For the rest of the Forties and most of the Fifties, things more or less followed the patterns set by the aforementioned groundbreaking shows. Rodgers and Hammerstein in particular continued to build on their own innovations, creating two more legendary masterpieces during this period. The first, South Pacific, blurs the line between the Hit Parade scores of the Twenties and Thirties and the integrated character musical. With the exception of one Carousel-style musical scene, “Twin Soliloquies”, this score consisted of a collection of self-contained and largely extractable songs that still perfectly served the needs of the story and characters in context. This alchemy of combining the hit tune with the integrated character score might explain why this is the only one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s scores where every single number in the finished score is famous (their other four megahits all had one or two numbers that remain obscure to non-theater fans).
The score’s immense popularity might also have something to do with its overall tone. The show is, at its heart, a surprisingly ahead-of-its-time indictment of racism, which was released more than a decade before the Civil Rights Movement began and in fact was probably a positive cultural influence on that trend, given its immense popularity and uncompromising presentation of its message. But apart from four immensely moving ballads (“Some Enchanted Evening”, “Bali H’ai”, “Younger than Springtime” and “This Nearly Was Mine”) and one bitterly biting message song (“You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”), this very serious story is told largely in songs that would not sound out of place in a Musical Comedy. This is particularly true for the part of the plucky heroine originally played by the great Mary Martin, who sings items like the sunny credo “A Cockeyed Optimist”, the lighthearted breakup song “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”, the ebullient declaration of love “A Wonderful Guy”, and the campy performance piece “Honey Bun”. Other shows would attempt this balancing act in the future, but unlike Shenandoah or The Grand Tour, to name two other examples of Musical Plays with Musical-Comedy scores, South Pacific manages it without scanting the emotional impact of their story or diluting the show’s message.
The team’s next masterpiece, The King and I, is best known to the general public for its cute kids’ songs like “Getting to Know You”, but it combines that element with a passionate and politically-charged central conflict, the most complex characterization yet seen on Broadway, and some of the team’s most sophisticated music on the ballads and character numbers. Especially impressive are two elaborate musical monologues in the vein of Carousel’s “Soliloquy” for the show’s two main characters. “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You” perfectly sums up the show’s comparatively progressive English heroine’s ambivalence toward her conflicts with, and subconscious attraction to, the King of Siam, while the King himself receives an introspective solo called “A Puzzlement”, which lays out his own internal conflicts and makes him much more than the simplistic sexist tyrant he initially seems to be. The show really deserves better than to be seen as mere kiddie fare, and to its credit, while some of its portrayals of the Far East seem slightly dated today, it offers fair arguments for both sides of its colonialist conflict without clearly endorsing either stance.
After three pleasant but disappointing shows in their declining years (the unfulfilled backstage Musical Comedy Me and Juliet, the overly sanitized Steinbeck adaptation Pipe Dream, and the unfortunately dated Flower Drum Song), they managed to create one more world-beater in The Sound of Music. But while this show did have one of the most delightful and hit-laden scores in history, it really didn’t become the world-changing juggernaut it is now until the Sixties film version was released, so we’ll save a detailed discussion of it for a later chapter.
I do, however, want to note one particular number from Me and Juliet, because it illustrates a point that many of my readers may want to take to heart. As I stated, Me and Juliet never really fulfilled its ambitions (it was originally conceived as a meditation on theater itself, a kind of proto-A Chorus Line, but wound up as little more than an Oklahoma! rip-off set backstage at a Broadway musical). That said, it did have a couple of numbers where its original concept shone through, and one of them was the second-act opening, “Intermission Talk”. This number is essentially a stern response to, and satirical takedown of, the people who were claiming at the time that “the theatre was dead”. That’s right…in the Fifties, the supposed peak of the theater snobs’ imaginary “Golden Age”, there were already enough people making that claim that Rodgers and Hammerstein devoted a whole song to the subject.
Two massively successful works built on the innovations of On the Town to create a kind of hybrid between the frivolity of Musical Comedy and the stylistic consistency and dramatic cogency pioneered by the Musical Play. The first, Annie Get Your Gun, has fallen under something of a cloud in modern times because of its treatment of Native Americans (which was actually fairly progressive at the time…note that Chief Sitting Bull is the show’s only intelligent character…but seems uncomfortably patronizing to today’s audiences) and the perceived sexism of its she-stoops-to-conquer ending.
Nonetheless, nothing has been able to completely destroy its perception as a classic, due partly to a colorful setting and two extremely strong lead characters but mostly to Irving Berlin’s best theater score. It attempts a mild Country sound in places, particularly on the comic lament “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun”, but mostly it relies on the characters’ inflections to create the illusion of a setting-appropriate sound. And it does indulge in one moment of old-fashioned “we have this great song, and we’re gonna sing it whether it makes any sense or not” mentality in the unforgettable, but nonetheless completely irrelevant to the story, “I Got the Sun in the Mornin’ (and the moon at night)”. But it is one of theater’s finest scores, featuring Berlin’s almost Schubert-level gift for melody along with a greater degree of dramatic integration than any previous Berlin score. This is the show that gave us the all-time definitive showbiz anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, the breathtaking ballad “They Say Its Wonderful”, and the challenge duet to end all challenge duets, “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”, among many other indelibly famous songs.
Guys and Dolls, based on the stories of quintessential New York writer Damon Runyan, built on these same innovations, but added a unity of style unheard of at the time, subtly foreshadowing the advent of the unified concept shows that would finally achieve the ideal of so-called “Gesamtkunstwerk” that had been theorized about since Wagner’s day. This, combined with a genuine Runyanesque sensibility in the dialogue (courtesy of Abe Burrows, who would go on to become one of Broadway’s most famous librettists) and one of those scores where every single number is absolutely amazing in its own right (a rare feat even among the classics), make this one of Broadway’s most brightly polished gems. It features one of the biggest Pop hits of the era, “A Bushel and a Peck”, an unforgettable hit love ballad in “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”, one of Broadway’s funniest comedy numbers, “Adelaide’s Lament”, and one of the most epic eleven-o’clock showstoppers of all time in “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”.
The show’s first two numbers are particularly fascinating: “Runyonland”, a choreographed comedic sequence in mime set to an overture-like medley of tunes from the show, and “Fugue for Tinhorns”, a three-part counterpoint piece built out of three gamblers talking about which horse they plan to bet on. Also pushing the boundaries of what a Musical Comedy ‘song’ should entail was “My Time of Day”, a kind of vocal tone poem in Jazz painting a haunting picture of the deserted New York streets in the wee hours of the morning. These numbers sound so natural that few people noticed how unconventional and daring they really were, but they unobtrusively broke ground for future Musical Comedies to employ more sophisticated song models.
The Pajama Game, written by two of Loesser’s personal proteges, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, was even more Pop-friendly in its sound. Even in those days when most of Pop music was just poppier rearrangements of songs from Broadway musicals, this score must have sounded almost like Stephen Schwartz’s work does today…as a harnessing of blatantly Pop-based sounds to serve a conventional Musical-Theatre narrative.
This might be one of the reasons The Pajama Game is one of the few top-level classics from before the 1970s that is occasionally dismissed because of its lack of dramatic pretension, much like some modern classics like The Producers are today. Despite a tongue-in-cheek joke that it makes in its first scene, this wasn’t an ambitious drama with serious themes like the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, nor was it even a more subtly ambitious stylistic tour-de-force like Guys and Dolls. It was, essentially, just a standard potboiler musical comedy of the period, albeit one that has transcended potboiler status by proving to be perennially popular in the long term.
That said, the book is not the primary reason for this continued success, and in fact has done more to hamper it over the years. It’s still funny in a trashy sort of way, and it provides some memorably colorful and likable characters, including a genuinely compelling leading man who masks his deep insecurities with false bravado and provided a marvelous opportunity to the show’s original star, John Raitt. Even so, the book has also dated severely in a number of ways. Not only has the show’s setting…labor vs. management at a pajama factory complicated by a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance…consigned it to being played as a period piece, since business practices have altered out of recognition multiple times since then, but its sexual politics have a very Fifties feel to them, and several scenes can admittedly feel a little uncomfortable to modern audiences.
What makes the show a classic is the two things musical comedy lives for…the songs and the dances. The choreography was Bob Fosse’s first work for Broadway and remains some of his most iconic even today, especially the sexy trio number “Steam Heat” and the mock tango “Hernando’s Hideaway”. In addition to Fosse’s contribution, the show’s other claim to fame is the score, which, while it may never reach the heights achieved by the top-level Broadway classics, is notable for its sheer degree of consistency and enjoyment value. While Adler and Ross would go on to score one more hit (Damn Yankees) and Adler would write three more shows after Ross’ death (including the beloved cult flop Kwamina), neither of them would ever write anything this good again (it helps that a couple of the songs have some co-writing contributions from the team’s aforementioned mentor, Frank Loesser).
The melodies sparkle, especially on the immortal ballad “Hey There”, the exquisitely lilting waltz “I’m Not At All In Love”, the driving Country-flavored showstopper “There Once Was a Man”, and the pop-tango sound of “Hernando’s Hideaway”. As for the lyrics, they are frequently superb, especially on the numbers for Hines, the show’s comic relief figure, such as the riotously risque “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” or the gloriously absurd “Think of the Time I Save”. Even the songs added for later revivals are uniformly delightful, with “The World Around Us”, “The Three of Us”, and “If You Win, You Lose” basically living up to the level of the original score (“The World Around Us” was actually written for the original production and was even present in the show on opening night, but it was cut immediately thereafter and not used again until much later revivals). Hell, even the song Adler and Ross wrote to be added to the movie version, “The Man Who Invented Love”, which wound up being cut at the last minute, became surprisingly popular in its own right, with Doris Day’s rendition even making it onto at least one of her greatest hits albums…not at all bad for a cut song from a musical.
This score is unambitious, unashamedly pop-friendly, at times blatantly derivative (I’m not the first person to notice how much “A New Town Is a Blue Town” sounds like “Lonely Town” from On the Town in both music and lyrics), and one of the finest scores of the 1950s. I have to acknowledge that most of the musical-theater classics that have shown this level of endurance are actually more artistically interesting than this one, but I also have to acknowledge that precious few of them are as much fun to see or hear.
Two other shows built on the fable-like structure and supernatural elements of Cabin in the Sky, becoming in the process the two archetypical Broadway fantasies. The first, Finian’s Rainbow, was in a sense a sort of follow-up to The Wizard of Oz. It may have been a stage musical rather than a film, but it was written by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, the genius-level lyricist who had wound up as The Wizard of Oz’s primary textual auteur, and it was another fantastical fable built around a heavily implied statement about the American experience.
The thing that separates Finian from both Wizard of Oz and Cabin in the Sky, however, is that it is a satirical fantasy, with a message that was actually fairly subversive for the time. In this sense, it draws as much from the Gershwins’ Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque collaborations with George S. Kaufmann (such as Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake) as it does on Cabin in the Sky’s Folk fantasy or The Wizard of Oz’s homespun allegory.
Accordingly, the score mixes lyrical, folklike ballads (“How Are Things in Glocca Morra”, “Look to the Rainbow”, “Old Devil Moon”) that would not have been out of place in Cabin in the Sky, and playful expressions of pure whimsy (“If This Isn’t Love”, “Something Sort of Grandish”, “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love”) straight out of The Wizard of Oz, side by side with wickedly funny social commentary (“That Great Come-and-Get-It Day”, “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich”, the subversive mock-Gospel number “The Begat”).
The show takes on racism, government corruption and the oppression of the poor by the rich, which makes it rather surprising that it is yet another classic show currently under fire from the political correctness crowd. This is partly because, for all its satire of capitalism, it ultimately approves of the system, but mostly because the racist senator who serves as the show’s villain is temporarily turned into a Black man in order to show him how it feels to bear the brunt of racism. It’s perfectly possible to do this without putting the actor in blackface (all you need is a Black actor as a double and some creative staging to “magically” substitute one for the other), but the very concept itself seems to make the PC types uncomfortable, for reasons that frankly don’t make a lot of sense.
Harburg would later attempt an even more whimsical follow-up to Finian’s Rainbow, a satire of McCarthyism and big business with singing puppets, a laughing doll and a Genie entitled Flahooley! Unfortunately, this one did much less well commercially, not through any issue of merit (the show was extremely creative and the score was every bit as good as Finian’s), but because at that particular moment a big enough portion of Broadway audiences and critics still agreed with McCarthy’s tactics that they apparently didn’t want to see him publicly pilloried in a Broadway show (this was just after the Korean War had broken out…it would be years before even Candide came out, let alone The Crucible).
The other great fantasy show of this era was Brigadoon, the first top-shelf masterpiece by the team of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe. This show is essentially a Mass with a plot, like Bach’s sacred Oratorios such as The Passion of St. Matthew. It tells the story of a miracle, and in its sacred atmosphere and solemn, ritualistic dance sequences, it really does resemble a kind of religious service: even its love songs have a hymn-like feel to them. Indeed, one of the first lines of the show is “There’s something about this forest that gives me the feeling of being in a cathedral”. The hero’s best friend, a hard-drinking, wise-cracking pessimist, serves as the voice of the hero’s doubts and ingrained cynicism, in a device that is as old as the medieval morality play but somehow timeless in its effectiveness.
The often ravishing score was instrumental in creating this atmosphere, with lilting Gaelic-flavored ballads like “The Heather on the Hill”, “Come To Me, Bend To Me”, and “There But For You Go I” and a breathtaking chorale of a title-song. Two bawdy showstoppers for the female comic part help to provide a sense of contrast and keep things from getting too weighty. The score even managed to produce a massive hit tune, the delicately jazzy “Almost Like Being in Love”, which became one of Frank Sinatra’s all-time signature songs.
It’s been pointed out that Brigadoon’s plot bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the novel and film Lost Horizon, both in its basic premise and in the overall structure of its plot. But Brigadoon has far more emotional weight and impact than the campy, dated and somewhat pretentious Lost Horizon. And certainly, the two attempts to musicalize the Lost Horizon property, Harry Warren’s short-lived Fifties stage musical Shangri-La and Burt Bacharach’s disastrous musical film version from the Seventies, both turned out infinitely inferior to Brigadoon, so if you really must think of it as a rip-off of Lost Horizon (which is as short-sighted as calling The Yeomen of the Guard a rip-off of Maritana), think of it as the great musical version that franchise never got.
Unfortunately, Brigadoon’s reputation has long been marred by the mediocre movie version. For one thing, the score is vastly cut to make room for extraneous choreography, but even with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse doing the dancing, the results were never interesting enough to justify the loss of “Come to Me, Bend to Me”, “There But For You Go I”, “From This Day On”, or “My Mother’s Wedding Day”. For another thing, Gene Kelly is a wonderful dancer and a winning actor, but his singing voice, while suitable for his usual Musical-Comedy roles, isn’t up to this kind of Operetta-caliber music, and he ruins much of the remaining score. Cyd Charisse had her singing dubbed here by a reasonably pretty-voiced studio ringer, but she comes across as uncomfortably modern and sophisticated for a role that is supposed to be a sheltered Scottish country lass. The movie was also very obviously filmed on a studio back lot, which sabotages the rich atmosphere of the Scottish hills the stage show captured: if this story had to be filmed at all, it should have been shot on location.
The only thing the movie seems to have done right is casting Van Johnson, who does a potent job as the resident voice of cynicism. But making the cynic who is supposed to be proven wrong by the story more compelling than any other element is arguably even worse for the film’s intended message. In addition, the villainous Harry Beaton, who is supposed to be the symbolic embodiment of bitterness, self-pity and spite, (in other words, the Devil in the show’s religious construction…even the song about him sounds like the Dies Irae portion of a Requiem), comes off in the movie more like a voice of reason with a perfect legitimate and understandable grievance against The Miracle. In the stage show, Beaton is supposed to be a cautionary example of people who dwell so deeply on the things they can’t have that they come to hate themselves and everyone else, and while we are supposed to feel a certain measure of pity for him, he’s certainly not intended to offer any valid insights.
Worst of all, with all the religious atmosphere stripped away, audiences are naturally going to interpret the film’s plot as a fantasy that is meant to be taken more or less literally, like Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. And the show cannot survive that treatment, as once the story is treated as a literal event a myriad of logical flaws immediately crop up that make it completely implausible, even as fantasy.
Perhaps the most important remaining show of the Forties (though admittedly not the most successful or popular) was Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars. This show’s great achievement was being the first “Concept Musical” in the modern sense to be an unqualified artistic success. The two earlier examples of the form, the aforementioned Allegro and Weill’s own Love Life were deeply flawed, but this show, while too esoteric to have ever been a smash hit, is damned near flawless as a composition.
The reason becomes obvious when you examine the show stylistically. Allegro and Love Life, generally speaking, fell short of their goals because of the parts of them that were beholden to traditional Musical Theater…the humor, the conventional storytelling, the tired character archetypes. This show, on the other hand, bears no resemblance to any other musical of its time beyond the fact that it is a stage drama with songs. There is no comedy, no dancing, and no attempt at sex appeal: the closest the show ever comes is the sleazy nightclub number “Who’ll Buy (my juicy rutabegas)”, but it is written to come across as more disturbing than funny or sexy.
The show, based on the beloved South African novel Cry, the Beloved Country, tells of a Black anglican preacher in a small South African town who journeys to Johannesberg in search of his estranged son, only to find that son has accidentally killed a man in the course of a robbery. It has a book and lyrics by the great playwright Maxwell Anderson, who had already written a sort of political Comic Operetta in the Of Thee I Sing vein with Weill in the Thirties. That show, Knickerbocker Holiday, was much stranger than it was acknowledged to be at the time, but frankly it looks positively conventional next to Lost in the Stars.
Even the distribution of the songs is highly unusual for a musical. The central character of Stephen Kumalo has four major songs, of which two (the poetic “Thousands of Miles” and the warmly inviting “The Little Gray House”) are gentle and loving ballads and the other two (the cosmically despairing title-song and the Carousel-esque freeform soliloquy “Oh, Tixo, Tixo, Help Me”) are anguished cries of confusion and desperation.
But apart from two torch ballads for Absalom’s girlfriend, “Trouble Man” and “Stay Well”, the rest of the songs are mostly the Greek Chorus’ commentary on the action: their keening laments for their nation’s tragedy in “The Hills of Ixopo” and “Cry, the Beloved Country”; their analysis of the dark side of human nature in “Fear” and “The Wild Justice”; the sublimely lyrical closing number “A Bird of Passage”; and what must be the scariest “Train song” in all of Musical Theatre, “Train to Johannesberg”. It actually features vocalists imitating the sound of a moving train, but with hair-raising music and lyrics that chant a prophecy of doom.
This Musical, tragic as it is, features one of the most inspiring endings of all time, as two men, one a white former racist whose son was murdered, and one a Black man whose own son is about to be hanged for that murder, make their peace with each other and say, “I have a friend”. It is a very idealistic ending, and some have taken issue with it because of that (the author of show’s source novel famously hated the musical and its ending in particular), but it is a shining beacon of exactly the kind of love and forgiveness Nelson Mandela himself preached, so it’s hard to fathom where the objections come from.