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Changing Stages
Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theater in the Twentieth Century


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The Television Schedule

(check your local listings and your local PBS station):

"Shakespeare" (8/26, 9:00 p.m. ET) How do changing interpretations of history's greatest playwright tell contemporary audiences as much about current times as they do about his plays?

"Ireland" (8/26, 10:00 p.m. ET) Eyre examines how William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Synge and Sean O'Casey changed the course of English-speaking theater.

"America" (9/2, 9:00 p.m. ET) Eyre examines the work of Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Loraine Hansberry and Tennesse Williams in the context of the Great Depression, the "American Dream" and the Cold War, and the birth of the American musical, forged from a unique collision of diverse cultures.

"1956" (9/2, 10:00 p.m. ET) Eyre considers the glamour and nostalgia of British drama in wartime, examining the work of Noel Coward, Terrence Rattigan and the subversive Rodney Ackland - and why John Osborne's Look Back in Anger created a shockwave in 1956.

"Between Brecht and Beckett" (9/9, 9:00 p.m. ET) Against a background of disillusionment in the post-World War II era, Eyre explores the legacy of two giants of the theater, Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett. Their work inspired a generation of new writers.

"The Law of Gravity" (9/9, 10:00 p.m. ET) The final program surveys some of the ground-breaking work on the contemporary scene, from the blockbuster musical to the avant-garde. What is the theater of the future?

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from: Still Dreaming

"America is a vast conspiracy for making you happy." --John Updike

1 The Broadway musical--that is, the "book" (meaning "play") musical--is a dramatic form that blends drama of character and narrative with song and dance. "Words make you think thoughts, music makes you feel a feeling, a song makes you feel a thought," said the songwriter Yip Harburg. In the best book musicals characters sing at the moment that their feelings become too charged for speech, and in the songs the emotional action--the relationships--moves forward. The best musicals have a thrilling seamlessness and a cumulative emotional charge; the worst are lumps of dialogue interleaved with musical interludes.

There's a version of the genesis of the muscial that is comfortingly like biblical genealogy: X begat Y begat Z and so on. But theatrical history--like any other history--is never neat: the happy accident that occurred is that people with prodigious gifts decided to do things differently, or combined familiar elements in an unfamilar way. It was a Darwinian evolution.

Such luck lay in the first book musical writtenby John Gay (1685-1732) in 1728. Lacking a genre, it was called a "ballad opera" and like its distant Broadway descendant it brought together the words of high and low culture and popular entertainment. "It has been productive," an eighteenth-century critic wrote, "of more mischief to this country than any would believe at the time."

The mischief-making piece was called The Beggar's Opera. It was a wholly original concoction of scenes of low-life punctuated by songs of the day plucked from the street, the drawing-room, and opera-house--English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh folk songs, parodies of popular operas, and arias by the much-revered Purcell and Handel. Its characters were highwaymen, thieves, beggars, whores, and jailers. Ther hero is a hero--a highwayman fatally generous to women, who, in a mischievous Hollywood-like parody of a happy ending, is reprieved on the gallows by the author of the play within the play, the Beggar. "It is difficult to determine," says the Beggar, "whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen."

It was part satire, part social criticism, part romance, part "pure" entertainment opportunistically geared to the tastes of its intended audience, who enjoyed being voyeurs of low-life sex and violence. It's possible that Gay had seriously moralistic intentions; he certainly intended the piece to be presented more austerely than it ended up. He wanted all the sixty-nine songs to be accompanied so that the actors glided from speech to song to speech and back again, using the songs to express the characters' feelings when speech became inadequate. However, his patron (or "producer"), the Duchess of Queensberry, insisted that there was a musical score to make the eclectic selection of songs cohere.

A German musician was recruited--John Pepusch--who was an imitator of Handel and unfamiliar with many of the songs and withmuch of the English language. He "mixed the sauce," concocting an overture and orchestrating the songs. Pepusch's score unquestionably helped the show become a huge success, but equally unquestionably softeened its bite. In that sense the show could be said to be both the parent of the form of the Broadway musical and also of the spirit--ever eager to please whatever the subject matter.

The Beggar's Opera became a craze and there is little short of a live-cast recording that was not merchandised on the back of its success: songbooks, slang dictionaries, pamphlets, pictures, playing cards, fans, screens, clothes. It monopolized conversation, its actors became stars, and it made "Gay rich and Rich (the theatre owner) gay." It was revived every year for about sixty years after its opening.

Countless clones were bred from The Beggar's Opera and just as it had pillaged and borrowed from many sources, it was plagiarized, adapted, and imitated for generations, as well as still being performed in its original form. The version that Brecht wrote in 1928 with music by Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera, is less powerful, less original, less politically acute, and less witty. It comfortably plays on Broadway without any of its intended objects of scorn--the highwaymen of big business--being even slightly disturbed.

The ballad opera took root in America after the Revolution and was one of many ingredients that went into the barrel in which the Broadway musical was brewed.

The first home-grown musical was The Black Crook, which opened in 1866. In many respects it was an archetype: it had a plot of sorts--a derivative Faustian melodrama, characters of sorts, spectacle, dancing, an "Amazon parade of legs," and was a triumph of marketing.

It had many rivals from European imports: operas from Paris such as Offenbach's Belle Hélène, comic operas from London such as Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore, and operettas from Vienna, like Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow. Operetta bred its Broadway version, dripping in syrupy Ruritanian romanticism, such as Rose-Marie and The Desert Song.

Muscial comedies--a British genre: genteel Cinderella stories--were Americanized by the composer Jerome Kern in collaboration with P. G. Wodehouse, paradoxically the quintessence of Englishness. With Guy Bolton, Wodehouse took the bold and original step of using recognizable American characters and real locations and of writing songs that evolved naturally from the plot.

The various musical genres--operetta, muscial comedy, burlesque, revue, Minstrel Shows, and the Jewish shund --were like tributaries flowing into a wide, deep, and muddy river. On this river, appropriately enough, arrived Showboat in 1927, and with it the first example of what we now describe as the Broadway musical.

Showboat was written by Jerome Kern (1885-1945) and Oscar Hammerstein (1895-1960). Kern had written the music for a number of revues and musical comedies, and Hammerstein was a veteran of American operetta--he had written the book and lyrics for Rose-Marie. The two men--who had collaborated once previously--had become frustrated by the oppressive uniformity of tone and content of the current musical theatre, where artistic ambition meant mimicking the last success: you wrote your songs, wrapped your story round the best ones, and hoped it would all make sense. As George Kaufman said, the shows had "the kind of tunes you go into the theatre whistling."

Kern and Hammerstein's show was derived from a doorstop of a novel of life on the Mississippi River by Edna Ferber. Kern and Hammerstein created almost fully formed characters who were revealed as much through song as through dialogue: music, character, and plot were welded together to serve a story of the lives of a family of showboat performers from the 1880s to the 1920s--the period in which there was a huge migration from the country to the cities, and a maelstrom of expansion.

Instead of a line of chorus girls showing their legs in the opening number singing that they were happy, happy, happy, the curtain rose on black dock-hands lifting bales of cotton, and singing about the hardness of their lives. Here was a musical that showed poverty, suffering, bitterness, racial prejudice, a sexual relationship between black and white, a love story which ended unhappily--and of course show business. In "Ol' Man River" the black race was given an anthem to honor its misery that had the authority of an authentic spiritual. And moreover, as a contemporary critic said, "It never falls into the customary mawkish channels that mistake bathos for pathos." Well, not often.

The music shadows the epic development of the story over thirty years, the move from a folk culture to urban commercialization, from romantic ballads to clamorous jazz--or what passed for it. It was the first true Broadway score, the first to have a dramatic shape in which themes progressed through the show, in which scenes were underscored and songs emerged rather than just occurred. And Kern wrote American music, the kind that Irving Berlin was talking about in 1911 when he said, "The reason American composers have done nothing significant is because they won't write American music . . . So they write imitation European music which doesn't mean anything."

It's easy to exaggerate the importance of Showboat, to suggest that nothing like it had been seen before and nothing was ever the same again. It's not true: it was evolution rather than revolution, and it's worth remembering that the producer of the show was not a young rebel against the status quo, but the veteran of countless revues and the architect of much of Broadway's glamour: Flo Ziegfeld. The show openedout of town--directed by its two authors--and Ziegfeld's influence could be seen in the loss of at least an hour's running time during its pre-Broadway run, as well as in the spectacular sets and costumes.

What was special about Showboat was that it took existing forms--in particular operetta--and transformed them, integrating song and book more deftly and imaginatively than before, letting the content dictate the progression of the story rather than trying to second-guess the audience's response.

A succession of innnovative imitations did not follow in the wake of Showboat. The tone of musical theatre was still one of jocular irrelevance, with the odd brilliant burst of reality in Of Thee I Sing --political satire; Porgy and Bess --black opera; Pal Joey --set in a sleazy night-club; and Lady in the Dark --set in the world of magazines and psychiatry. And neither Kern nor Hammerstein took advantage of their breakthrough; it was sixteen years--in 1943--before Hammerstein collaborated with Richard Rodgers to produce the musical that signaled the second watershed in the evolution of the Broadway musical: Oklahoma!

Showboat 's maturity and ambition at least encouraged competitors to attempt more sophisticated character, to look for more integration of songs into plot and to use dance as a means of story-telling--as in On Your Toes, which had a jazz-accented score and George Balanchine's ballets--notably Slaughter on 10th Avenue.

The creators of On Your Toes were composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and lyric writer Lorenz Hart (1895-1943). They started writing revue together, then a series of musical comedies which seemed to rain hit songs, culminating in Babes in Arms in 1937--a let's-do-the-show-right-here-in-the-barn extravaganza which included "My Funny Valentine," "The Lady is a Tramp," and "I Wish I were In Love Again." In Pal Joey , adapted from John O'Hara's melancholy and mordant short stories, they introduced a new tone to the Broadway musical--stained with mordant wit, irony, and cynicism. They dared to have a protagonist who was only half sympathetic and they showed an adult realism about sex. The show also introduced a remarkable performer as Joey, the opportunistic small-time heel: Gene Kelly.

If Rodgers and Hart gave a voice to a hard-boiled world of broken dreams and romantic delusion, Cole Porter (1891-1964) was the poet of the playboy: charming, louche, knowing. Just the titles of his shows give an indication of their escapist innocence in the years of the Depression leading up to the war: Fifty Million Frenchmen, The New Yorkers, The Gay Divorce, Anything Goes, Red Hot and Blue! , Du Barry Was a Lady, Panama Hattie, and Let's Face It. The shows were essentially elegant necklaces--indelible melodies and brilliantly witty lyrics laced toa thin string of plot. Only in Kiss Me, Kate, in spite of a stammering book punctuated by one-liners, did Cole Porter write a score that was more than the sum of its considerable parts.

"It is always possible to create something original," said George Gershwin (1898-1937), and in 1935 with Porgy and Bess --"an American folk opera" about a black community on Catfish Row--he made good his promise. He had been writing jazz-influenced scores with intricate rhythms and sophisticated lyrics by his brother Ira and had had a series of successes with musical comedies, often featuring Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele, and incidentally introducing Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman.

"When I'm in my normal mood," said Gershwin, "music drips from my fingers." He was a muscial prodigy, publishing his first song at the age of fourteen. He worked briefly for Irving Berlin until Berlin heard some of Gershwin's music: "What the hell do you want to work for somebody else for?"

Porgy and Bess was not the first all-black show on Broadway. There'd been a number of revues and a few musicals which had popularized a form of jazz that replaced ragtime as the dominant musical comedy style, and introduced new dance steps such as the Charleston, to the musical stage. It's not so surprising that the first black--or first American opera--was written by the son of a Jewish immigrant from St. Petersburg, able at least to transfer one race's suffering to another. It's more fortunate that the adaptation of Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's clumsy, sentimental, and patronizing play Porgy and Bess was undertaken by the Gershwins rather than Jerome Kern, who was originally asked to write it for Al Jolson. Even so, it's very much a white view of never-never-land natives, happy with "plenty of nuttin."

"True music must repeat the thought and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans . . . I try to put the pulse of my times into my music and do it in an original way," said Gershwin, and his way was neither through classical, jazz, nor show music, but a fusion of European--and Jewish--rhythms, harmonies, and melodies with black music; not a hybrid but an American original. Gershwin paid for his originality: the show was poorly received on its opening, cruelly indicted by the critics, and it wasn't until a revival seven years later--after his death--that it was acclaimed...