Over the course of the 1960s and beyond, the serious musicals (the ‘Musical Plays’, as we designate them in the business), influenced by My Fair Lady, became increasing dense and intellectual, dealing with far more complex sociological and philosophical themes than most of the earlier Musical Plays. Even the greatest Musical Plays of the Forties and Fifties, such as Carousel and West Side Story, deal with fairly simple, easy-to-understand themes. For example, Carousel is a fundamental story of redemption, and even West Side Story, for all its sophisticated playwrighting, is ultimately just the perennial tragedy of love torn apart by violence. For all their emotional power, they had more in common with Classical Opera than with the great “legitimate” plays of the early 20th Century. On the contrary, these new shows dealt with themes like the positive and negative aspects of cultural traditions, the moral compromises that must be made in order to achieve historical change, the wisdom of shutting out reality in favor of an idealistic madness, or the inherent amorality of art and artistic genius.
Camelot and Oliver, two of the first examples of this new breed, are both based on lengthy, complex English novels from the high literary canon, and as a result, both are so stuffed full of plot, character and content that they seem to be bursting at the seams. Camelot’s source, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, is loaded with dozens of secondary characters and subplots relating to them, but the musical has so much to deal with just regarding the central story of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Mordred and the show’s high-minded messages about civilization, that it was initially four hours long during its first tryouts.
The resulting show is an odd mix of genre elements that plays like something of an extremely intellectual Romantic Operetta (as opposed to the extremely intellectual Comic Operetta represented by something like Candide). While the book is certainly flawed, with some rather stodgy attempts at ceremony, some pacing issues, and some of the attempted humor falling flat (not to mention the tone radically shifting between the two acts), the show still plays wonderfully in performance, immensely charming and with a monumental emotional impact. The score is one of the team’s finest, combining the wit and sophistication of My Fair Lady with the beauty and emotional weight of Brigadoon. Particularly admired are the hilarious opening, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”, the ravishing siren call “Follow Me”, Lancelot’s introductory showstopper “C’est Moi” and his soaring hit ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You”, Arthur’s deeply touching “How To Handle a Woman”, the quirkily brilliant villain song “Fie on Goodness”, and the title-song, which receives a memorable reprise at one of the most moving final curtains in Musical Theater history.
There are other numbers in the show that tend to be misunderstood, but apart from the ridiculous duet “The Persuasion” (arguably the stupidest song Lerner and Loewe ever wrote), most of them work beautifully once you understand their context. To be honest, as wonderful as Julie Andrews was in the part of Guinevere, she may have contributed to some of these misunderstandings involving Guinevere’s character numbers, as she tended to deliberately deflect the darker elements of the character. Performed as written, songs like the jubilantly decadent “The Lusty Month of May” and the gleefully violent “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” paint Guinevere as a powerfully sexual and rather dangerous character (which, by the by, is exactly how she is portrayed in White’s novel), but Andrews’ delicate delivery makes it sound like her character is being playfully facetious when she spins out fantasies of men killing themselves and each other for her. As a result, “The Lusty Month of May” comes off as little more than a frivolous lark on the cast album, and the placid tune to “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, intended to ironically contrast the shock value of the lyrics, makes it seem almost dull in the Andrews rendition. Vanessa Redgrave in the film version, despite not having a tenth of Andrews’ vocal prowess, probably offered a more honest and accurate portrait of the character.
Oliver, drawn from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, seems simpler on the surface, but it really isn’t…the score is so full of jolly music-hall singalongs that it’s easy to forget that these upbeat tunes mask a deep and disturbing darkness. The show’s author, Lionel Bart, did heavily simplify the process by which Oliver’s true identity is discovered, deleting a number of the novel’s characters in the process, and he did soften the character of Fagin from the monster he was in the novel to an affably lovable rogue (though, given that Dickens’ Fagin was a blatant anti-semitic stereotype, this may have been helpful or even necessary to make audiences accept the show in the post-World War II era.)
But apart from that, Bart was actually much more faithful to Dickens than he is generally given credit for, especially in spirit. While some of the show’s upbeat singalongs seem like pure innocent fun, others, like “It’s a Fine Life” and “Oom-Pah-Pah”, have a distinctly seedy side. Dickens’ messages about hypocrisy and social injustice are conveyed beautifully, the portrayal of villain Bill Sykes is absolutely terrifying and not remotely family-friendly, and Bill’s extremely sympathetic girlfriend/slave, Nancy, still gets graphically murdered onstage at the climax of the show.
Bart’s score is fairly simple compared to the other great Sixties Musical Plays, but it is also immensely tuneful and full of feeling. The most iconic numbers are the uptempo showstopper “Consider Yourself” and the gorgeous ballad “As Long as He Needs Me” (which is much darker in the context of the show than most popular renditions let on), but the opening chorus “Food, Glorious Food”, the plaintive “Where Is Love?”, the innocent charm number “I’d Do Anything”, and the sublimely beautiful “Who Will Buy?” are also easily recognizable to most of the general public.
But arguably the most interesting numbers are the more plot-specific ones that are rarely heard outside the show itself, which tend to be either disturbingly dark or funny in a much more twisted way than the show’s hits. The haunting “Boy for Sale” (which is disturbingly pretty for a song about human trafficking), and the terrifying villain song “My Name” are examples of the former category, the morbidly comic “That’s Your Funeral” and the sickeningly coy “love” duet for the villainous couple who run the workhouse, “I Shall Scream” of the latter.
The character of Fagin is given particularly colorful material, perfectly tailored to the role’s originator Ron Moody, such as his wheedling induction of Oliver into a life of crime, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”, his quasi-sincere expression of affection for his orphan henchmen, “Be Back Soon”, or his tour-de-force eleven-o’clock number “Reviewing the Situation”.
The next of these densely-written Musical Plays, Fiddler on the Roof, has been described as a Concept Musical by some, and it does have some elements of that in its staging, specifically the title character, who serves as a visual embodiment of the show’s community and culture. But apart from this, it’s staged fairly straightforwardly and realistically, so I don’t think I’d consider it a full-fledged example of the ‘Concept’ show. The show, concept or no concept, was definitely a staging triumph, but like all the Musical-Theatre staging triumphs to survive as top classics decades after their original production, it had the substance in book and score to back up its impressive visual look.
The score’s sound is largely drawn from the sounds of real Jewish Folk music, giving it the authenticity needed for the material. Apart from the bittersweet “Sunrise, Sunset” and the chorus of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” (as detached from its bitterly sardonic verses), the score didn’t produce much in the way of “hits”, in the sense of songs routinely heard outside of the show itself…Bock and Harnick’s work was too tightly integrated for that. But it’s still worth observing that just about everybody seems to know the scene-setting opening “Tradition”, the shout-to-the-heavens showstopper “If I Were a Rich Man”, the joyous drinking song “To Life”, the ecstatic “Miracle of Miracles”, and the heartbreaking ballad “Far From the Home I Love”, wherever they might or might not have heard them.
Much debate has gone into which actor’s interpretation of Tevye was the best, and I have always leaned toward Chaim Topol, the star of the iconic and extraordinarily faithful movie version. Granted, the role’s originator, Zero Mostel, was charismatic and endearing, but I’ve always preferred Topol’s Tevye precisely because he was willing to grapple with the character’s dark side. Yes, it helps that Topol is a much subtler actor than the famously outsized Mostel, but so was Herschel Bernardi, and he quite openly admitted that he saw Tevye as a kind of living saint. Remember that this is a character that disowned his own daughter because she married outside of her race…that’s hardly the action of a saint.
The truth is that Tevye has two sides to his character that are continually in conflict. The first is a progressive and enlightened thinker and loving father. The second…let’s be honest here…is a barbaric tribal savage who hates and fears anyone and anything that threatens his little closed-off cultural bubble. The first two times his traditions are challenged, the philosopher and father wins out, but the third time…when Chava marries a gentile…his better impulses simply can’t overcome in his ingrained tribal prejudice against the “other”. When Topol delivers the line “There is no other hand!” just for a moment it looks and sounds like this loving family man has been mometarily replaced by the Devil himself. _That’s_ the proper way to play that scene.
Tevye has these two sides to himself because Judaism, at least at that point in its history, had those two sides. And the reason Judaism had those two sides is that every traditional culture that is going through the process of accommodating social progress grapples with those same two sides and the conflict between them. Hence the famous quote by the producer of Fiddler’s first Japanese production: “Tell me, do they understand this show in America? It’s so Japanese!” It was originally expected that Fiddler would appeal largely to Jewish audiences, but the show’s story turned out to have universal appeal, because the process it describes is pretty much the same in every culture.
The next real giant of the “legitimate theatre with songs” model came a couple of years later…the immortal masterpiece Man of La Mancha. Given that this show happens to be not only my favorite musical, but my favorite work of art in any medium, I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of assessing its merits with any degree of objectivity, but I intend to do my best.
The thing that most people don’t seem to understand about this piece is that it isn’t intended to be a straightforward adaptation of Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. It uses several of the characters and concepts from the novel, but the structure, tone and message are entirely different. Don Quixote was a series of rambling adventures with a largely comedic tone and a rather depressing ultimate end. Man of La Mancha is a tight, focused drama full of serious and high-minded ideals and philosophy, and it climaxes in triumphant ecstasy despite the outwardly tragic circumstances of its ending. Admittedly, many of the themes expressed in Man of La Mancha are also present to some degree in Don Quixote, particularly in the more subdued and philosophical Book Two, but they are much more subtly presented there, given that they are buried under layers of raucous comedy.
But it is exactly these changes that make Man of La Mancha succeed where most stage or film adaptations of Don Quixote have failed. Cervantes’ picaresque structure just doesn’t lend itself to being condensed into a form short enough to be suitable for visual media, so the only way to successfully adapt the material is to entirely abandon the original structure.
More straightforward musical adaptations of Cervantes’ classic novel had been attempted, most famously a lightweight Operatic version by Jules Massenet, but none of these had ever come remotely close to equaling their illustrious subject matter. It’s worth noting that the one that came the closest, Georg Phillip Telemann’s mini-Opera Don Quixote at the Wedding of Camacho, used an approach not terribly different from Man of La Mancha’s…isolating a single incident from the book as its subject, rather than trying to condense the whole story into a single Opera.
Man of La Mancha, on the other hand, has not only succeeded in becoming one of the most beloved and successful musicals in the world, but it has actually managed in some respects to eclipse its source material’s image in popular culture, to the point where most laymen seem to think ‘to dream the impossible dream’ is a quote from the novel.
What makes Man of La Mancha unique among musicals is that it is first and foremost a play. While its music and lyrics are certainly some of the most distinguished in the Musical Theater canon, it’s worth noting that the show’s primary author is almost always regarded to be its librettist, Dale Wasserman. This is almost unheard-of for a musical, but then Wasserman originally wrote the piece as a play. It had been staged on television under the title I, Don Quixote, with famed Broadway actor Lee J. Cobb in the lead. This original draft was flawed and cluttered compared to the more focused second draft that became the Musical’s book, but the gold that would become Man of La Mancha was already there, and even then audiences were deeply affected by it. Mitch Leigh, the Musical’s eventual composer, certainly seems to have reacted that way to the play, for his first words when he met Wasserman were reportedly the words familiar to every star-struck, worshipful fanboy: “You are God!”
The score was based heavily on Flamenco sounds, which was technically anachronistic, given that Flamenco did not really exist yet in Cervantes’ lifetime, but proved to be a better choice than the Renaissance-era music of the actual period, which in Spain mostly involved bagpipes. The show’s best-known numbers are the grandiose, Classical-influenced anthems and ballads given to the legit-voiced leading characters, which are the direct predecessor of the sounds heard such later quasi-Operatic musicals as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. These include the thrilling title-song (which shares its melody with the bitterly caustic cry of anguish “Aldonza”), the moving ballads “Dulcinea”, “What Does He Want of Me?”, and “To Each His Dulcinea”, and, above all else, the monumentally inspiring number known as “The Quest”, better known outside the show as “The Impossible Dream”. Some of the younger and more ignorant listeners out there think of this only as a dull Easy-Listening ballad, and I will admit that the popular versions’ persistent habit of playing it at half its original tempo doesn’t help with that perception. But the profoundly inspirational power of the lyrics is evident even in the slower versions, so that does not really provide a credible excuse for such lazy and shallow listening.
The show’s four comedy numbers are not quite on the sublime level of the lyrical and dramatic passages, but they serve their purpose beautifully within the context of the show. Sancho Panza, the character who delivers two of these numbers, was originally played by Yiddish comedian Irving Jacobson. This was partly because of another Mitch Leigh musical, the disastrous Chinese-Yiddish cultural collision Chu Chem, which was playing in the same theater at the time and shared some cast members with La Mancha, including Jacobson. But on another level, it was actually a massive stroke of inspiration. If you think about it, Sancho Panza’s folksy, ruefully optimistic, survivalist sense of humor in the original novel is a surprisingly apt match for the sensibilities the Yiddish comedy tradition was based on. Sancho’s two solos in the show, “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip”, are sad-clown comedy numbers, ultimately meant to be more touching than humorous, and their Yiddish-comedy sound and feel strikes exactly the right note for the character. In any case, Jacobson, while by no means a great singer, was the sweetest and most heartbreaking Sancho of all time.
The show as a whole has a near-religious inspirational power comparable to that found in Carousel. Given all this, it seems almost bizarre that the show has a surprisingly large number of detractors…more, in fact, than any hit Broadway show from before the Lloyd-Webber era other than The Sound of Music. This is ultimately because this is a show espousing an intensely idealistic philosophy that advocates denial of reality in favor of a noble madness. What makes this an issue is that most musicals that espouse a philosophy don’t actually require you to fully accept that philosophy in order to enjoy them (for example, one can easily appreciate Les Miserables without being a Christian despite its overt religious content). This show, however, requires you to believe in its ideals in order to be moved by it, and if someone is too cynical or rational to accept this philosophy, they will not only fail to appreciate its greatness, but in many cases seem to develop a passionate hatred for it for challenging the security of their worldview. I’d argue that this only proves what a deep chord this musical strikes even in those who reject it.
The next of our ‘legitimate theatre’ Musicals, 1776, took the “play with songs” approach further, at least in terms of genre models, than any of the examples we’ve discussed so far. The book of 1776 actually has far more in common in terms of content, structure and overall approach with the ‘straight’ plays of its era (e.g. The Lion in Winter) than it does with even the other intellectual Musical Plays of the Sixties. It’s a dialogue-heavy, intellectual, erudite historical drama in what some people would now term the “Masterpiece Theater” vein, and unlike My Fair Lady, which shares some of the same qualities, it actually de-emphasizes its musical elements for the most part. It’s hard to know what else to say about the book, except that it refuses to use strawmen, putting witty lines and persuasive arguments into the mouths of even the show’s antagonists, and that it manages to manufacture suspense where none should be possible. You may think, coming in, that the ending is a foregone conclusion, but believe me, like everyone else who sees the show, you will get so sucked in by the dramatic tension that you’ll completely forget what you know about how it all turned out.
What has kept 1776 from quite reaching the highest tier of Musical Theatre classics is its somewhat disappointing score. There are admittedly three wonderful numbers: the chilling war ballad “Momma, Look Sharp”, the deeply disturbing “Molasses to Rum”, where Southerner Edward Rutledge scathingly points out the hypocrisy of the North trying to abolish slavery when it was still making money off the slave trade itself at the time, and the thrilling eleven-o’clock outburst of hope and defiance “Is Anybody There?” But apart from these three numbers, John Adams’ recurring ‘letter duet’ with his faraway wife “Yours, Yours, Yours”, and the satirical “Cool, Cool Considerate Men”, none of the songs have anything to do with the drama or the main point of the show: they’re mostly lighthearted respites between the intense debate scenes. Worse, many of them have an almost nursery-rhyme-like inanity to their lyrics that sits poorly beside the book’s eloquent, sophisticated dialogue, with “The Egg” in particular being one of the most asinine songs in any enduring Broadway hit.
While speaking of both Fiddler on the Roof and 1776, one must inevitably address the two shows’ bastard offspring, The Rothschilds. Like Fiddler, it is idiomatically Jewish in both subject matter and musical sound, and like 1776, it deals heavily in politics and historical change (also, the song “Stability” is a transparent copy of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men”). The thing that sets it apart from both its predecessors is that, while Fiddler is an intimate story about the life of a single family within a small community, and 1776 is a tight, focused piece taking place over a few weeks, The Rothschilds is a grand, sprawling historical epoch spanning more than a hundred years.
The show featured a marvelous performance from Hal Linden as the patriarch of the titular family, in what is generally agreed to be the best stage role of his career. Really, the show might have been a success if the score were a little stronger. Like 1776, the show features a handful of enthralling pieces (Linden’s establishing number “He Tossed a Coin”, the first act finale, and the Eleven-O’clocker “In My Own Lifetime” are all wonderful), but apart from that, most of the score resembles the weaker portions of the 1776 score without the humor. It’s too lightweight to approach the emotional power of Fiddler, and too humorless to even serve as frivolous diversion the way the 1776 songs do.
And of course, we cannot touch on the intersection between musicals and serious drama without mentioning the late Peter Schaffer, whose two greatest and most enduring masterpieces are probably the most beloved ‘straight’ plays to emerge on Broadway since the heyday of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. The first one was the incredibly disturbing and always controversial exploration of the nature of insanity, Equus. The second, which falls under our purview here, was the no less tragic, but far more lyrical and poetic retelling of the downfall of legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, aptly titled Amadeus (which, of course, means ‘loved by God’, a key theme in the story). This work is not usually classified as a “Musical” by the standard critical establishment, but it certainly qualifies as a piece of Musical Drama on the same grounds as, say, the original film version of Saturday Night Fever.
The most famous version of the story of second-rate composer Salieri’s vendetta against Mozart has proven to be the familiar movie version with F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. But while Shaffer did write the screenplay to the movie as well, there are enormous differences between the movie and the stage play, and in many of these differences it is the stage play that comes off better in the comparison. For one thing, the film has gained the show a reputation as an open flouting of historical fact, something that is actually much less true in the stage show. The events of the stage show, while they obviously didn’t really happen, are careful not to contradict any anything we actually know for sure (or at least anything that has made it into the realm of common knowledge), so it’s much easier to imagine that these events could have happened without anyone knowing.
The stage play’s text is, impressively, at once far more eloquent than the film’s script, and far more concise. The film’s dialogue, while fairly literate by film standards, had been pared down from the verbal sophistication and complexity of the play’s original speech, resulting in a somewhat flatter and less nuanced treatment of its themes, as well as the loss of much of the poetic beauty of Shaffer’s language itself. At the same time, the film gets bogged down in heavy, pedantic scenes of discussion and negotiation that the lighter, fleeter stage version manages to avoid…having Salieri narrate the story directly to the audience contributed greatly to an impressive economy of exposition.
Granted, the movie still may have been the most effective version of the property up to that point. It introduced a key element that, while present in the earliest drafts of the show, was virtually lost by the time of its first Broadway engagement: Salieri’s gradually growing pity for the man he has destroyed, and his realization that Mozart might not be as unworthy of God’s favor as he initially thought. The versions of the show prior to the movie, for all their good qualities, were ultimately more in the realm of hiss-the-villain melodrama than the legitimate tragedy to which the film elevated the story. That said, Shaffer’s final draft of the stage show, seen in the 1999 Broadway production and preserved in the current published script, is an enormous improvement even on the movie, finally bringing the material to its full fulfillment and combining the best elements of the movie and the earlier stage productions.
And of course, one cannot begin to discuss this play without talking about the music that inspired it and that permeates its action. The historical facts behind the play may be questionably portrayed at times, but everything the show observes about Mozart’s music is true, with its description of his final Requiem Mass (‘something immortal, and yet stinking of death’) being a particularly apt and pithy observation. Amadeus may not technically be a musical, but its expert use of Mozart’s catalogue elevates it to a level of lyricism beyond the reach of most straight plays, or indeed most musicals. And legendary conductor Sir Neville Marriner, who has become almost synonymous with the show, soundtracking both the film and the 1999 production, was a superb choice, offering renditions of Mozart’s music that in most cases could comfortably compete with almost any other version out there.
These highly intelligent and serious, if still relatively conventionally structured, Musical Plays were instrumental in paving the way for the ultra-sophisticated Concept Musicals that would start showing up in the second half of the Sixties and become a dominant force on Broadway in the Seventies. More on that later.