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The 1940s...

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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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