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American Musical Theatre

Thoughts for St. Patrick’s Day 2021

In America, musical theatre historically and traditionally has consisted of a musical play — a theatrical form of music, and a musical form of theatre — that combines songs, spoken dialogue, acting, and dance. The storyline and the emotional targets — humor, pathos, love, suspense, fear, and rage — of a musical play are expressed through words, music, movement, and the technical aspects of entertainment. All are placed within the setting of an integrated whole performance. The music thereby is not divorced from the “book”, or script; and the story, or plot, forms an integral part of the music.

The construct of musical theatre interfaces with other theatrical forms such as opera and dance, but it has traditionally distinguished itself from those modes of artistic expression by placing equal weight upon the music, the dialogue, the dance, and the movement. That stimulating sense of proportion among those fundamental components of musical theatre diminished horribly by the 1970s because of the perverted use of musical theatre as a platform upon which to shriek and advance non-artistic agendas, primarily political and social objectives.

During the early years of the 20th century in America, musical theatre productions became known as “musicals”. The sad sunsetting of true musicals thereafter occurred because the musical stage became the stage for messaging the inescapable “social significance.” Art for art’s sake degenerated into art for politics’ sake.

Musical theatre has not been the same, namely, musical theatre, since the anti-social production of the anti-Vietnam War, tribal love-rock musical on off-Broadway that was entitled “Hair”. That piece of theatre presented on-stage the elegant histrionics of nudity, profanity, the drug culture, hatred of the American flag, and whatever else would promote the sort of contrived controversy that would become the standard vehicle for promoters and their political productions masquerading as “art”.

“Hair” broke new ground, theatrically speaking, while also breaking the rules of decency, once a quaint tradition of art. Entertainment can be a nebulous notion, but the crudities on that stage were not entertaining. The late and glamourous Doris Day stated, “Vulgarity begins when imagination succumbs to the explicit.”

It wasn’t just imagination succumbing on that stage to the explicit; it was the explicit on parade. Such groupie-crass acts of theatre stripped the human imagination of the freedom to imagine, to dream, to fantasize, to feel free to be . . . alone with your reverie. “Hair” made the burlesque show by the intellectual ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee look like an art form. Never fully undressing, Gypsy focused on the strip part of strip-tease, and emphasized the art part of artist, performing a, ahem, refined, witty choreographed act of theatrical entertainment.

Gypsy Rose Lee, in fact, wrote her life story, which was published in 1957. Broadway producers turned that immediate best-seller into one of the most outstanding Broadway musicals of all time, “Gypsy”. The show, starring Ethel Merman, premiered in 1959 and was an instantaneous smash hit.

“Hair” was a smash, in the sense of a smash-up. It made money, and provoked news, and outrage, and those cool and far-out sensations among a new throng of tacky snobs. The play then got massively revised — overhauled — for its premiere on Broadway, three months after its sensory bombardment of the paying public. It had successfully controversied its way to the Great White Way. An “organic style of staging”, with more songs, and a more uplifting ending, were attempted. Nudity was eliminated through the incorporation of the idea of nudity into the fabric of the show.

“Farewell, Broadway” ought to have been the theme song of this travesty of a curtain-raiser, but too much, or any, honesty would have spoiled the deviant vibes of the original social-justice messagers. Snuffing out the glory and the magic and the beauty of real theatre, musical or otherwise, was the point of those killjoys. The Bard merely had the stage of the Globe Theatre upon which to perform his masterpieces. Those modern morose boors had to bellow their broadsides on-stage to the entire world, crassly circumnavigating the globe while de-constructing that ages-old construct of theatre through their twisted awful opus.

The young thespian Puritans of hirsute histrionics have been kicked off the stage by the 21st-century digital dramatists. The newer, younger prissy nitwits attack and try to annihilate all enjoyment of any pleasure, especially the pleasures of American musical theatre of the era before the cockeyed counter-culture began in the late 1960’s — which was when their grandparents were the groovy grinches and gripes. Presently, one must cancel whatever “culture” did not start out as “counter”.

The marvelous musicals of yore have lived under a near-death-sentence during these past five decades of political correctness in the faux culture of hypocrites and ignorami of American culture, history, art, music, theatre — you name it, those belligerent beastly bores don’t know it! But they must destroy it.

Upon the blessed day, or night, when the curtain call at last calls for liberty unleashed upon the American stage, what is old can very quickly become new. Musicals will once again thrill, enthrall, enchant, delight, and inspire galore, the way they used to, before nudity, profanity, ghastly gyrations, moronic mumbling, unvocal dialogue, and incoherent gibberish did away with the music and magic of the Great White Way.

Let us begin the anticipated revival of American musical theatre with the history of this compellingly creative art form.

Music within dramatic performances on stage hearken back to the plays of the Ancients. Sometime during the 19th century, the structure of theatre began to incorporate elements that had been established by the phenomenal songwriting team of William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan into their productions in Great Britain; and various aspects innovated by the team of comedic thespians, Harrigan & Hart, Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart, two supreme masters of farce.

As a child, growing up in New Jersey, I sang these bits and pieces of the song, Harrigan:

H - A - double are - I - G - A - N spells Harrigan

Proud of all the Irish blood that's in me;

Divil a man can say a word agin me.

H - A - double are - I - G - A - N, you see,

Is a name that a shame never has been connected with, Harrigan, That's me!

This ditty was written by George M. Cohan for the 1908 Broadway musical, Fifty Miles from Boston. Like many theatrical songs, this one outlived the short-lived play that birthed it. This endearing musical homage celebrates the Irish-American gift to America, and to American musical theatre, Mr. Edward Harrigan.

The Edwardian musical comedy of British theatre came next to the States, replete with romantic plots. If the title did not contain the word, Girl, or the name of a Girl, or Type of Girl, it likely did not sell well: A Gaiety Girl, in 1893, paved the way for The Shop Girl (1894), The Geisha (1896), Florodora (1899), The Earl and the Girl (1903), Our Miss Gibbs (1909), The Quaker Girl (1910), and The Maid of the Mountains (1917).

And people complain today about the template being worn out for any motion picture concept!

George Michael Cohan then arrived on the American scene of American entertainment, to earn the well-earned title of “the man who owned Broadway”. Now that no one owns Broadway, I hope the spirit of George M. can inspire those “average Joes and Janes" for whom he created so many astoundingly original main characters and melodies. Not only did Mr. Cohan became the father of American musical comedy, he pioneered the “book musical,” the theatrical musical that would revive not only the Great White Way, but a sagging Hollywood after World War II.

Cohan bridged the gaps between drama and music through librettos and dance. From 1904 to 1920, he created and produced more than 50 musicals. A prolific leader among Tin Pan Alley songwriters, he penned nearly 300 songs before his death on 5 November 1942. And I firmly believe that this Irish-American was born on the 4th of July in 1878.

The ascendance and magnificence of American composers after the First World War put an end to any remaining cutesy vignettes on the musical stages of New York and elsewhere in this country. Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe: they all dominated, enhanced and graced American musical theatre and popular songs; Hollywood sound stages; and the melodic tastes of anyone with good taste.

The concept of the “book musical” during the 20th century in America was strictly defined as a musical play of songs and dances that are completely integrated into a fleshed-out dramatic story. The story must evoke those heart-tugging sentiments — pathos, love, rage — as well as generate laughter.

That’s quite a tall order for any play on a stage with an audience to please, and with financial backers to pay-off and pay-back. Shrill social messages, political rants, neurotic screeds, and uptight grievances do not a successful, enduring and uplifting book-musical make. Where the “modern” book musical of the past 50 years has gone so very and weirdly awry is in the arena of arousing those heart-tugging, and nobler, sentiments. The giddy laughter of disgust often comes quickly and unintentionally, as in:

“This thing is a charade! A joke! A surreal spoof of schlock theatre.”

The most powerful moments of drama onstage — including that potent psychological moment for the spectator, and for the actor — are frequently performed through music, usually a song. The money note was put into that tune for a reason. The tried-and-true saying goes:

“When the emotion is too strong for dialogue, the character sings. When that emotion becomes too strong for song, the character dances.”

The emotions currently on the atrociously politically correct stage start out, vehemently, with revenge; descend into grotesque hate-filled madness; and garishly arrive at murder — of whatever and whoever the stupid money-men and money-women decide must be killed off, in their own monied interests. Those thespian corpses compose their own Philistine themes of art, literature, drama — even music itself! St. Patrick had an easier time vanquishing that killer snake than do the proudly American audiences in finding true theatrical entertainment, that apogee of musical theatre synonymous with George M. Cohan.

I do not believe that musical theatre has died in America. It’s dormant, very deep asleep, much like Rip Van Winkle, protectively hiding through sleep from his shrewish, abusive wife. That fishwife has been the brutish boring Broadway of the past half-century. Rip dozed off for only twenty years; the awakening of true musical theatre may be long overdue, but I believe that every thing occurs in its due time.

Old forms give way to newer forms, sometimes to awful newer forms. But the classics remain. The eternal beauty of melody and lyrics, wedded forever in the art of sincere song, it shall never perish. Such music might be forgotten for a while, but it will never be abandoned in a land where those gifted songsmiths forged compositions from heart and soul, where the imaginative mind refused to wilt before the woes of the weary weary world.

In this weary weary world, we need more of the genius and the gutsy showmanship of the days of yore, before performance art became an artless bore. We need the laughter and the cheer that the current cadres of humorless harridans lack whilst they attack the slightest sound or soupçon of merriment. The Americans proud to be American know more about the real dramas of life than any pompous poseur on the stage today, with its faux-morality plays, peddled by harpies and confidence men.

Any time that someone can whistle “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”; any time that a person thrills to the strains of “Some Enchanted Evening,” American musical theatre lives as never before. The bleak minutes in one’s life are transformed by healing tears through these tender, exquisite songs,“Ol’ Man River”” and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. Summertime becomes fair to middling, bearable, and much more fascinating, whenever you sing “Summertime” in the thick of the hot hot air.

Speaking of air, “The Song Is You” initiated its performance life in 1932 in the musical, Music in the Air. The song was included in the 1943 Hollywood film of the same name, but it ended up on the cutting room floor. Sinatra brought it back though, with the help of Tommy Dorsey, as the last song that Francis performed with that band.

“I hear music when I look at you” . . .

Any red-blooded woman, or man, loves the music of those words, on-stage or off.

And any warm-hearted Celt loves the music of an Irish blessing:

May you always have this blessing:

A soft breeze when summer comes.

A warm fireside in winter,

And always the warm soft smile of a friend.


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