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Musicals: Part 3, Singing a Sadder Song

Little dancerBefore the holidays, I dipped into the large, photo-filled, information-packed book Broadway: The American Musical, as I wrote the first two parts of this series. Now I’m watching the PBS series from 2004 — the book was published as a companion to the series.

I highly recommend watching the series. The six episodes take you through the history of Broadway (at least until 2004) with narrative, film clips, commentary from historians as well as from people who were part of the Broadway experience, or whose family members were some of the greats of Broadway. Here’s a review of the series from NPR (National Public Radio.)

There is also a website that builds on what the series and the book offer. Check it out at this link.

In the last post in my series on the Broadway musical, I talked about follies and revues — entertainment that brought a diverse range of song, dance, and spoken word to the audience, without much storyline.

In the 1930s, as the United States, and much of the world, dealt with the difficulties of the Great Depression, the Broadway musical underwent a dramatic change. See a timeline here. From being just escapist entertainment, the shows started reflecting real life, even the hard things in real life. As as the decade progressed, and moved into the war years of the 1940s, the storyline, the “book” of the musical, became more and more important.

Social commentary, political thought, the pain of the poor people, all started to be explored in musicals, something that had been unheard of before. Of Thee I Sing was a very popular political satire by George and Ira Gershwin. Irving Berlin and Moss Hart stirred up controversy with their “topical revue” in which Ethel Waters sang the searingly heart-wrenching Supper Time (watch that on the DVD of the series and check out this post about a 1994 production of the revue.)

Throughout the decade there was a steady movement toward having a true storyline in musicals. George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess told the story of African American people in a way that had not been portrayed on stage before. The team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (known generally as Rodgers & Hart) brought many musicals to the stage, including The Boys of Syracuse, based on Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors.

Musicals were taking a few more steps closer to what we think of today when we think of Broadway musicals.

Next month, the 1940s and Oklahoma!

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  1. My first thought when I think of musicals is light, fun, love songs, a sweet escape from reality. Many musicals, however, deal with much more emotional topics. Fiddler on the Roof deals with persecution of the Jews, forced emigration, loss. Many modern musicals deal with racial prejudice or controversial times in history, like Miss Saigon.

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