Society for American Music

Bulletin, Volume XXVII, no. 1 (Spring 2001)

'You've Got to Be Carefully Taught': Canonical Concerns in American Musical Theater


By Thomas L. Riis, University of Colorado at Boulder


I find myself in basic agreement with Paul Laird's excellent summary of canonical shows and the reasons we justify our canons, namely because of a work's commercial popularity, stylistic innovation, representativeness, or historical influence. How do these ideas apply specifically to American works? To put it another way, what are the signifiers within musical comedy that point to "Americanness?"

What is it that makes a musical comedy or any sort of musical theater, distinctively ours? When do these non-derivative essentially American shows first appear? What is their importance for us nowadays? What do they tell us about our communities past and present -- and ourselves?

These are pressing questions because they have to do with the identification of values. Since I would argue that all theater is ritualistic, symbolic, and value-laden in some way, it follows that a crucial part of our pedagogy about theater (musical or otherwise) is laying bare these foundation stones, these basic ideas -- which do not change nearly so often as their superficial markers, the surface manifestations, or what we might call the fashions or disguises of theater.

It is not possible in this small space to present a full-blown discussion of historical American value systems, but let me put forward a simple hypothesis that Americans as a group tend to prefer comic theater that is filled with (a) dynamic physical activity and (b) intellectually accessible stories often based on familiar political, historical, or sociological themes. (Our national themes are embodies in words like "liberty," "independence," "freedom," and "equality." No matter one's specific political beliefs or party affiliations, these words have resonance. We connect with them. We construct our personal religious, ethnic, and psychological self-evaluations in relation to them. We make up myths and stories to incarnate them.

The different disguises in which these values and myths travel are what British director Peter Hall calls the "forms" of musical theater. With the word "form" I don't mean to suggest the familiar meaning for musicians, ternary form or sonata form or something of that kind. Form for Hall, as I understand him, has to do with all of the constraints that we place on ourselves as we do art in order to contain the underlying emotion in an art piece and thereby express -- paradoxically -- the limitless power of it all in a specific time, place and shape. Hall's favorite embodiment of this idea is the Mask, the physical face mask used in ancient Greek tragedy. It is the key concept in Hall's recent book entitled Exposed by the Mask (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2000) "If you -- the actor -- cry," he says, "the audience will not. The actor must exercise restraint. It is made easier for [her] if the form provides a mask -- the emotion can then be expressed without indulgence" [p. 23].

By this definition almost any element of structure in art can serve as a mask. Indeed, a significant challenge for building and defending a canon is to account for the large number of descriptive categories -- we might call them types of masking -- that come into play when we are confronted with the need to pigeon-hole even a single work, much less hundreds of them, a work that takes place over several hours of time, involves spoken dialog in prose and poetry, changing sets, varied lights, a large number of individual acts and actors, music in diverse styles, dancing, costumes, and so on.

We might helpfully imagine a set of dials on a control board to calibrate and compare the various elements by which to judge and estimate the depth of effective masking. With whatever metaphor one chooses to get a hold of this slippery abstraction, let's now take up some specific themes and works of musical theater.

One of the cherished myths of America is its self-image as the meeting place of the world's peoples and races. The depiction of race is a well-known convention on our stages. What does this habit tell use about our sense of national identity? What might the absence of an overtly racial theme suggest about a show? Does this theme loom so large in our collective psyche that it is present even when invisible on the surface? Has anyone, for instance, ever noticed that the musical Oklahoma! -- with a story set in a territory reserved by treaty for Native Americans, telling a tale about settlement, movement, love of the land, pioneering spirits, the beauty of nature, innocence and stoicism confronting adversity and rapaciousness, in other words themes associated with North American aborigines since at least the time of Rousseau -- never even has cause to mention an Indian in three hours of music and dance?

Another mythic trope of America is "the Land of Opportunity." Invention, newness, discovery, and individual enterprise are all very American words. We might therefore add one dial to our canonic control board to register "degree of innovation." Should we not ask if a contender for placement in the American canon embodies the old and out-moded as opposed to the new and different? For example, is the peculiar concoction we call The Black Crook (the first nineteenth century show which Paul Laird includes on his canonical list) really the beginning of something or the end in formal terms? Laird, you will recall, describes the show as "represent[ing] a seminal point ... [bringing] together the basic elements that distinguished Broadway shows for the next several decades: a loose plot, interpolated songs, comedy, dancing, and the allure of women in brief costumes."

In another recent publication, yours truly has described the same show as "a unique work in virtually all respects.... The Black Crook literally provided something for everyone. Widely denounced from the press and pulpit as orgiastic, it also enjoyed the benefits of extraordinary pre-performance publicity. ... But it did not so much point the way to the future as summarize all of the features characteristic of its own time" (Cambridge History of American Theatre, vol. 2, 1999, p. 415).

Apparently Paul and I, two normally agreeable scholars disagree on the question of influence and possibly on form as well. (In a pedagogical aside, let me suggest that this looks like a good teachable moment. If we are trying to engage our students in canonical issues that interst us, let's look for more of these discrepancies among critical sources.)

"Gender coding and sexuality" might constitute either a theme or a mask. It is undoubtedly a subject that we love to manipulate nowadays, whether focusing on male or female characters, masculine or feminine behaviors, eroticized or de-eroticized situations, androgynous, pansexual, asexual, or queer transformations.

Gendered scenarios are presented most conventionally in familiar "battle of the sexes" terms. (One thinks of Cole Porter's "I Hate Men" from Kiss Me Kate on the woman's side; Lerner and Loewe's "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?" from My Fair Lady on the man's, just to cite two among dozens of possibilities within the canonic shows under discussion today.) But gender coding is sometimes more subtly introduced and often appears without the audience's being conscious of it. It is provocative to ask: to what degree individual characters, speeches, melodies or movements are meant and understood by their authors to convey assumptions about gendered behavior? Audiences also have something to say about this. Susan Cook gave an excellent example of what I am talking about some years ago in a paper delineating the clearly gendered musical vocabulary of Oklahoma!'s songs. A set of skipping and triplet rhythms that Cook isolated were aimed, she noted, at characterizing the moods of Laurie and Ado Annie; these same musical gestures were completely avoided with the male characters. Gendered behavior and its appearance are almost always described with respect to bodily carriage and physical gesture, which is of course inscribed or underscored by usic. Which brings me to my last theme in this necessarily brief overview.

"Physical activity" is another mask with an identifiably American tint, related as I suggested at the top of this paper with "dynamism." It was precisely the dynamic element -- the exceptional amount of business in American musical comedies, singing and dancing simultaneiously at a breakneck pace -- that English critics noted as a common feature of many U.S. touring shows about a century ago -- an element that distinguished our shows form the ones the Brits know on the stages of the West End. In this regard, we might ask of a shows applying to be admitted to the American canon, "How does dance figure in your scenario and what sort is it? Is pantomime included? Or is actor-movement more restrained, limited to the conventional gestures of comedy, tragedy, ballet or gymnastics? How closely coordinated is the movement of actors to music? It was well understood by the stars of the nineteenth century, for example, that the effectiveness of melodrama was precisely tied to the effectiveness of musical-verbal-gestural interaction even when actors were not singers or dancers.

The subject of movement and distinctive physical gesture in an American context also brings to mind Robert Cantwell's recent book When We Were Good (Harvard University Press, 1996), in which he recalls a phrase that Walt Whitman applied in the 1840s to the first burnt-cork minstrels. THese men were working-class circus performers of Irish descent imitating the supposed habits of Southern slaves and urban dandies. They display, Whitman says, a "picturesque looseness of carriage" that Cantwell extrapolates and generalizes about: "The point is that such a trait, whether characteristic of frontier or plantation or both, whether it is West African or Scots-Irish, or some syncretic cultural trait, symbolizes and embodies the informality, unrestraint, freedom from rule, absence of servility, and confident natureal dignity that a democracy is supposed to bestow,..." (pp. 65-66).

If we are looking for a definition of American musical theater or the musical comedy specifically, the minstrel show must be factored in and is not so far in the past as we might suppose, only one generation after GEorge Washington and two before George M. Cohan at its greatest flourishing. MOreover, the antics of practically every singing actor in the twentieth century from Mickey Mouse to Mick Jagger have been traced back to that source by more nimble critics than myself. Perhaps we can take Whitman and Cantwell's description of an individual character a step further and write it large for the genre.

What do I mean by this? Only that individual shows, whole shows, can at times be described with the very words that they have applied to single archtypal individual minstrels. Look at the comic play of Evangeline -- with the liberties it takes with Longfellow's poem, Smith and DeKoven's Robin Hood -- with its informal language completely unfitted for Merry Old England, In Dahomey (of 1903) and Guys & Dolls (of 1950) -- both with their sassy dialogues and huckster language and characters exuding unrestrained movement. Little Johnny Jones is the embodiement of confident can-do-ism. Shuffle Along, Showboat, Anything Goes, Porgy and Bess, Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, A Chorus Line, even Sondheim's Assassins all resonate in part with this string of adjectives (made from Cantwell's nouns): informal, unrestrained, free from rule, unservile, confident, naturally dignified. Of course, Cantwell says nothing about specific techniques or forms in Peter Hall's sense but I think the connection is clear enough. A "loose-limbed carriage," what we might today call the epitome of "cool," is the American mask to a T.

Finally, let me suggest that it does seem often to be the essence of art -- commercial, spectacular and accessible though it is -- to appear completely artless. We, most of us, find concentrated, dynamic, graceful but apparently effortless human motions -- everything from a football player's running touchdown catch to a dancer's leap into the wings -- to be irresistible. Our common musical comedy methods used to enhance the awe-inspiring physical gestures are the slangy pun, the double shuffle, the back beat, the syncopation, the bent blue note, and the one-liner -- devices that are easily isolated as singletons. Some of them have been complexly developed to creat what we might call the masks or the forms of our musical theater. All of them combined, overlapped, multiplied together, and put on display have amounted to prodigious new creations. The best of these "confident," "unservile," "naturally dignified," formal informalities are worthy of canonical consideration.


Thomas L. Riis is professor of musicology and director of the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This paper was presented at the Toronto 2000: Musical Intersections megaconference.





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