The 1920s and 1930s were the beginning of the portion of Broadway history that is actually widely remembered. This is almost odd, as they were not particularly good years for the genre. The shows of this era tended to follow one of two formulas, both of which had so little variety as genre models that they became very stale very fast. But no-one took musicals seriously as an art form at the time, so no-one really cared. The term ‘Musical Theater’ wasn’t even part of the vernacular yet, and even ‘Musical Play’ was merely a title that some of the more pretentious Operettas occasionally bestowed on themselves.
The first of the two genre models in question was Operetta. It was the more ‘serious’ of the two genres, and a few Twenties Operettas had a certain measure of ambition, even featuring downbeat or outright tragic endings. But most American Operettas from this period tended to have ridiculous plots, stilted dialogue, stodgy performers cast more for their voices than their acting ability, and Semiclassical scores with a handful of ravishing songs surrounded by a bunch of filler. European Operettas had been largely satirical comedies, but its American equivalent was dominated by romantic costume dramas that were almost comical in their positively pompous seriousness. The comedy numbers and the humor in general were usually painfully lame, and what humor there was tended to be given exclusively to one or two characters, with the romantic leads displaying a heavy, relentless earnestness that would hard to take seriously today. Operetta also favored exotic settings, and required lavishly produced sets and costumes, which is a large part of why it abruptly went out of style with the onset of the Great Depression.
The definitive example of this style, ironically, originated in Europe. While, as stated, European Operettas tended to be satirical comedies, they did occasionally dabble in the sentimental schmaltz that became typical of the American Operetta, and this one, which began as a Viennese production called Das Dreimäderlhaus (‘The House of the Three Girls’), is the most successful of those efforts. It has since been adapted into a slew of other languages and countries, being known as Lilac Time in England and Blossom Time in the United States. And given that it wound up being one of the biggest Broadway hits of the Twenties under the latter title, one could easily deduce that it was in large part responsible for establishing the Romantic Operetta genre model in this country.
This show was one of the most successful of a particular subgenre of operetta called pasticcio. This genre, which was the direct forbearer of the modern Jukebox musical, involved adapting melodies from pre-existing Classical music into vocal songs and working them into the score of an operetta. This work introduced the pasticcio form to American audiences, and it would become surprisingly popular while operetta still thrived as a genre, especially in the works of Robert Wright and George Forrest, who popularized the style with such works as Song of Norway and Kismet.
Like its successor Song of Norway, this show is supposedly a “biography” of the life of its source, the immortal Classical composer Franz Schubert, and like that show it bears virtually no resemblance to that composer’s actual life beyond invoking the names of a few other real historical people connected to him. In many respects, this is actually a terrible show. The plot is completely absurd even by operetta standards, and regardless of language or title, every version of the show seems to have a trite book full of lame jokes and lyrics that embody all the cliché-ridden inanity that operetta lyrics are notorious for.
But despite a few minor tinkerings to the American version of the score by Broadway composer Sigmund Romberg, the music is for the most part taken directly from Schubert’s work, and it constitutes such a phenomenal saving grace that it makes the show utterly worthwhile in spite of everything else. Schubert was the single greatest melodist in all of Classical music…not even Mozart could write melody like him…and the meltingly gorgeous, ecstatically lyrical score to Blossom Time might just be the best music ever heard in a Broadway musical. Ironically, Schubert had always wanted to be a successful opera composer, but none of his operas were a success even posthumously, until this work finally fulfilled his dream almost a hundred years after his death.
As I stated, other pasticcios were successful in both Europe and America, but even The Great Waltz (taken from Johann Strauss), Song of Norway (taken from Edvard Grieg) and Kismet (taken from Alexander Borodin) can’t equal the sublime beauty of this one, because those composers, for all their genius, were not artists on the level of Schubert.
Other notable works in this field include Romberg’s The Desert Song and The New Moon, both of which feature lovely music but also some of the stupidest plots ever seen on stage. Slightly more respectable was Rudolf Friml’s Rose Marie, which, in addition to its famous songs such as “Indian Love Call”, featured a fairly dark story by the standards of the genre, including an actual murder. Still, it was by no means without the contrived and mannered elements the genre was so notorious for— note that when the off-Broadway spoof musical Little Mary Sunshine famously parodied the conventions of the Operetta in the Sixties, Rose-Marie was its primary target. Probably the most substantial of all the American Operettas of this era was Romberg’s The Student Prince, which, while not immune to some of the genre’s logical and dramatic failings, dealt with some surprisingly deep philosophical themes and featured an ending that, while not precisely tragic, was nonetheless deeply bittersweet.
It concerns an uptight Prince who, after being rejected by his betrothed princess for lacking any social graces beyond his military training, is sent to Heidelberg University, more for a social education than an academic one. There, he quickly loosens up and learns how to enjoy himself, and falls in love with a pretty young barmaid named Kathy. But when his grandfather the King dies, he cannot escape his responsibilities and has to say a heartbreaking farewell to his happy youth and the woman he loves. The score is full of images of spring and bittersweet odes to youth, with song titles like “Golden Days” and “Thoughts Will Come to Me of Days That are No More”, and the overall message of the show is that the happy days of our youth are bound to come to an end, but that the memories they leave behind can help sustain us in the days after.
The other genre model to emerge around this time was Musical Comedy. Its preferred music style arose out of the Jazz revolution, when African rhythms and harmonies, which had previously been the basis for niche genres such as Ragtime, suddenly took over almost all of American popular music. The earliest Musical Comedies, like the works of George M. Cohan, had only hints of this sound, but it soon pervaded the genre and became the single biggest factor distinguishing it from Operetta. It tended to favor plots that were as ridiculous as those of Operettas, but featured less intense conflicts and much lower stakes. While there was plenty of deliberate comedy in the dialogue (even if nearly all of it sounds groan-inducingly dated today) the stupidity of the plots was not really played off as an intentional joke: everyone expected the plot of a Musical Comedy to make no sense, so there was no need for self-reflexive irony as in the Broadway of the 2000s.
A related genre was Revue, which evolved out of old-fashioned Vaudeville and was basically Musical Comedy without a plot, with standalone musical numbers interspersed with self-contained comedic sketches. The most lavish and iconic Revues of the day were the Ziegfeld Follies, an ongoing series masterminded by superproducer Florenz Ziegfeld, which actually began as far back as 1907 and continued until 1931. They emphasized elaborate showgirl parades, but also gave opportunities to some of the finest performers of the day, such as Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, and Bert Williams. Still, they weren’t really musical dramas in any real sense…just a series of dazzling musical numbers for their own sake, enjoyable but more like a beautiful concert than anything else.
Those who decry modern Broadway’s supposed awfulness conveniently forget that in the Thirties, after Operetta had fallen out of fashion and only Musical Comedy and the Revue remained, every show was basically Mamma Mia, just with an original score—a string of pop tunes loosely dropped into a patently ridiculous script. Granted, many of those original songs were far greater than the ABBA tunes that make up Mamma Mia‘s score…this was, after all, the first truly classic era in American Pop music, and virtually every song from that era began its life in a stage or film musical. But almost none of the actual shows from that era are ever revived or are indeed revivable at all in the current climate. I’m not just talking about shows like Al Jolson’s Twenties vehicles, which apart from being totally insubstantial excuses for a performance by a singer who is now long dead, had the much more obvious problem of relying on no-longer-acceptable Blackface performing styles. I’m talking about shows that had wonderful music but just aren’t seen anymore, because despite their marvelous scores, they just aren’t very good shows. Shows that are basically just concerts of enjoyable songs still exist, yes, but they draw mostly tourists and pop listeners who rarely go to the theater (that is, when they succeed at all, which they usually don’t), and the real Broadway audience demands more than that.
Also, at least Mamma Mia, being a Jukebox musical, was all hits; scores of this era rarely achieved that level of consistency, mostly favoring the same “hits and filler” approach that characterized early Rock’n’Roll and R&B albums. And remember that having five hit songs in your show (like Babes in Arms or the original version of Anything Goes) was considered a phenomenal record in those days. If you seek out some of the archival recordings that exist today and listen to the complete scores of musicals by luminaries like Cole Porter, the Gershwins, or Rodgers and Hart, you’ll be surprised how much forgettably mediocre, if not outright embarrassing, material made up the bulk of so many scores by these composers that most people today think could do no wrong.
Anything Goes has managed to survive, thanks to some drastic rewrites to its original book, but it’s the only Cole Porter show from before the Forties that anyone ever performs anymore, which is why it has absorbed most of the hits from his other, now defunct shows from that era, like “Friendship” from Dubarry Was a Lady and “It’s De-Lovely” from Red, Hot and Blue. Meanwhile, Rodgers and Hart’s two megahits from that era, Babes in Arms and On Your Toes, have failed over and over again in attempted revivals despite all the still-famous songs they introduced, simply because their books are unfixably terrible, and that actually matters now that we’re used to shows with good stories as well as good music.
Even Gershwin’s breakout hit Lady Be Good has vanished save for a couple of famous songs. This is exactly why there are so many Gershwin Jukebox Musicals…because Gershwin doesn’t even have one surviving show suitable for being a receptacle for his multitude of Thirties hits, so every time they want to perform those songs on Broadway, they basically have to make up an entirely new show to contain them. (Granted, My One and Only, Crazy For You and Nice Work If You Can Get It are essentially “revisals” of Funny Face, Girl Crazy and Oh, Kay respectively, having about as much in common with their original sources as the modern Anything Goes does with its own, apart from the title changes. Still, the fact that not one of those shows has remained a sufficiently recognizable title to be worth reviving under their own names should tell you something about how memorable they really were as shows.)
There was, admittedly, a classier variant of the Musical Comedy model that was almost halfway to a sort of Comic Operetta, with more ambitious, more integrated, and in many cases more consistent scores than most of their peers, but even they are mostly obscure today as actual shows. The Boys from Syracuse by Rodgers and Hart is still a staple, but it was based on a Shakespeare play and thus had a vastly better plot than even most of the classier brand of Musical Comedy. Of Gershwin’s shows, the Musical political satires he did with George S. Kaufman, which bear more resemblance to a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta than a typical Thirties Musical Comedy, and were actually a dry run for Gershwin’s attempt at Opera later on, have aged better than most of their peers, and the most successful of them, Of Thee I Sing, is still done occasionally. But the fact that this more ambitious subgenre was so often focused on then-topical political satire (witness also Rodgers and Hart’s I’d Rather Be Right and Kurt Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday) contributed to their becoming largely obsolete in the present day, and you’ll note their humor did to transcend their subject matter the way Gilbert and Sullivan’s did. Cole Porter would have some major success with this kind of Comic Operetta/Musical-Comedy blend in the Forties, but his first attempt at it, Jubilee, wasn’t even a hit in his own time.
There were several attempts at predominantly Black shows on Broadway in this era, some quite successful, but they were essentially recreations of Vaudeville and Cotton Club Revues with at most a sketched-in pretense at a plot. I get that the Black-themed musicals of the Twenties like Shuffle Along were important for historical reasons, but even leaving aside any questions of racial insensitivity, they just weren’t very good shows, and their catchy Pop tunes and the vitality of their performers could only do so much to mask their stupid and condescending books. Granted, when you had Al Jolson’s stage vehicles as an alternative, they might have seemed refreshingly authentic by comparison, but witness the fact that the only “revival” of Shuffle Along had to be a backstager about its creative process, and that the result still didn’t succeed.
There were also a number of “youth-oriented” musicals in this era, mostly set in high schools or colleges and, to be frank, usually much less interesting than even the lesser titles in today’s “youth musical” market (the closest equivalent to one of these shows today would be Disney’s made-for-television musical films such as High School Musical or Camp Rock). The songwriting team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson particularly specialized in these kind of shows: the only one of their musicals that was ever heard of again after 1940 is Good News, and it has been a very special kind of disaster in both its 1974 Broadway revival and pretty much everywhere it’s popped up since. Even the team’s music, while it produced several still-familiar songs, sounds rather trite today in both music and lyrics compared to their contemporaries like Cole Porter and the Gershwins.
As for once-gigantic name Vincent Youmans, the only time he has been heard from on Broadway after 1950 was the 1971 Broadway revival of No, No Nanette, which was being deliberately marketed as a piece of fluffy nostalgia. The show in question contains a handful of musical gems, including the sweet ode to monogamy “Too Many Rings Around Rosie” and the stunning torch number “The Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone Blues”, but the book and even some of the songs (such as the big hit “Tea For Two”) sound nauseatingly precious to a modern audience (judging by what James Thurber had to say about “Tea For Two”, they didn’t receive a great deal of respect from all circles even at the time).
There were, of course, a couple of exceptions to what I’ve just described, which looked ahead to the innovations of the Forties. Show Boat combined the best elements of Operetta and Musical Comedy, took on meaningful and often frighteningly dark and tragic subject matter (drawn from a novel by Edna Ferber that was already widely lauded, but that seemed like an almost insane proposition as source material for a Musical at the time), and pioneered the genre that its lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein would later dub the ‘Musical Play’.
The main difference between Show Boat and most of the later Musical Plays was that Show Boat had no human protagonist. Some revivals have tried to place the focus on the female romantic lead, Magnolia Hawkes, but properly performed, the show is a grand, sweeping epic that uses the Mississippi River as a metaphor for the ongoing sweep of American history. This is exactly what the original novel’s concept had been, and Hammerstein and composer Jerome Kern not only faithfully retained that concept, but summed it up in one of the greatest songs in all of Musical Theater, “Ol’ Man River”.
This show also served as Broadway’s first taste of the modular theater score…that is, the show that does not have a canonical tunestack, but instead a large selection of songs that any production can essentially pick and choose from. Any production that used all the music from Show Boat would not only be longer than Wagner’s Meistersinger, but would also be faced with several instances where two or more songs had to go into the exact same slot in the story.
Granted, there are a few numbers that are in almost every production, particularly “Ol’ Man River”, the torch songs “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” and “Bill” (both written for the greatest of all the classic-era Torch singers, Helen Morgan), and the Operetta-esque love duets “Make Believe”, “You Are Love”, and “Why Do I Love You?” (the last of which is also sung as a Jazz version at the show’s climax, illustrating the onward march of time). Also qualifying as ‘standards’ are the ruefully risqué comedy number “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” and the flowing ballad “I Have the Room Above Her”., the latter written specifically for the acclaimed and astonishingly faithful 1932 movie version, which featured three of the stage show’s leads, including Morgan and Paul Robeson, who hadn’t been available at the time of the show’s Broadway opening but who had always been the singer for whom “Ol’ Man River” had been intended.
The show’s racial element has become controversial over the years…it’s indisputably meant to be an anti-racist statement, but like Huckleberry Finn, there are those today who thinks its language and presentation are not progressive enough to meet the standards of modern political correctness. That said, Show Boat is certainly vastly more racially progressive than that other great American historical epic based on a popular novel and set in the Old South…Gone with the Wind, which is essentially the film equivalent of this musical in a number of ways.
Show Boat was a revelation to Broadway audiences at the time, but it inspired little in the way of imitation in the first ten years after its release, though its authors, Hammerstein and Jerome Kern, did attempt to do a similar thing on a much smaller scale with two of their other shows, the Helen Morgan vehicle Sweet Adeline and the deconstruction of traditional Operetta tropes Music in the Air. Still, its main role was to plant the seed that would eventually flower into the breakthrough works of the late Thirties and early Forties.
Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet, the first great Broadway crossover hit from England, also deserves a mention, for creating a world-weary, sophisticated operetta with an actual sense of humor and genuinely witty lyrics that wedded the best elements of the Comic and Romantic Operetta models. The piece’s most famous tune is a relatively conventional (if almost impossibly gorgeous and poignant) Operetta love duet called “I’ll See You Again”. But the score also contained items much more unusual for an Operetta, such as the desperately moving rueful shrug of a cabaret piece “If Love Were All” (which has become Coward’s unofficial theme song due to a widespread perception that he wrote it at least partly about himself). Even more subversive was the ridiculously daring piece of homosexual innuendo “We All Wear a Green Carnation”, which is probably the first showtune of all time to use the word ‘gay’ in its current context.
But most of the really interesting material in the Music Theater field was still happening in the realm of Opera. The last of the great Late Romantic and Modernist operas were produced during this time, including the last great warhorse of the Classical operatic stage, Puccini’s Turandot (1926). Moreover, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were doing groundbreaking work with their cabaret-scale takeoffs on English Ballad Opera such as The Threepenny Opera. Based on the progenitor of Ballad Opera, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, it transformed that relatively cheerful work into a nightmarishly dark satire meant to promote Brecht’s radical Communist politics by showing the dark side of the world Capitalism had created. The famous off-Broadway revival of the Fifties, which produced the massive hit version of the score’s “Moritat” (now better known as “Mack the Knife”) is probably the most familiar version of the material today. But even if that version is quite a bit grittier than its cast album would indicate (in the environment of the record industry at the time, several of the lyrics had to be heavily censored for the recording), it still transformed the work into a kind of silkily abrasive cabaret piece ultimately meant to be more fun than disturbing. Brecht’s original vision for the work, by contrast, was of a kind of waking nightmare, a relentless political harangue with exceptionally coarse lyrics and a typically Brechtian presentation at once detached and expressionist. Even Weill’s music, when performed in accordance with its original intentions, is alternately spare and deliberately joyless or insanely confrontational.
This piece, along with such other Brecht-Weill collaborations in the same vein as Happy End or The Rise and Fall of Mahoganny City, were probably the darkest use of the modern ‘Musical’ template up until that time, and played a crucial role in the genre’s development, even if their innovations wouldn’t really take root in America for another twenty years or so. Granted, their American protege Marc Blitzstein borrowed their template pretty closely for such shows as The Cradle Will Rock, but even that show, as important as it has become in retrospect, didn’t achieve much actual success at the time; it was simply too weighty and confrontational for a public whose idea of a musical was Anything Goes. Also, Blitzstein hadn’t really matured as a composer yet, and apart from a couple of gems like “Joe Worker” and “Nickel Under the Foot”, the score isn’t really all that interesting as music.
Really, The Cradle Will Rock would be as forgotten today as such other early Blitzstein efforts as No for an Answer were it not for the circumstances of its opening, a theater legend that has become familiar to many who have never had any exposure to the show itself. To get around the establishment’s attempt to shut down the production, the performers first led the audience from the padlocked theater to an empty house, and then performed their parts from seats among the audience to get around union regulations. In the process, the show seems to have invented the modern Concept Musical entirely by accident, and on the rare occasions that the show is revived, it almost invariably follows this makeshift staging plan, which is now treated as though it were an intentional production concept.
Speaking of Communist musical agitprop, one of its most famous practitioners, Folk music legend Woody Guthrie, introduced another new musical form around this time—the Concept Album. Guthrie was one of the seminal figures in popularizing the American Folk Music idiom, and his very first release, Dust Bowl Ballads, was a focused, cohesive set of highly political narrative ballads that pointed the way to a new equivalent of the Schubertian unified song cycle for the era of recorded music. Its format is almost exactly the same as that of Johnny Cash’s Concept Albums of the Sixties and Seventies, and it even bears a strong resemblance in structure and subject matter to Frank Wildhorn’s The Civil War. As influential as The Cradle Will Rock may have been, its effect on later music cannot be compared to that of this world-changing opus, although neither work’s significance was recognized until years later.