Society for American Music

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

'They Say It's Wonderful': Musical Theater in Music History Survey Courses


By William A. Everett, University of Missouri, Kansas City


When teaching music history survey courses at the undergraduate level or period and other similar courses at the graduate level (such as American music), the biggest challenge seems to be what to leave out due to time restraints. A victim of such decisions is often the Broadway musical. Here is a repertory to which many of the students can relate, frequently because they were in high school or community productions, and because of the popularity of the genre through film adaptations and their unnumerable television rebroadcasts. Similarly, there are students in the class who have (surprisingly) never consciously identified a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune as just that, and have no idea about its source or context.

Student response to the inclusion of musical theater works in a music history survey course echoes Irving Berlin: "They Say It's Wonderful." This has certainly been my experience in integrating musical theater into undergraduate surveys and graduate courses on twentieth-century music and American music. While I do not intend to give, promote, or otherwise endorse exactly what I do in these courses, I will offer parameters to consider for those interested in adding yet another component to their already over-crowded courses.

A true challenge is how to integrate musical theater works into the overall concept of a survey class -- that is, to show its "velcroability" and not to isolate the repertory from the rest of the course content. By emphasizing thems in the musical theater discussion that have already been addressed in other repertories, students can gain additional perspective and insight and form broader views of the overall musical world.

A handful of themes that can be emphasized are:

The first of these, the artistic integration of music, drama, dance, and the visual arts, finds its most obvious musical theater incarnations in works by Rodgers and Hammerstein such as Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945). Comparisons between the aesthetic championed by Rodgers and Hammerstein and those of others who sought integration (such as Gluck and Wagner) can provide valuable topics for class discussion. The integrated approach to the musical observed in West Side Story (1957), A Chorus LIne (1975), and Chicago (1975), as well as in many other works, can offer fodder for further dialogue.

The relationship between music and words is fundamental in any genre that includes text. In the musical theater realm, the creation of a particular time and place is just one thing that can be accomplished through music and words. Does the musical style match the text? Does the music create a sense of place? Are local musics incorporated or referenced in the score? What about jazz, rock, and country styles? Does a fundamentally Tin Pan Alley style of a song work well in every instance?

These are just a few of the questions that can be addressed in a discussion of the musical theater.

In the area of text setting, songs from musical theater works provide valuable insight into this particular aspect of the art. The lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, etc., were the source for many of the "canonical" songs mentioned in Paul Laird's paper. A discussion of how composer set these lyrics, in comparison with how Europeans such as Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Mahler, Faure, and others set texts, can be most enlightening. Rhyme schemes, emphasis (word and syllabic), phrase construction, and text-painting are just some of the specific issues that can be addressed.

Performance practice and interpretation in the musical theater are two areas which, thanks to recording technology, can provide valuable classroom material. Comparing renditions of the same song by artists from the early twentieth century to the present allows for discussions of vibrato, portamento, overall vocal technique and sound, orchestration, and other factors.

Additionally, the alteration of lyrics, or even the entire book, to address current interpretations of "political correctness" can lead to intriguing discussions. Listening to performances by singers trained in both musical theater and opera styles allows students to ascertain differences between the two and to discern the appropriateness of the voice to specific interpretations and repertoires.

The art of collaboration -- between lyricist and composer or between performer and creater, to name just two examples -- is also evident in the musical theater. Just as in the operatic realm with legendary collaborations such as Gluck and Calzabigi, Mozart and Da Ponte, there are significant word and music partners in the musical theater -- Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Kander and Ebb, Ahrens and Flaherty, for example. As a corollary, creators who write both the words and music exist in opera (Richard Wagner) and in the musical theater: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim, Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, and Michael John LaChiusa are just a few of these composer-lyricists.

The idea of a composer writing for a specific performer is a significant part of the musical theater realm. Rodgers and Hammerstein creating The King and I for Gertrude Lawrence is on example of this, and Michael John LaChiusa writing Marie Christine for Audra McDonald offers a more contemporary occurrence.

The sociological implication of music is another area where the musical theater can provide valuable classroom material. The post-World War II assertive Americanism is clearly present in the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Mark Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock (1938) offers a political work whose performance history is as fascinating as the work itself. AIDS issues are addressed in Falsettos (1992) and Rent (1996). Social issues also appear in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), Parade (1998), and French megamusicals such as Les Miserables (1985) and Miss Saigon (1989).

The Role of women in creating musical theater is undeniable. Librettists include Dorothy Donnelly, Betty Comden, Dorothy Fields, and Lynn Ahrens, among others. Composers include Kay Swift, Lucy Simon, and Jeanine Tesori.

The type of audience that attends the musical theater and depictions of the genre in popular culture are other aspects related to the sociology of music that can be addressed. Related to this is the marketing and commercialization of the musical. Corporations such as the Shuberts, Disney, and Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group have had a major impact on the genre. The marketing of logo-ridden merchandise ranging from t-shirts to thermoreactive mugs are aspects of the musical theater to which students can easily relate (and could even be seen in the classroom on any given day).

Popular and art music intersections are fundamental in the American musical theater. The very nature of the genre lends itself to discussions as to where Broadway falls in the spectrum of "cultivated" and "vernacular" styles. What about Porgy and Bess, The Most Happy Fella, Evita, and The Phantom of the Opera, not to mention the 1920s operetta style of Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml or more contemporary works such as those by Stephen Sondheim, Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boubil (Les Miserables) and Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine)? Where do they fall? The boundaries are certainly not rigid. The musical theater is also a forum for introducting new pop songs (including everything from "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" to "Send in the Clowns") and a source for jazz improvisations. It is simultaneiously an art from whose creators include classically trained figures such as Rudolf Friml, Victor Herbert, and Leonard Bernstein, among others.

The "popularization" of classic operas for the musical theater is another facet of the popular-art music intersection. Mentioning Miss Saigon and Rent as reinterpretations of Madama Butterfly and La boheme offer additional depth into discussions of not only the dramatic power of Puccini's operas by also the universality of their themes and their reworking for different audiences. Elton John and Tim Rice's recent Aida also fits into this them of operatic reworkings for Broadway.

Other points of intersection can be discovered as well. For example, there is the similar quasi- (or overtly-) nationalistic, Great Plains-based musical depiction of America by both Rodgers and Hammerstein and Aaron Copland. Agnes de Mille choreographed both Oklahoma! and Rodeo, after all. Viewing megamusicals such as Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera as late twentieth-century reincarnations of French Grand Opera allows connections and relevancies between the two genres to be made. Phantom even includes Hannibal as an internal homage to the nineteenth-century phenomenon. Large-scale artistic movements can also be mentioned -- in Into the Woods, for example, the huge moon and lines referring to "dreams becoming nightmares" suggest associations with Expressionism.

In addition to finding themes that are easily shared between musical theater works and other class topics, many works in this repertory lend themselves to more in-depth analyses. Whether it be the use of Leitmotif and similar musical unifying devices in works such as Show Boat and West Side Story or investigating specific numbers, in order to discover, for example, what makes a Gershwin song a Gershwin song, musical theater works can and need to be subjected to the same level of critical analysis as any other repertory studied in a music history class. This is perhaps more applicable to graduate-level courses, but can also be acomplished on the undergraduate level.

One of the most significant challenges, of course, is to select representative musical examples. Creating a canon is filled with complex issues. To narrow this canon to material that can be presented in potentially a fifty-minute or seventy-five minute session or -- in luxurious circumstances -- two fifty-minute sessions is certainly a daunting task.

In addition to repertory, an important aspect of the musical theater is the role of the performer. A good way to integrate Broadway personalities is to include their performances in class presentations. For example, Fred and Adele Astaier performing Gershwin's "Fascinatin' Rhythm," Ethel Merman's recording of "I Got Rhythm" or Gertrude Lawrences' "Someone to Watch Over Me" provide wonderful material for the discussion of vocal style and star personality, as do recordings by Julie Andrews (whether on record or on film), Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, etc.. In fact, one could chronicle the development of the Broadway "sound" in the twentieth century through many its performers.

The mention of Julie Andrews leads to the consideration of film versions of Broadway musicals. Questions of authenticity are as many as the films themselves, but film versions do offer another mode of presentation for the Broadway musical. If time permits, this of course is a great entree to the world of the film musical. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, after all, were role models for young singers during the 1930s and 1940s because of their operetta films. Young singers would attend the cinema to hear what were for them among the most accessible -- and affordable -- examples of good singers and good singing. This type of statement seems to have a positive impact on the opera-oriented students.

So, "They Say It's Wonderful." Students often come to class with some sort of experience with at least part of this repertory, and hopefully discussing the music in class will contextualize the works and their experience not only in the realm of musical theater but also in the broader musical sense.

For the instructor, the inclusion of musical theater works in survey classes can also be rewarding. In addition to presenting some very worthwhile music in and of its own right, many of the issues often emphasized in a survey cource can be addressed and applied to the musical theater canon. This enhances the learning process by encouraging students to draw connections between apparently dissimilar artistic manifestations. The musical theater thus provides an additional forum to discuss topics ranging from aesthetics and collaboration to in-depth musical and textual analysis and performance practice.



William A. Everett is assistant professor of music history at the Conservatory of Music, University of Missouri- Kansas City. He serves as treasurer of the Society for American Music. This paper was presented at the Toronto 2000: Musical Intersections megaconference.





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