This Week I’ll Mostly be Listening to [Christmas Special]… Musicals! December 26, 2012Posted by guestposter in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
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.
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.
Anything Goes (Porter).
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.
(Rogers-Hammerstein) (Bit long but probably the high point of the whole genre).
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.
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.
Fiddler on the Roof (Bock-Harnick).
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.
A Little Night Music (Sondheim).
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.
Sunday In The Park with George (Sondheim)
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.
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.
The Light In The Piazza (Guettel)
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.
The Book of Mormon (Parker-Stone-Lopez)
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.