Mar 21, 2012

For Those Musicals About To Rock

I've got an essay in the program for the Ahmanson Theatre's West Coast premiere of American Idiot, a show I quite like. A sample:
Blame it on Rodgers and Hammerstein...The match between rock and the musical would most certainly have been easier if the likes of Oklahoma! and South Pacific had never come along. Consider the state of Broadway musicals in the 1920s and ’30s: With few exceptions, they were dashed-off diversions with featherweight scripts and dozens of interchangeable songs. Unsurprisingly, the songs are all that survives most of those shows—and not just because they happen to include some of the best songs ever crafted, by the likes of the Gershwins, Kern, Berlin, Porter, and Rodgers & Hart, but also because they were made expressly to be lifted, repurposed, sold separately.

In short, they were pop tunes, the Hit Parade or Hot 100 of their day; indeed, for a time between the wars, Broadway was, for all intents and purposes, America’s music capital...

Rock ’n’ roll, a merger of white rockabilly and black rhythm-and-blues that transfixed the world’s youth from roughly 1954 to the present, might have been pressed into service as the soundtrack for another series of forgettable Broadway musicals, along the lines of all those disposable Elvis Presley movies (Kissin’ Cousins, anyone?). But by 1954, the year of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” Broadway was the home of both South Pacific and King and I, not to mention revivals of Show Boat and Carousel. Musicals had reached aesthetic maturity, but the price for growing up, particularly in a youth-oriented culture, is eventual obsolescence and irrelevance.
It's fairly well-trod territory, admittedly, but I'm happy with how the piece turned out. At the least, I think it's a useful summary of how the American musical got from Carousel to Spring Awakening, and why it took so damn long. You can read the whole thing in PDF form here.

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