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This Week I’ll Mostly be Listening to [Christmas Special]… Musicals! December 26, 2012

Posted by guestposter in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
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Here’s a very welcome guest This Week Christmas Special from EamonnCork for the Season that’s in it…

Why musicals? For me it’s just a simple matter of personal taste. I’ve always loved the things. I love many other kinds of music, for one thing there’s very few of these What I’ve Been Listening To slots I haven’t enjoyed to a certain extent. But musicals are number one for me, if I’m honest with myself they top the list of what I really want to listen to.

They’re an acquired taste to be sure. There are connotations of naffness there perhaps at this stage of the game. Yet there are probably few enough of us who don’t have some beloved show stopper stored away somewhere in the memory banks. I won’t go through the tiresome business of defending the genre, not even by using that much loved formula, ‘The Left will never take power in Ireland until it learns to appreciate show tunes.’ I love them so much that even the elements sometimes suggested as being to their detriment, the glitz, the emotionalism, the sheer unlikeliness that you’re going to burst into song at the hint of personal triumph and trauma, are just further examples of the wonder of this magnificent hybrid creation.

Herewith the history bit. I suppose the musical is a child of opera on one hand and music hall on the other. The rise of the musical may have had something to do with opera’s embrace of modernism which left fewer and fewer arias which stuck immediately in the mind. Its direct ancestor was the operetta, the opera’s lighter cousin as written most fluently by the likes of Offenbach, Strauss and Gilbert and Sullivan.

1920s

Showboat (Kern-Hammerstein)

TWENTIES.

The foundational work of the musical is perhaps Showboat which showed that the new form could outstrip the operetta in terms of both seriousness and entertainment value. It was one of those new works which change the form of a genre dramatically and reveal its infinite possibilities. Its stark look at the cruelty of the South’s miscegenation laws, which forms a key part of the story, was strong stuff in an America where Martin Luther King hadn’t even been born yet. And here’s my favourite song from it.

1930s

Anything Goes (Porter).

THIRTIES.

It took a while for the influence of Showboat to sink in. Perhaps it was just too big and ambitious to be emulated. The thirties musical was largely revue based. Maybe that’s because the songwriters of the era, the guys who wrote what’s known as The Great American Songbook, were just so good. Who needed a compelling storyline when there was going to be another Gershwin, Porter, Berlin or Rodgers and Hart song along in a minute? This is one of Cole Porter’s songs from one of the classic thirties shows.

1940s
Carousel
(Rogers-Hammerstein) (Bit long but probably the high point of the whole genre).

FORTIES.

Oklahoma provided the second big bang for the musical. It told a story of unglamorous people with considerable psychological realism and it did so with great formal ingenuity, using ballet as a way of expressing the heroine’s inner struggles for example. None of that would have counted for anything if it hadn’t been for the great music and lyrics of the Big Two, Rodgers and Hammerstein. And they may even have gone one better with Carousel. Again it seems unlikely musical territory, it’s culled from a pessimistic work of Central European modernism, Liliom by Ferenc Molnar, it’s protagonist is hugely unsympathetic and its ending is only ambivalently happy. But what songs, including You’ll Never Walk Alone. By now the Musical Comedy was being replaced by the Musical Play.

1950s

Candide (Bernstein)


FIFTIES

Probably the golden age as everyone upped their game to match Rodgers and Hammerstein. Chances are if you only knew a few musicals, they’re from this era, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The King and I. But my own favourite wasn’t that big of a success even if it was written, like West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein. Candide is a marvel.

1960s

Fiddler on the Roof (Bock-Harnick).

SIXTIES.

If the musical was never as culturally central and confident as it was in the Fifties, it lost that centrality in the sixties as rock and roll, particularly in the wake of The Beatles, meant that rock and toll was the new popular music. Yet the wish to examine serious subjects and to see the musical as an art form continued. The two big examples of this in the sixties were Cabaret, which dealt with the rise of the Nazis in Weimar Berlin and Fiddler on the Roof, about Jewish life in the shtetls. The second is slightly my favourite. Its remarkable how many of the major musical composers, Bernstein, Rogers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, Gershwin and a whole lot more, have been Jewish by the way. And they’re not the only population group outside the mainstream who’ve been largely identified with Broadway shows.


1970s

A Little Night Music (Sondheim).

SEVENTIES.

My own favourite composer of musicals is Steven Sondheim. I think he’s a genius and also a good introduction to musicals for anyone who prefers rock music even though he doesn’t write what in the seventies became known as Rock Operas. There’s a sardonic sensibility there which appeals to people who’re a bit suspicious of all the old Broadway razzmatazz. His lyrics are good enough to appeal on their own in a lot of cases and he could still write memorable show stoppers, like this one which was a rare modern pop hit for Broadway in the seventies.

1980s

Sunday In The Park with George (Sondheim)

EIGHTIES.

Sondheim probably hit his peak with Sunday In The Park With George about the creative struggles of the painter Georges Seurat and a descendant of his. It’s indescribable really unless you get a chance to see it. This is the best song about creative endeavour I’ve ever heard and the singer is Mandy Patinkin, who’s Saul the beardy CIA officer in Homeland.

1990s

Rent (Larson).

NINETIES.

Reaganism ushered in the era of blockbusters. The most important thing now seemed to be finding an enormous hit like the Lloyd Webber shows or Les Miserables which could run for previously unconscionable lengths of time and do so on a worldwide basis as a kind of corporate behemoth. So some of the more interesting musicals came from Off Broadway including Rent which then morphed into a very unlikely megahit. It also showed homosexuality and the effects of AIDS in a way which would once have been unthinkable on the Broadway stage. Musicals are seen by many people as almost a gay cultural creation, there’s been a big gay input into the genre from the get go. For example West Side Story’s main creative team, Bernstein the composer, Robbins the choreographer, Arthur Laurents who wrote the book and Sondheim who wrote the lyrics were all gay. So perhaps it was fitting that Jonathan Larson’s musical was the big homegrown hit of the nineties.

2000s

The Light In The Piazza (Guettel)

NOUGHTIES.

The old style book musical was under increasing siege in the last ten years from jukebox musicals, where someone just took a lot of old pop or rock numbers, constructed a flimsy story around them and benefitted from the fact that the public like going to hear songs they know already. But there were still some very fine original musicals, the likes of The Light In The Piazza by Adam Guettel for example.

2010s

The Book of Mormon (Parker-Stone-Lopez)

ONESIES.

And it can still throw up big successes which cross over into the mainstream. Like The Book of Mormon, last year’s big success. Offensive to some tastes but very funny, it’s also very much in the musical tradition because the jokes wouldn’t mean half as much without stirring tunes like this one, which are recognisably the work of people who know their musicals. Insert your favourite unreasonable belief, whether left or right wing, into the chorus.

Anyway, hope you enjoy these. And I hope I didn’t come across as pompous or long-winded. It’s just that I love this stuff and think it’s fascinating and I thought ye might be interested.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

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Comments»

1. sonofstan - December 26, 2012

Fantastic stuff. I love musical theatre too, and it’s still a surprisingly resilient form of popular entertainment, although in danger of being submerged under the humourless and pretentious Lloyd- Webber behemoths.

I’m currently working on Oliver! and it stands up surprisingly well – Lionel Bart was a fascinating character: the first real link between Rock n’Roll – he wrote songs for all of the Larry Parnes stable – and ‘serious’ musical theatre; he wrote ‘Fings ain’t what they used to be’ for Joan Littlewoods Little Theatre and, restored from its Max Bygraves bowdlerisation, it’s a surprisingly tough and near Brechtian portrayal of the East End.

I’ve always been interested in the way something as outwardly mainstream – compared to supposedly ‘rebel music’ – has been so much a home for outsiders (as you say, Jews and gays – in Bart’s case both), and often so progressive. I also love the sheer stagecraft that goes with it – musicals need to do stuff as routine that makes avant-garde visual theatre -Lepage, Wilson and the like – look a bit creaky.

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D_D - December 26, 2012

Watched ‘Calamity Jane’ on Christmas Day. Hadn’t seen it since the early Sixties (the De La Salle brothers used to show Saturday afternoon films in Finglas for 6d). Great tunes, lyrics and choreography, but a thoroughly un-PC and silly movie.

Seasons greetings to all at the Lounge.

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WorldbyStorm - December 26, 2012

Great post eamonncork…

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eamonncork - December 26, 2012

What are you doing on Oliver Sos? I’m going to Dublin to see it in the New Year and am looking forward very much to that.
Bart is a fascinating character, in many ways he seems to embody the extraordinary highs and lows which were such a part of the musical theatre and made so many of the big Broadway shows huge gambles for everyone involved.
To come from that Joan Littlewood Stratford East world which Oliver was written for and become the toast of Broadway must have been disorientating enough. But then to lose all your money because you’d backed a show of your own Twang which was a complete disaster, signing over the rights to Oliver to the aforementioned Max Bygraves just to make the fiasco complete. And then to get one shot at redemption on Broadway with a musical, La Strada, which closed after just one performance. His life was itself like some Road To Ruin melodrama and there was drink and drugs and years in the closet as well.
But he really was a genius and I think Oliver stands up very well as does Fings as a musical equivalent of a Patrick Hamilton or Gerard Kersh novel with the title song’s lines like, “there used ter be class, buyin’a bit of vice, and that’s when a brass couldn’t go down under Union price,” and “Fahsands of pounds passing across the beize, there used to be tools, flashin’ around, oh for the bad old days.” I always reckon Kander and Ebb took a bit from that song for at least a couple of the numbers in Chicago.
Anyway, glad you liked the post. This is my favourite Lionel Bart song.

Unless it’s this one.

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sonofstan - December 26, 2012

Samantha Barks version of ‘As Long……’ in this production pretty much defines ‘bravura’ – gets an ovation every night: and Neil Morrissey is a very effective if frankly derivative of the Moody Fagin. It looks great too. I’m a lowly tech assistant on it.

Have you heard Bart’s psychedelic classic/ total mess ‘Isn’t This Where we Came In?’ (I haven’t – the jury appears out on it)

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eamonncork - December 26, 2012

Having once written a play, I know there’s nothing lowly about tech assistants.
I’d never even heard of the Bart psychedelic album but this song comes from it. Not sure what I think of it but perhaps there was a copy floating around the Albarn household when Damon was a nipper.

Glad to hear the good word on Oliver. I’ve seen some great stuff in the Grand Canal/Bord Gais theatre in the last couple of years, I think it really fills a gap., It’s always nice to see people coming out of a show with a smile on their faces whereas when I go to the Gate it’s as though I’m surrounded by people who have been ordered by a court to get in a certain amount of costume dramas before their next appearance. Entertaining people is not only an honourable calling but it’s very hard to do.

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sonofstan - December 27, 2012

Not sure what I think of it but perhaps there was a copy floating around the Albarn household when Damon was a nipper.

Weird – I figured Albarn pere might be a tenuous link to Bart but it turns out his mother worked as a set designer for Littlewood’s Unity Theatre. So perhaps indeed…..

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2. Branno's ultra-left t-shirt - December 26, 2012

‘An American in Paris’ is on BBC 2 as I type. I believe Gene Kelly was a bit of a lefty and an Irish republican to boot? Good dancer anyway!

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3. Branno's ultra-left t-shirt - December 26, 2012

This song was inspired by a turn of the century Yiddish poem called ‘If I were a Rothschild’

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4. Branno's ultra-left t-shirt - December 26, 2012

How many musical classics have made their way onto the terraces?
‘You’ll never walk alone’, ‘Blue Moon’ any others?

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sonofstan - December 26, 2012

‘New York, New York’ (‘He’s gonna score a goal for us, Glen Crowe, Glen Crowe’)

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5. Tomboktu - December 26, 2012

Yesterday BBC Radio 4 had a half-hour documentary on the origins of Grease, focusing on the original 1971 stage show set in Chicago. One of the writers commented that the 1978 film lost a lot of the specifics (palm trees in Chicago?).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pth5g

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eamonncork - December 26, 2012

Thanks Tombuktu, dying to listen to this. I’ve heard the story about the original Grease being vastly different from the movie, for one thing the songs most associated with Grease, the title track, You’re The One That I Want., Hopelessly Devoted To You, Sandy, aren’t in the original musical and were written for the film. Though the original production will hardly be seen again given that Grease revivals function as nostalgia exercises for fans of the film.
I suppose there’s a similiarity in the way that Saturday Night Fever is now portrayed as a harmless exercise in disco dancing kitsch when the original actually owes quite a lot to Mean Streets. It’s not a great film but it’s not a seventies Mamma Mia either.
So it’ll be very interesting to hear this doc.

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eamonncork - December 26, 2012

Though I’d have to say the original songs in Grease aren’t anything to write home about, here’s what Summer Nights was like in the show as opposed to the film. The fact that the guy originally in the Travolta role, Barry Bostwick was Brad in The Rocky Horror Picture Show perhaps says something about its antecedents before it was turned into the latest Robert Stigwood money making machine.

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6. Some music listened to in 2012 « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - December 29, 2012

[...] This Weekend this weekened because EamonnCork’s piece on musicals from a few days ago fits the bill. But, quite a lot of bands I listened to this year in a way which I hadn’t for a while. I often [...]

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7. Branno's ultra-left t-shirt - January 5, 2013

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