Program Note: 100 Years of Broadway Love

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published August 27, 2023

I chose this year’s theme, 100 Years of Broadway Love, for two reasons. First, because I thought it would have an inviting, end-of-summer appeal, offering a breather from the horrors of the daily news reports; second, because I assumed it would be a snap to program, given the abundance of material. I hope I was correct about the first proposition. But I know I was wrong about the second. There were just too many great songs, both famous ones and hidden gems, and I went a bit crazy whittling the list down from 200 to 20.

Some of my snootier colleagues are fond of relegating musicals to the third ring of artistic hell. And lets face it: popular entertainment is always going to have its underbelly. For every Masterpiece Theater, there are five Gong Shows. Musicals, too, run the gamut from high art to brash spectacle. But their creators include some of the most cultured composers and the cleverest lyricists in the history of songwriting. Today we celebrate these dazzling artists, and an art form I revere.     

Some of the composers are household names—George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter—although I find most people are hazy about which songs they actually wrote. (Just the other day a close friend misidentified “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” as a Porter song. No—Gershwin, of course!) For me, their characteristics are strongly individuated. Gershwin (“The Man I Love”) is the king of jazz rhythm, tapping into the sexy, electric pulse of Manhattan; Berlin (“God Bless America”), the prolific genius who emigrated from Russia at age five to write over 1000 perfectly crafted songs, capturing the spirit of his adopted country; Cole Porter (“My Heart Belongs to Daddy”), the wealthy, gay, Yale-educated Park Avenue denizen from Peru, Indiana who combined upper-crust elegance with a subversive undercurrent of libido.

I would have put Jerome Kern into this category as well, but I have come to realize that his name may no longer be quite the household word it once was. A few years ago I suggested a Kern ballad to a Juilliard undergraduate. “C-u-r-n?” she inquired hesitantly, as she went to scribble down my recommendation. Kern, of course, is the man who gave us Show Boat (”Ol’ Man River”) as well as the ballads that Fred Astaire crooned in Swing Time (“The Way You Look Tonight”). During a career that began in 1904 and ended in 1946, he brought his Schubertian lyricism to Broadway and Hollywood with a cadre of first-class lyricists—Oscar Hammerstein II, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, and Johnny Mercer. One of his earliest collaborators was P. G. Wodehouse, decades before the British author began his famous series of comic novels about Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves. Between 1915 and 1919 Kern and Wodehouse wrote five musicals that took New York by storm, intimate shows with a higher level of coherence, literacy, and musical charm than anything Broadway had yet known. “I’m So Busy,” from Have a Heart!, gives a taste of the Kern-Wodehouse magic.

These days, Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, and Kern have become the bedrock of the Great American Songbook, while the Broadway shows where their songs first appeared are best known to theater historians (and nerds like me). A few of their musicals still get revived—Porter’s Kiss Me Kate and Anything Goes, the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing, Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, and Kern’s Show Boat. But many of their shows were more loosely constructed than what we now expect in the theater, and nothing shows its age more quickly than comedy.     

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are largely responsible for sending American musical theater onto a new path. Their first work, Oklahoma! (1943), had a more serious story and a more integrated use of song and script than any show since Showboat. Musicals originally emerged from operetta, minstrelsy, and vaudeville—of which there are still many traces in Show Boat—and the old writers didn’t need a complicated pretext to bring on the dancing girls. By contrast, Oklahoma!’s first act ends with a complex, Freudian dream ballet with hints of violence, choreographed by the masterful Agnes de Mille. It was a coup de théâtre that changed the course of the Broadway musical forever. Rodgers’s songs with his first collaborator, the brilliant wit Lorenz Hart, might be hipper, funnier, and more touching than the ones he went on to write in the Hammerstein era, from shows like Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific,and The Sound of Music. But the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are classics—even though their books may need some updating—while among the 31 Rodgers and Hart musicals only Pal Joey and The Boys from Syracuse (a sublime score) have even a tiny hold on the rep. Still, how could we live without those Rodgers and Hart tunes like “Isn’t It Romantic” and “My Funny Valentine”?

If Leonard Bernstein had written nothing besides West Side Story for Broadway, he would still be considered a music theater legend. Rodgers and Hammerstein had tackled serious subjects—spousal abuse, imperialism, racism, the Nazi threat—but their musicals tended towards the cockeyed optimism of South Pacific’s Nellie Forbush. West Side Story (1957), with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins, and a book by Arthur Laurents, went for the jugular. Cool jazz rubbed shoulders with operatic intensity, Latin dance with modern ballet, lifting the genre to new heights. West Side Story marked the high point of Bernstein’s Broadway career, which included three previous successes (On the Town, Peter Pan, and Wonderful Town); one work that took a few decades to find its niche (Candide, a semi-flop at its 1956 opening and now a repertory item at opera houses around the world); and (two decades later) one of the greatest debacles in theater history, the bicentennial musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That much-anticipated musical skittered through seven performances in 1976 before thudding to an ignominious end. Bernstein was so embittered by the experience that he refused to give permission for a recording of the work.

Then there are the composers whose names might not be on the tip of your tongue, but whose musicals have practically become holy writ: Kurt Weill (Threepenny Opera, Lost in the Stars), Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella), Jerry Bock (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me), Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, City of Angels), and Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye Bye Birdie).

Among these five, Kurt Weill, Jerry Bock, and Frank Loesser are the great chameleons. Weill, of course, began his career in Germany, where his teacher was Engelbert Humperdinck (not the cheesy pop singer, but the guy who wrote the opera Hänsel und Gretel). Weill rose to fame in Berlin with the runaway success of Threepenny Opera (1928), with hundreds of performances in its first year. But when Hitler came to power Weill absconded to Paris, where he wrote a musical in French as well as a number of popular songs in perfect Gallic style. And when he landed in America, he quickly tailored his music to suit the tastes of the New York audience. Each of his musicals spoke its own musical language— Technicolor operetta-style scenes for Lady in the Dark, breezy show tunes for One Touch of Venus, and soulful spirituals for Lost in the Stars.

Jerry Bock was as protean as Kurt Weill. Writing with his longtime lyricist Sheldon Harnick, he was able to evoke a Russian shtetl for Fiddler, bustling early twentieth-century New York in Fiorello!, and a refined Budapest department store in She Loves Me. Frank Loesser was not far behind in the versatility department: his fast-talking gangsters in Guys and Dolls are light years away from his lyrical Italian-Americans in The Most Happy Fella. Loesser also served, brilliantly, as his own lyricist. His output on Broadway wasn’t huge—just five shows. But he was a prolific songwriter—reportedly over 700 tunes including “Slow Boat to China” and that Yuletide perennial “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Cy Coleman was a dazzling musician who gravitated to the theater after early successes in classical music, jazz, and popular song (“Witchcraft,” “The Best Is Yet to Come”). His wide-ranging background served him well on Broadway; the 1977 hit show I Love My Wife dispensed with the usual orchestra and used an onstage jazz quartet to accompany and occasionally act in the show. I am especially attached to his dazzling score for City of Angels, which includes a scat-singing Greek chorus and some of the coolest harmonic progressions of any show in the last four decades—musical wit at its highest.

Charles Strouse had one of the most lopsided careers in show business. After a couple of decades of success on Broadway (including three Tony Awards for Best Musical and two Grammy Awards), his streak of luck gave out. His later shows were colossal bombs: Dance a Little Closer (1983) opened and closed the same night, and Nick and Nora (1993) lasted just nine performances. Strouse kept at it, producing revues, songs for television, and musicals that played in regional theaters. In spite of his fall from grace he remained a revered figure for his early glories—Bye Bye Birdie, Golden Boy, Applause, and Annie.                                   

There is one name that I wager will be unfamiliar to many in today’s audience: Will Marion Cook. A bold, quick-tempered man, Cook first honed his musical skills at Oberlin College, which he attended at the age of thirteen; he continued his studies in Berlin with the violin virtuoso Josef Joachim. Then the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák took him on as a student at the National Conservatory in New York City; after graduating, Cook was able to launch a career as a violinist. Though such a career would have gratified his mother, his heart belonged to musical theater.There his skills as a director and composer took wing. In 1898 his revue, Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, made theater history as the first piece on Broadway written and directed by a Black artist.

Cook’s greatest success came four years later with the premiere of In Dahomey, which represented a triumph of co-operation, savvy, and persistence. Between the tryout performances in Stamford, the Broadway run, and an even more successful reception in London, the musical garnered over 1100 performances between 1902 and 1905.

In Dahomey was essentially a variety show with a storyline. There was no single fixed musical score, although there was a core group of songs, mostly by Cook, that the public expected to hear, including “Im a Jonah Man” and “Brown Skin Baby Mine.” But on a given night one also might have encountered an aria from Meyerbeers LAfricaine, or a revival song, or a Civil War march. In Dahomey was a milestone. It gave Black actors and singers a chance to perform with grace and dignity, to be funny without being self-demeaning, and to move onstage with naturalness, escaping stereotypes. An off-off-Broadway revival in 1999 with a brand-new book (the original script was said to be lost) revealed a colorful, lively score. The new book, oddly, showed its age, while Cook’s 1904 songs sounded fresh and vibrant.

Cook is the oldest composer in the program; Adam Guettel is the newest. The son of Mary Rodgers (famous for Once Upon a Mattress and Freaky Friday) and the grandson of Richard Rodgers, Guettel is a superlatively gifted artist, one of the greatest songwriters in the world today and a first-class lyricist as well. His music sounds like the love-child of Maurice Ravel and Stevie Wonder, richly textured harmonically, filled with melodic and rhythmic invention, dense, and eloquent. Guettel was born into the auteur era of single-composer, high-concept musicals, a tradition Richard Rodgers helped to establish. But unlike his grandfather (who, according to Noël Coward, “could pee melody”), Adam has always been a slow, careful writer, taking years to craft his stage works. His first two major shows, Floyd Collins and Myths and Hymns (also titled Saturn Returns), played only in limited off-Broadway runs. But their recordings quickly turned Guettel from a cult figure into a star. Those original cast albums are in every music-theater lovers collection, and his music is treasured by actors, jazzers, and classical singers. When his 2005 musical The Light in the Piazza reached Broadway after a six-year gestation period, Adam Guettel finally enjoyed the kind of sustained exposure that had eluded him for many years. The show won six Tony Awards, including one for Best Original Score.

It’s no secret that Adam has struggled with the twin demons of writer’s block and addiction(s), and they have impeded the flow of his creative work. His next musical after Piazza, Days of Wine and Roses, premiered just this past summer at the Atlantic Theater, after a lengthy gestation period. It is an intense, beautiful piece whose theme (alcoholism) is no doubt close to Adam’s heart. Yet it is probably too intimate and personal a work for today’s Broadway audience, and it is hard to imagine what the future of the show will be. Other projects remain in the pipeline, although one seems to be mired in rights problems that probably should have been handled at the outset. I always wish there were more Guettel musicals; if I had the gift to write music, I would want it to sound like his.

Adam Guettel is like a musical godson to his mother’s lifelong friend Stephen Sondheim. Mary Rodgers described Sondheim as the greatest lyricist who ever lived, and it is hard to dispute her on that point. Everyone may have their own favorite Sondheim line—mine is “Then you career from career to career,” from “I’m Still Here” in Follies—but when you read through the volumes of his collected lyrics, the sustained level of invention is staggering. So is his attention to detail—nary a false rhyme or a fudged bit of scansion. Oscar Hammerstein II was an early mentor, giving the teenage Sondheim an ad hoc course in musical theater that culminated in the creation of three original musicals, juvenilia that is gradually seeing the light of day.

Sondheim’s best-known music teacher was the twelve-tone composer Milton Babbitt, who had aspired to write for Broadway himself early in his career. Sondheim was the only student of Babbitt’s to do what the elder musician had once dreamed of. In their weekly lessons they dissected the structure of Jerome Kern’s melodies and analyzed the mechanics of a tune by Gershwin. Babbitt’s intensely mathematical approach to music resonated with Sondheim, who began to see composing as the product of carefully manipulated motifs rather than divine inspiration.

Playing Sondheim’s music, I am aware of Babbitt’s influence—meticulous, layered, puzzle-like. Yet Sondheim is almost always able to put his craft at the service of psychological truth. Within four bars of his best songs, and they are almost all top-drawer, you know exactly who the character is. Sondheim was a tough customer—curmudgeonly would be my most charitable description of him. But he was unquestionably an American genius.

I had planned to end with an overview of the American musical as a social history of our nation, as seen through its depiction of love. But I think I shall let today’s songs tell the story of how our musicals gradually expanded their treatment of the human condition. Decade by decade they included franker depictions of infidelity, lust, disability, and loneliness. Blessedly, they never lost sight of the sweetness of finding Mr./Ms. Right. As Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of our day’s music theater heroes, famously proclaimed, “And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside. Now fill the world with music, love and pride”—a fitting envoi for today’s afternoon of song. May it be so. 

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

1 Comment

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    Thanks to Steven Blier for these fact-filled notes, so gracefully informative. I agree that the loss of recognition suffered by Kern is hard to fathom; he wrote some of the most beautiful songs of the 20th century. It’s wonderful, however, to have Will Marion Cook resuscitated. I realize that it wasn’t possible to include everybody, but I’d have cast a vote for Bob Merrill. The score of New Girl in Town, for instance, is an unknown gem, with at least one song, “On the Farm,” that prefigures Sondheim (or perhaps parallels Oscar Hammerstein at his most biting).

    Bravo, Mr Blier!


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