop right not and view it on YouTube!!

Well, now we’ve gotten hungry and thirsty so we’ll sign off and run to the kitchen or, as New Yorkers do, call up for delivery.

 

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Dec
07

Holidays Mixtape

Folks, hope you’re having a Happy Hannukah if that’s your thing. Or no holiday at all of you don’t believe. But we all have to agree that as far as theatre songs go it’s Christmas all the way. Ironically many, if not most of the great Christmas songs were written by writers of the Jewish persuasion. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes America great!!

There’s a plethora of great Christmas songs from musical theatre. Here’s my list of the best known ones listed alphabetically by show. I think it would make a really terrific mix tape (mix CD?) (mix playlist?).

  1. “A New Deal for Christmas” – Annie – Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin
  2. “Hail to Christmas” – Babes in Toyland – Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough
  3. “Christmas Is My Favorite Time of Year” – Catch Me If You Can – Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman
  4. “A Christmas Buche” – Charlotte Sweet – Gerald Jay Maroem, Michael Colby
  5. “A Christmas Song” – Elf – Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin
  6. “Tomorrow Is Christmas” – The Gift of the Magi – Peter Eckstrom
  7. “Blissful Christmas” – Gone with the Wind – Harold Rome
  8. “Greenwillow Christmas” – Greenwillow – Frank Loesser
  9. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” – Here’s Love – Meredith Willson (OK I know he didn’t write this for the show but it’s in the show so it counts). And also “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” (sung in counterpoint to the above).
  10. “White Christmas” – Holiday Inn – Irving Berlin (see above)
  11. “Lovers on Christmas Eve” – I Love My Wife – Cy Coleman, Michael Stewart
  12. “Christmas Child” – Irma La Douce – Margurite Monnot, Julian More, David Heneker
  13. “Christmas 1” and “Christmas 2” – John and Jen – Andrew Lippa
  14. “Xmas Shopping” – Just for Openers – Rod Warren (You’ll have to track down a copy of the LP of this Julius Monk revue…sorry)
  15. “We Need a Little Christmas” – Mame – Jerry Herman
  16. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Meet Me in St. Louis – Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane
  17. “Christmas Day in the Cookhouse” – Oh What a Lovely War – Billy Bennett (ibid)
  18. “That’s What I’d Like for Christmas” – Pickwick – Cyril Ornadel, Leslie Bricusse
  19.  “Christmas Day” – Promises, Promises – Burt Bacharach and Hal David
  20. “Christmas at Hampton Court” – Rex – Richard Rodgers and Sheldon Harnick
  21. “Merry Christmas” and “Twelve Days to Christmas” – She Loves Me – Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
  22. “Christmas Eve” – Sherry – Laurence Rosenthal, James Lipton
  23. “At Christmas Time” – Song of Norway – Alexander Borodin, Robert Wright, George Forrest
  24. “I Don’t Remember Christmas” – Starting Here, Starting Now – Richard Maltby and David Shire
  25. “Christmas Carol” – Streets of New York – Richard B. Chodosh, Barry Alan Grael
  26. “White Christmas” – White Christmas – Irving Berlin (see reason above)
  27. “Winter Wonderland” – Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 – Felix Bernard, Dick Smith (ibid)

Well that’s what I could come up with anyway. Please let me know if there’s anything I missed.

And have yourselves a very happy holiday of your choice and a very happy new year!

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Nov
23

Favorites From the Fifties

The 1950s were a time of transition in musical theater history just as were the 1920s.

In the ‘20s, the old guard of Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml and other operetta composers were slowing down and being replaced by a new breed of songwriters. Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin led the way to be quickly followed by George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen, and others.

By the time the ‘50s turned to the ‘60s most of the these composers were slowing down (with the sole exception of Rodgers who worked until the day he died). The ‘50s saw the emergence of a new group of musical theater writers including Jones and Schmidt, Kander and Ebb, Strouse and Adams, Bock and Harnick, Jerry Herman, Hugh Martin and others.

Just as in the 1920s, most of these teams honed their skills by writing for revues before tackling full-blown scores. These new writers brought a freshness to the form while still following the basic tenants of music theater writing, especially an emphasis on the skill and craft of writing songs and their purpose of songs within a show. Sadly, that craft is rarely evident in today’s Broadway shows.

But back to the ‘50s. Just as the ‘20s brought a new life to the musical so did the ‘50s. And the shows produced in that decade were a reflection of the optimism that swept America following the Second World War.

Finally, before I give a list of some of my favorite shows of the time, it should be noted that even flop shows often had marvelous scores. Also, absent from today’s musical theater.

In no apparent order:

Li’l Abner
This is certainly an under-appreciated musical that doesn’t get it’s due for its sly agenda. Li’l Abner is a hilariously playful musical that, like Al Capp’s original comic strip, is subtly critical of the political atmosphere of the ’50s especially the whole military industrial complex. The score by Johnny Mercer is just as witty and pointed as the comic strip. Unfortunately, as a not-so-recent Encores! production showed, it’s an extremely difficult show to put on now, as modern sensibilities don’t understand the tone required in performance. Luckily, with most of the original Broadway cast intact, the film version is extremely faithful to the show and includes Michael Kidd’s fantastic choreography.

Wish You Were Here
A number of decades back, Frank Rich bemoaned that we don’t have new Harold Rome musicals, and I second the notion. Rome is sadly under the radar today, but his shows had a wonderful spirit and his music and lyrics celebrated life like no other songwriter. Wish You Were Here is a snapshot of a time long passed. The title song became a huge standard (back when we had standards from Broadway musicals). Compare the heartfelt yearnings of that song with the more playful tunes in the score, and you see a show about regular people, living their lives with all their foibles. Rome made gentle fun of his characters, and the sweetness of the score is a delightful contrast to other shows’ brash qualities.

Fanny
Here’s Harold Rome’s next show in the ‘50s and it couldn’t be more different than Wish You Were Here. This is a warm-hearted show and a bittersweet one also. Sadly, the film only used the songs as underscoring. It’s a marvelous movie under Josh Logan’s direction and an expert cast. It’s fun to watch the movie and pause to play the original cast album in the appropriate spots. This is one of the most beautiful scores whose ballads actually sound like real people’s emotions if they could express them as poetically as Rome does. Not like the typical overblown Broadway ballads of many shows.

Destry Rides Again
All right, all right. So, I really love Harold Rome’s work. Just these three shows show his remarkable versatility. I won’t go on and on about him. Just listen to this original cast recording.

The Girl in Pink Tights
Remember when you used to get a record (or later a CD) and make an immediate judgment and never get to the second side of the recording (Christine anyone?)? Well, I didn’t like Sigmund Romberg and Leo Robin’s score to this show. Decades later I picked it up again and I fell in love with it. There’s the requisite beautiful ballad, “Lost in Loveliness” but also songs with exceptionally funny lyrics by Leo Robin, one of the few lyricists who can actually put a joke into a song. “You’ve Got to Be a Little Crazy” is a love letter to the craziness that is show business. The other full-out comic song is “Love is the Funniest Thing.”  And, another ballad, “My Heart Won’t Say Goodbye,” is lushly romantic. This has turned into one of my favorite scores. Note: If you want a more complete version of the show, Ben Bagley recorded a slightly truncated version of the stunningly beautiful ballet.

The Golden Apple
Here’s another show that can’t be revived again. The score by Jerome Moross and John Latouche is romantic, intelligent and truthful (!). Sadly, today’s audiences don’t know the history of Helen of Troy, and so much of the show goes over their heads. Back when the show opened in 1954, schools still taught history and the classics. That’s one reason yet another Encores! revival bombed. That revival also illustrated another reason a successful revival is almost impossible today: society’s relationship with sex has changed. As originally staged, the song “Lazy Afternoon” was perhaps the sexiest moment in musical theater history. Languid and teasing with a real fire burning under the surface, the song bordered on obscene as originally staged. Today, the sexuality is front and center, no undercurrents, and treated as a joke. Believe me, it wasn’t in the original production.

Jamaica
Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg were a perfect songwriting team. Unfortunately, Harburg’s always being right annoyed his collaborators (which is why after the smash hit Finian’s Rainbow, Burton Lane refused to work with him. In fact, Lane and Harburg didn’t speak to each other from rehearsals through opening night. Though Lane did later propose to Harburg that they become an official team (but Harburg turned him down).

Oh yes, we were talking about Jamaica. Well, the libretto is mainly an excuse for Lena Horne to strut her stuff, and the songwriting team gave her songs perfectly crafted to her talents. And, speaking of steamy romance, Horne’s leading man was Ricardo Montalban which led to sparks on stage (and possibly off). In any event, Harburg has never been in better form. And songs like “Push de Button” are tremendously witty and verge on special material much like Kander and Ebb would do with their songs.

Saratoga
Here’s an extremely underrated score. Why? Because the original cast album is lacking the fire and energy of the best cast albums. Therefore, the excellent score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer isn’t showcased to its fullest. But these songs excel, as you would expect from two masters of the American popular song. My god, they wrote “Blues in the Night!!” I don’t know what to tell you but give a listen to the album.

I’ve tried to avoid the obvious choices (see the list below) but I’d like to have a few words about the following show because I think it’s important to do so.

My Fair Lady
Here’s an obvious choice but a show that’s often taken for granted. And speaking of shows that are difficult to stage now, My Fair Lady is unnecessarily caught up in the “Me Too” movement. This is an almost perfect musical that many consider as the epitome of the art form. Lerner and Loewe, working under Moss Hart’s guidance, examine the foibles of men, women, society, etc. Like other great shows, it revolves around human fallibilities and sometimes today it seems we want all the characters in musicals to be entirely politically correct in every way. And, sad to say perhaps, human’s just aren’t perfect as much as we strive to be.

Not to mention Guys and Dolls, The King and I, The Music Man, Wonderful Town, Kismet, The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing, Candide, West Side Story, The Most Happy Fella, Gypsy, The Sound of Music, and Fiorello!

 

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Nov
09

“What’s Wrong with These Kids Today?”

‘Twas ever thus through history. And musical history too. Face it, we were all jerks between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. All along the way at every birthday we thought we had it all figured out. The amazing thing is perhaps no matter how old you are you never quite have everything figured out.

And teenagers in past musical theater are mostly delightfully lost. The first stirrings of adulthood. Beginning relationships. Finding out who we are and our place in the world. All themes explored through song and story.

Older musicals of screen and stage tended to romanticize youth. Think of Judy Garland at MGM. Seemingly the eternal teenager, (she even sings Roger Edens’ “In-Between” in the film Love Finds Andy Hardy, which can be heard on a Decca Masters Compilation), Judy romped with Mickey Rooney, never growing up in films or the public’s eyes.

Her most famous film is the classic The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy Gale finds herself in a strange land with a lion, a scarecrow and a tin man. Oh, and a couple of witches. Of course, it’s all a dream. A dream that Freud would have a field day with. In today’s musical, Wicked, Glinda and her arch enemy Elphaba inhabit an Oz that isn’t quite as nice as the “marvelous land of Oz” of the film. Elphaba is horribly teased and ostracized while Glinda just wants to be “Popular.”

Back to Judy Garland, she created the role of Esther Smith in the MGM picture Meet Me in St. Louis. She’s interested in “The Boy Next Door” but he still considers her a child. Of course, he comes to his senses. The flop Broadway version couldn’t capture the spirit or innocence of that time.

Another flop Broadway show based on an MGM musical is also about a boy and a girl who slowly becomes a woman in his eyes. That show is Gigi with a glorious score by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner. The male lead Gaston, singing the title song, realizes that he’s in love with the much younger Gigi. In the flop Broadway production Gigi sings, “In This Wide, Wide World” which Lerner used to replace, “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.” In the song, Gigi tells Gaston that she knows he loves other women but she “would rather be mis’rable with you than without you.” Cheery, no? In the horribly disfigured Broadway revival, “Say a Prayer” was sung by Mamita and the show closed with Gigi singing “In This Wide, Wide World.” “Say a Prayer” (originally written for My Fair Lady) was the better fit as sung in the film version.

Lerner wrote about another young girl edging toward womanhood in the musical Paint Your Wagon, again with Loewe. This time the ingénue is Jennifer who falls in love with an older, romantic young dreamer. But Jennifer doesn’t quite know “What’s Going on Here?” Naturally, the final curtain falls and the two lovers find their way to their own happiness.

Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields’ stunning score for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn finds the young Francie soothed by her father who explains she’s just having “Growing Pains.” But it’s not only girls who have growing pains. Take Me Along, based on Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness, featured a young Robert Morse as Richard Miller, sweetly clueless as he sings the first act closer, “That’s How It Starts.” Songwriter Bob Merrill understood the naïveté of youth and an awakening to adult feelings..

Another show set in approximately the same time as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is 1951’s Seventeen with a sadly underestimated score by Walter Kent and Kim Gannon. Seventeen revolved around the innocent love/romance between 17-year-old Willie Baxter and the cutesy flirt Lola Pratt. Ann Crowley played Lola and in the lead role of Willie was a young Kenneth Nelson. Willie sort of grows up by the end of the show and sings, “I Could Get Married.”

Seven years later Nelson would again play a teenager in a little show titled The Fantasticks by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. In that show, Nelson’s Matt falls in love with the girl next door, Luisa played fetchingly by Rita Gardner. But the teenagers’ fathers are confused by the youngsters’ love, and they’re absolutely against it. They don’t know quite what to do about it and sing “Never Say No,” pretending they know exactly what to do to manipulate their children. Needless to say, they have no clue.

Jones and Schmidt revisited two children with Grover’s Corners, their musical version of Our Town.  It’s a true tragedy of the theater that this show suffered a horrible fate with the underlying rights withdrawn. It’s a remarkably beautiful, heartfelt score, perhaps Jones and Schmidt’s best (you can hear four of Jones and Schmidt’s demos on Jones & Schmidt: Hidden Treasures). In the show, like the play, George Webb and Emily Gibbs find themselves in love but think themselves not quite ready for marriage yet married they become. And the second act... well, you’ll have to discover that for yourself.

Eliot Green is the leading character in the underrated musical Bar Mitzvah Boy by Jule Styne and Don Black. It recently had a triumphant production at New York’s York Theatre. Turning thirteen, Eliot is frankly afraid of his responsibilities when he “becomes a man” at his bar mitzvah. By the end of the show he pulls it together and sings “That’s How It’s Done” and Eliot discovers he really is becoming a man.

Speaking of becoming a man not symbolically like Eliot Green but actually waking up to find you are really a man is the entire plot of the musical Big. Okay, technically Josh Baskin is a 12-year-old boy living in New Jersey, one year from being a teenager. He’s confused that whenever he spies13-year-old Cynthia Benson something strange is stirring. He wishes he was a man (a common trope in musicals and plays) and actually becomes one to his delight and later his consternation (another trope). When toward the end of the show he sings, “When You’re Big,” we know he’s ready to become a boy again.

Grease and Hairspray both take a lighthearted, satirical look at teenage life in the 1950s. But both also explore serious subjects. The teenagers at Grease’s Rydell High School deal with teenage pregnancy, rebellion, and sex. And the teenagers in Hairspray's Baltimore take a stand against racism. Both shows are comedies but with a message. It’s a far cry from the teenagers in Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ Bye Bye Birdie where Kim MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio thinks she’s all grown up when she sings, “How Lovely to Be a Woman.”

Speaking of teenagers and sex, some children find themselves in an adult world against their better judgment. In the flop musical by Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry, Lolita, My Love, the character sings “All You Can Do Is Tell Me You Love Me” Her lyric begins:

The kids in this town—
Go out and you’ll see—
They’re all having fun,
Excepting for me.
And I could be, too,
Excepting for you.
‘Cause all you can do
Is tell me you love me.

Not exactly same problem as other musical theatre teenagers face.

And in current musicals teenagers can also have serious problems.

In Dear Evan Hansen the stakes are much higher than musicals of the past. The title character can’t quite fit in with his fellow high school students. When a boy commits suicide Even concocts a story that brings solace to the parents of the dead boy but it becomes a lie that increasingly makes the truth harder and harder for Evan to admit. When he finally owns up to the deceit he sings, “Words Fail” and by the end of the show it seems that Evan’s lies actually did sooth the family of the boy and Evan is taught a valuable lesson.

And the most current show of all is The Prom, still in previews at this writing. Like Grease and Hairspray it’s primarily a comedy but the theme of this modern musical is homophobia by students and faculty alike.

These modern shows are a far cry from Liesl declaring that she is “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. Teenagers today are more sophisticated and know a lot more that kids their age did in past decades. Some of their innocence is gone and that’s a bad thing but also they’re more involved in issues of the day and that’s a good thing.

 

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