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. And as president of the 33-year-old Harbinger Records, which he co-founded with Bill Rudman, 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.
Well, you wouldn’t know it here based on recent weather on the East Coast but Spring has arrived (or so they tell us).
Which got us to thinking of shows (The Day Before Spring) and songs that mention this time of year. Spring is symbolic of new beginnings but Larry Hart’s lyric to Richard Rodgers’ music for the song “Spring Is Here” (from I Married an Angel) is a melancholy one. In typical Hart fashion, the arrival of spring is a disappointment with nothing going right in the romance department. Frank Loesser struck the same tone in the 1944 movie musical Christmas Holiday when he penned, “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” which you can check out in any number of cover versions including Sarah Vaughan's.
E.Y. Harburg was especially attuned to the yin and yang of the seasons and for him Spring meant nature’s sap starting to rise, if you know what we mean. And that brings us to Flahooley’s “The Springtime Cometh.” Lust was also in the breeze for the citizens of Camelot. Alan Jay Lerner was no stranger to love—he was married eight times!. Lerner, with composer Frederick Loewe, celebrated “The Lusty Month of May.”
And Lerner also joined forces with Kurt Weill to celebrate life reborn in “Green-Up Time” in the sadly seldom performed Love Life. It’s tops on many people’s list of most wanted revival or at least concert version, and if you would like to hear this song performed check out a version delivered by Weill's wife Lotte Lenya. Similarly Cole Porter’s plainly named, “I Love You” (Mexican Hayride) is best known for its lyric, “It’s Spring again. And birds on the wing again. Start to sing again. That old melody…” Gene DePaul and Johnny Mercer wrote “Spring, Spring, Spring” for the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and, wouldn’t you know it, after a long winter stuck indoors the seven brides and the seven brothers found themselves tending to babies.
And speaking of new growth, human or otherwise, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific features a novel way to profess love with the song, “Younger Than Springtime.” In the 1921 musical Bombo Al Jolson introduced one of this biggest hits, the Louis Silvers and B.G. DeSylva paean to Spring, “April Showers.”
The one song that we can think of that has Spring in the title but has nothing to do with Spring comes from Mel Brooks' The Producers: “Springtime for Hitler.”
Whether your Spring is renewing, bittersweet, or romantic we hope you have a wonderful Spring.
John Kander is turning 90 years old, and he’s still at it with a new show at the Vineyard Theatre in New York and working on another new musical. Many of his contemporaries are also refusing to rest on their impressive laurels and are continuing to write new works for the theatre. Stephen Sondheim, Charles Strouse, Sheldon Harnick, Tom Jones, and others still have the musical theatre bug and are looking forward rather than backward.
But of all these greats who found their first successes in the late ‘50s and early 1960s, John Kander is the most reticent to crow about his past accomplishments. He’s always looking forward to the next project even as the revival of Chicago shows no signs of ever closing. His new work with collaborator Greg Pierce is quite unlike the show biz razzmatazz of his work with lyricist Fred Ebb. His new scores are minimalist jewels with sometimes complete songs and at other times short musical accents to the scenes. It’s even more remarkable than the difference in Richard Rodgers’ music when he transitioned from working with Lorenz Hart to Oscar Hammerstein II. There’s still recognizable Kander motifs running through his new shows like the current Kid Victory, there’s no doubt that he’s the composer. His aesthetic runs through every note but it’s a quieter, more insightful, more character-driven way of composing.
Of course, we all love the Kander and Ebb era, and this newest turn in his talents are an apt coda to one of Broadway’s greatest composers.
Recent Grammy Award-winner Ken Bloom (he picked up the prize for the liner notes to the album Sissle & Blake Sing 'Shuffle Along') has been traveling out of the country. He will return with a new column on March 10.
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.”
This week’s theme is Mavericks in Musicals. So, I thought I’d concentrate on the shows themselves and how they broke out of the ordinary and found success.
If we look back at some big hit musicals, it isn’t just that they were good that accounts for the great success but also because they were unique. Of course, in true Broadway and Hollywood tradition, these successes were then followed by inferior copies. One thing the mavericks have in common is they were written from the heart without thoughts of becoming smash hits.
The first of the Mavericks was the Follies of 1907. Producer Florenz Ziegfeld was so struck by the Folies Bergere in Paris, he decided to present a similar show in New York, but without the nude showgirls. You know, showgirls got their name because they didn’t sing, didn’t dance, didn’t speak, and not because they were in a show. They were there strictly to look beautiful and show themselves in beautiful, if somewhat skimpy, costumes. Anyway, Ziegfeld’s show was an immediate success. The songs had topicality like, “I Don’t Want an Auto,” “I Think I Oughtn’t Auto Any More,” “Budweiser’s a Friend of Mine,” “Cigarettes,” and “The Man Who Built the Subway.” There were also provocative songs for the showgirls to strut their talents, “The Fencing Girl,” and “The Gibson Bathing Girls.” There were also suggestive songs like, “If We Knew What the Milkman Knows.” The Follies gave birth to imitators like The Passing Shows, The Winter Garden Shows, George White’s Scandals, and Earl Carroll’s Vanities. But it was the Follies of 1907 that was the maverick.
Oklahoma! doesn’t seem very radical now but at the time it surprised audiences. There was no opening number, just a farmhouse, an old woman churning butter, and a lone cowboy setting the scene with the song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” There was no Ruritanian romance, no double entendres, and relatively simple scenery. The latter was partially due to the war effort where materials were hard to get. Oh, and a secondary character was killed! Furthermore, the plot really didn’t matter as much as the patriotism of early settlers who founded a territory that would by curtain falls become a state.
In more modern times, Hair rocked Broadway and changed it forever. Seeing revivals of the show now could never have the cataclysmic effect of the original production. Hippies were looked down upon by the majority of the population. The country was torn apart by the war in Vietnam. And drugs, interracial sex, draft-dodging, etc. were all divisive subjects and certainly never heard on any stage. Hair, with its hit songs that were decidedly not your usual pop ballads, was a major cultural event. And the cast of performers were not just acting roles, they actually lived them off the stage also. It was a gigantic political statement that helped change the course of history.
When March of the Falsettos opened at Playwrights’ Horizon, William Finn’s work shocked people much in the way Hair did for a previous generation. Here’s a married man who has a lover on the side… who is a man! And the wife is having an affair with the family’s therapist. Songs like “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” really shook up the crowds flocking to the theatre. Jason, the son sings, “My Father Is a Homo.” It’s a far cry from “We Kiss in a Shadow.” Like Hair, Falsettos opened up a whole underground world for theatergoers. And William Finn’s conversational, unconventional songs presaged a Broadway whose scores would be further and further away from Broadway pop ballads.
Here’s what is what later would be called the “concept musical.” There’s no real plot, exactly. Rather a series of scenes and songs around a theme: being single, companionship, and marriage. This show made possible a whole series of concept shows that saw its culmination with A Chorus Line. And in such a show, there’s usually not a star. (Though in the case of Company Dean Jones—and later Larry Kert—had the lead they weren’t really stars, and it turned out that Elaine Stritch did stand out with her showstopper “The Ladies Who Lunch.”) The company of Company were all equals equally served by the songs by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s libretto.
Like it or not, Mamma Mia! really changed the theatre as the first smash hit “juke box musical.” Yes, there had been musical revues around a single composer’s output. They ran the gamut from the lows of the Frank Loesser revue Perfectly Frank to the heights of Ain’t Misbehavin’. But Mamma Mia! took the top pop hits of ABBA and jammed them into a ridiculous script. But it was the songs people came to hear. Folks from New Jersey and beyond didn’t care about the drama they came for a heady does of musical nostalgia. There’s been a plethora of juke box musicals since but Mamma Mia is the greatest.
A puppet show masquerading as a satire of a children’s television show. When you first heard that did you think it would become one of the theatre’s longest running shows? Admit it. It sounded like a terrible idea. The kind of show where you’re sitting around laughing and throwing ridiculous ideas around and then dismiss them when you sober up. Well, Avenue Q hasn’t been copied but it’s still running, albeit in a smaller Off-Broadway theatre. And it’s been produced all over the world. I saw a company do it in Paris. What do you think the French thought of it? Well, I can tell you it didn’t last very long.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
To conclude, we salute Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yes, that’s right. Do you know any show as original and audacious as Cats? How about Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? A rock version of a Bible story? No, not Two By Two. Joseph was audacious for its time. Those of us who are old enough to remember when it first premiered and religious zealots picketed calling the show an abomination before God. Now, every school and church group seems to mount a production of Joseph. And Lloyd Webber and his early partner Tim Rice deserve another mention. They invented the concept album that would eventually become the score of a major London musical. Yes! Another milestone—a successful British musical. Take one of your hands and count along. 1. Oliver! 2. Half a Sixpence. Um, that’s it. Not a lot of British musicals had made a big splash moving from the West End to Broadway before Lloyd Webber. And he had lots of them (till The Woman in White, that is). And even now with a very conventional musical, School of Rock, Lloyd Webber is back on Broadway with a show unlike anything he’s written before.
Finally, we come to Hamilton. You must have known that was coming. It’s unique and it’s a smash. But will we have more historical rap musicals with colorblind casting? Only time will tell.
DO YOU SUFFER FROM TRISKAIDEKAPHOBIA?
Don’t be ashamed. Since the 18th Century millions of Americans have suffered from this strange mental illness. Are you going to stay under the covers shivering when you wake up on Friday? Will you answer your phone? Will you read your email?
Don’t despair. It’s not too late. We are here to offer a surefire cure. Though you may suffer from the fear of Friday the 13th this malady can be treated with melody. That’s right. Go to your computer, phone or tablet and make yourself a Triskaidekaphobia playlist. It’ll be sure to chase those Friday the 13th blues away.
Here’s actual testimony from actual fictional sufferers who stood up straight, put their shoulders back and accepted good luck. And by repeating their mantras you too can change your point of view for the best.
Sky M. from the sewers of Broadway prayed that “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” and his positive energy worked. Sarah B. went on a romantic voyage to Cuba with him.
A young man from St. Louis known only as Li’l Augie was a gambler and like Sky M. spent time betting on horses and dice. But he had spirit and he proclaimed, “I Feel My Luck Comin’ Down.” And his positive thinking made him lucky and only a few acts later he was “Ridin’ on the Moon.”
M. Bramleigh, with an assist by two brothers with the name Gershwin, affirmed that he was the “Luckiest Man in the World.” No longer did he have to make excuses to people by saying “Pardon My English.” He had nothing to be ashamed of.
A young girl in the French West Indies who went under the name Violet (not her real name) believed that a sleepin’ bee held in the palm of her hand would bring her romance. And it did! We have verified proof that it worked for her, and it will also work for you. She dreamt of a “House of Flowers,” and wouldn’t you know it, her wish was granted.
Maybe you know someone who is down on his luck like one of four brothers who toured in vaudeville under the iron hand of his stage mother. He moped around complaining “Where Was I When They Passed Out Luck?” If only his mother Minnie had loved him and told the boy “You’re Lucky to Me” like a lucky Blackbird announced in 1928, that young man might have found happiness.
Our guaranteed plan worked for them and it will work for you. Don’t worry who’s around or who might hear you as you walk around singing about the power of positive thinking and you will change your attitude, your luck and perhaps even the spirits of those around you.
Erik’s uncovered an amazing group of Christmas songs from obscure shows. And hit shows have lots of Christmas songs, too. I guess Annie’s “A New Deal for Christmas” is the best known of the younger set while Mame’s “We Need a Little Christmas” most comes to mind to some older musical theatre mavins. The most beautiful are The Song of Norway’s “At Christmastime” and “Christmas Child” from Irma La Douce. Of course, Meredith Willson’s Here’s Love—based on the classic movie Miracle on 34th Street—has “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” The latter is a true-blue Christmas standard but it wasn’t actually written for the show. Meredith Willson wrote it way back in 1951.
There are certainly more, but what I want to know is where are the New Year’s songs? Can you even think of one? Well, there’s “New Year’s Day” from Side Show, and both Sunset Boulevard and A Doll's Life have songs called "New Year's Eve." Of course the Andrew Lloyd-Webber one leads right into the better known "The Perfect Year."
Rent was a big hit but do you remember “Happy New Year B?” I don’t. And I’m fairly sure that you don’t know “I Feel Like New Year’s Eve” from Something More which was interpolated into the Sammy Fain score by Jule Styne, who was also the director of the show. The original cast recording is not available digitally and long out of print, but you can hear this tune on Neva Small's My Place in the World, which is only available as a physical disc. And if you want to know more about this show, read Barbara Cook’s autobiography for her take on the it. Pretty interesting.
Slightly better known might be “Happy, Happy New Year” from the Charles Strouse and Alan Jay Lerner failure Dance a Little Closer. Another good score from a bad show.
Frank Loesser attempted a New Year’s song, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Unfortunately, it wasn’t from a show so it technically doesn’t count here, but it’s the best we’ve got. Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, and Billy Eckstine covered the song and it’s not bad, how could it be when Frank Loesser wrote it but it never caught on.
So, all you budding songwriters out there here’s your chance to write a perennial New Years song. You don’t have a lot of competition. Get going and remember, it was I who gave you the idea!
Have a wonderful new year with plenty of good health and happiness.
The holidays are fast upon us and if you’re like me, you’re just starting to figure out what to give to who as presents. So, here’s a few suggestions for your shopping ease.
Sadly, the cast album of the brilliant Dear Evan Hansen won’t hit stores till February. But the newest kids on the Broadway block, songwriters Benj. Pasek and Justin Paul, made their Broadway musical debut writing the thoroughly delightful score to A Christmas Story. If you know the now classic movie all the better. But even if you’ve been asleep every Christmas the last few years and haven’t seen the movie on TV, you’ll have a wonderful time with this terrific album by a terrific new team.
Two other current Broadway hits also have new recordings that are worth repeated listenings. Broadway wags were skeptical of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s newest opus, School of Rock. But he quieted the critics with an unpretentious, humorous show with a lot of good songs in true rock meets musical comedy tradition. And those kids truly are remarkable.
On Your Feet has captured an enthusiastic audience for a bio-musical of Gloria Estefan, and the album is fully of great energy. Perfect for the gym, an aerobic house cleaning, or just to get your spirits up. It’s the rare show that tells a story most of us are at least somewhat familiar with but with humor and imagination and even a few surprises.
My last suggestions might be construed as shameless plugs for some of my latest projects. And though they are exactly that, they’re also worth giving to those near and dear who like Broadway.
The Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle musical Shuffle Along didn’t get a cast album from George C. Wolfe’s reimagining of the historic 1921 musical comedy. The original production broke many barriers on Broadway and the road but the score is what has lasted the years. And you can hear the songwriters and members of the original cast perform the songs in period recordings with Harbinger Records’ new release. The score is jazzy, romantic, and full of fun. And as an added bonus, the liner notes by myself and Richard Carlin have been nominated for a Grammy Award.
We’ve also put out a series of recordings under the umbrella of Hidden Treasures. The most recent is a salute to the career of John Kander. The 2-CD set features 49 rarities sung by Kander and his longtime partner Fred Ebb written for shows that you know. As well as some that never made it on stage. Plus there’s an extensive 64-page booklet written by New York Magazine theatre critic Jesse Green. You even get to hear the original version of “New York, New York!”
With the opening of In Transit, a sort of Grand Hotel in a New York subway station, we turn our attention to the various forms of transportation celebrated in Broadway musicals.
And so here we are with a bevy of musical theatre transportation opportunities. Note that some are fun, some sexy, some adventurous and some are laden with foreboding.
The stage Maria Von Trapp climbed every mountain to get her family safely out of Nazi Germany and into Switzerland in The Sound of Music. But the real Maria Von Trapp did the sensible thing—she took the train!
Let’s start with the real Maria’s favorite form of travel. In Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo has to go to from his home in Ixopo to Johannesburg to see his sister and his son, Absalom. Being in a black man in a land of apartheid, Kumalo knows that the train ride is could lead to tragedy. He knows that the “white man goes to Johannesburg, he come back, he come back.” But he also realizes that the “black man go to Johannesburg, never come back, never come back.” He does come back but not after much suffering and searching for humanity.
On a lighter note, Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green posit the idea that “Life Is Like a Train” in On the Twentieth Century. "You get on at the beginning. You get off at the end.” And along the way is everything life has to offer good and bad. And never before has a train been so brilliantly pictured on stage due to the talents of director Harold Prince and set designer Robin Wagner.
Comden and Green loved New York and wrote another show about trains but this time it was underground trains, the subway. In fact, the show was Subways Are for Sleeping and the hilarious subway song, “Subway Directions.” Comden and Green and composer Jule Styne knew that getting around the subway was a very confusing thing. If you want to spend the night on the subway herein they supply the directions for navigating the subways from Pelham Bay Park to Far Rockaway to Bronx River Park to the end of the line. You have to “wake up, get out, cross over, go down, get on again” endlessly. The subway wasn’t the scary place it would become. In the ‘60s the subway could still be a “magic train of dreams.”
Just as Comden and Green proclaimed “Life is Like a Train,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream compares taking a long ride as a metaphor for going through life. The song extols rattling along and wobbling along on your way through life “On a Lopsided Bus.” The song is second tier R&H but that’s still might fine with us.
In Annie Get Your Gun, Ethel Merman shot her targets while riding a motorcycle. In High Spirits, Bea Lillie hits all her marks in Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray’s hilarious “The Bicycle Song.” The bike is Madame Arcati’s favorite means of travel. After all, “If it’s worry or strain you want it’s a train or plane you want.” And furthermore, “If catching the grip you want it’s a ship you want.” But riding a bike is utter happiness going through hill and dale.
In George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Hayward’s Porgy and Bess, Sportin’ Life seduces Bess telling her “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.” She refuses at first but finally capitulates and leaves for the glories of the big city and the promises of Sportin’ Life. When Porgy gets out of jail and goes down to Catfish Row to look for Bess, he’s told she’s gone. So, he gets on his goat cart and sets off to find her as the curtain falls. Since the New Jersey Turnpike wasn’t built until 1952 and E-Z Pass was decades away, Porgy’s journey was a long one. We can’t think of another show that has a goat cart as means of conveyance.
Automobiles are the favorite means of travel in musical theatre. In Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s High Button Shoes, Phil Silvers brags that, “There’s Nothing Like a Model T.” He and the chorus instruct us that sometimes you have to spank her if she won’t crank and sometimes it’s hard to get up a hill but going down you might reach speeds as fast as 25 miles per hour!
A similarly decrepit car is Grease’s Greased Lightnin’. But part of the American Dream is owning a cool car. And though Greased Lightnin’ needs a lot of work it’s the possibilities that are the most exciting.
If you’re in New York, you probably don’t own a car. The buses are slow and the subway is sometimes unreliable. So, the taxicab is the ride of choice. Well, in the years before Uber anyway. And just like Comden and Green did with trains and the subway, they see the taxi for its potential. In the Bernstein, Comden, and Green show On the Town hailing a taxi can lead to love or at least sex. And Nancy Walker as Hildy the cabbie is on the prowl for one last fare. She picks up the sailor Chip and tries to divert him from his sightseeing, suggesting that "Come Up to My Place." Then she turns on the gas. And by that we mean she seduces him with her prowess in the kitchen ("I Can Cook Too") but we know she’s really talking about her prowess in the bedroom. It’s one of the sexiest of all songs but when singers try to sing it with a sexy purr it just doesn’t work.
Less athletic love can be found in the Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz charmer, “A Rainy Day” from Flying Colors. Clifton Webb shares a cab with a stranger. First they’re perfunctory with each other but as the rain beats upon the windshield they soften up, fall in love and what do you know, he takes her home to his apartment. Just what happened to Hildy and Chip but in a more decorous, romantic way. You can take a listen to Eric Comstock delivering this on Young Man of Manhattan.
Stephen Sondheim perfectly summarized our last mode of transportation when he wrote “What Do We Do? We Fly!” for Do I Hear a Waltz? How many times have you actually been crammed in a middle seat with mystery meat on a plastic tray, a baby crying a few rows back, a kid kicking the back of your seat, and the guy next to you falling asleep on your shoulder that you don’t sing “What Do We Do? We Fly!” to yourself? That’s what I thought.
We wrap up these musical mentions of mobility with a song that touches on them all, the Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner song “Come Back to Me” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Psychiatrist Dr. Mark Bruckner falls in love with one of his patients, and when she leaves for a life with her nogoodnik boyfriend the good doctor summons her back via ESP. He paranormally exhorts her to take a train, steal a car, take a freight, catch a plane, ride a mule, on a horse, in a Rolls or a van, or a jet. And wouldn’t you know it, she does!
With the opening of Dear Evan Hansen Andy asked me to think about moral questions in musical theatre, which got me to thinking about how musicals approach these choices and our reactions to the stories.
There are lots of dramatic decisions that have to be made by characters in musicals but sometimes simply the act of setting these big issues to music can dull the inherent drama. Sometimes these questions have a quandary specific to the time the show was produced. And sometimes our familiarity with a show lessens the emotional and moral impact of important decisions by the characters. Of course, as a rule, as an audience member we trust that everything will turn out all right for the protagonists no matter what ensues. When the curtain falls everything will be right with the world.
But really, that isn’t always the case even in musicals. Let’s look at serious decisions that characters in musicals have to make and consider just how important those decisions are for them and what are the ramifications of their eventual actions.
Now don’t laugh but Maria has very important choices to make in the most famous musical of all time, The Sound of Music. Here’s a young girl (ironically played by an older woman) who has given her life over to God. But she meets an older man, a widower with children no less, and has to choose between her love of God and her love of the strict disciplinarian and his children. Not an easy decision to make.
To make matters even more difficult, the oldest of the children has fallen in love with a boy who is on the verge of joining the Nazi party and betraying her and her family. Now we mostly remember whiskers on kittens but at the time The Sound of Music was written, the audience at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre had lived through the war that ended a little over a decade before.
Less than ten years later, the war was still deeply in people’s psyches. And when Cabaret opened the star of the show wasn’t the Emcee, but rather it was the story of a group of people whose reactions to the horrors building around them meant they had to make life or death decisions that were made all the more difficult by their blindness to the world outside their lives or their own personal demons. The character who has the most difficult options is the Jewish shopkeeper Herr Shultz who believes that he is a German first and foremost. He has to trust that his nationalism will protect him against a political party whose platform is stripping away the rights or even advocating the death of people like him. This was heady stuff in 1968 and, come to think of it, is scarily similar to what’s happening now to our country. Herr Shultz’s blind devotion to his country will certainly lead to his death in a gas chamber. When Boris Aronson’s giant mirror reflected the audience inside the Broadhurst Theatre, a chill of self-recognition ran through the audience.
There are other serious decisions that characters have to face in what has been generalized as Musical Comedy. Can Nellie Forbush, "a hick from the sticks," fall in love with a man once married to a brown-skinned Polynesian woman? Can she accept his mixed race children as her own? Lieutenant Cable acknowledges Nellie’s problem and his in falling in love with the Tonkanese girl Liat. His decision is taken out of his hands when he is killed by the Japanese while on patrol. Does this really sound like a Musical Comedy? In 1949 for those attending South Pacific—like the audiences seeing The Sound of Music and Cabaret—the war had been the major event of their lives and many lost friends and relatives, they're relatives) in it. Heady stuff for a Musical Comedy opening only four years…only four…after the armistice.
In The Most Happy Fella, the main character, Tony has a big decision to make when he learns Rosabella, his young bride, is carrying the child of another man. Should a young girl fall in love with a compulsive gambler, fully knowing that he isn’t the kind to settle down to a life sitting around the fire? Ask Fanny Brice or Magnolia Ravenal. They chose love but their marriages didn’t end well.
And in The Apple Tree’s one-act “The Lady or the Tiger,” Captain Sanjar has to trust Princess Barbára to tell him which door should he choose. In that show we never find out. There’s no easy answer for either of them or for us, the audience. And that about sums up the difficulties in making musical theatre decisions when emotions and logic give us impossible choices.