The Broadway Musical: Something Great Is Coming


For some 60 years, roughly 1920 to 1980, the Broadway musical was in its Golden Age. The subjects were for adults, the lyrics were for the literate, and the music had a richness and depth of expression never since equaled in American composition. Broadway, it has often been said, supplied America with its own brand of classical music. We will begin by delving into the origins of the Broadway musical in the 19th century—a great vibrant stew that included vaudeville, burlesque, operetta, minstrel shows, musical comedy-farce, and musical extravaganza. These widely disparate forms began to coalesce in the 1920s into the quintessentially brash, toe-tapping Broadway form known as musical comedy. We’ll look at this frivolous, but often witty, form as pioneered by the African American team of Blake & Sissle; by their more famous Jewish counterparts, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, and Rodgers & Hart; and by the lone WASP in the group, Cole Porter. We’ll wind up musical comedy with one of the greatest examples of the genre, On the Town, which we’ll also go to see on Broadway. Meanwhile, visionaries like Oscar Hammerstein II saw the potential for something more substantive in this lighter-than-air art form. In the 1940s, when Hart and Kern both died, the re-pairing of Rodgers with Hammerstein would again revolutionize the Broadway musical with their so-called “integrated musicals,” beginning with Oklahoma! R&H (as they were universally known) gave the musical thematic weight and dramatic coherence. They insisted on putting the story first and making the songs—along with everything else—serve that story. The inevitable apotheosis of their efforts is the musical play of the 1950s, and we’ll end this section by looking at both R&H’s profoundly moving South Pacific and Bock and Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof. But the Broadway musical of substance showed yet another face: the concept musical. The concept musical was Broadway’s answer to cubist painting. It took a subject and looked at it from every conceivable angle except one: a story. We’ll end the year by looking at Stephen Sondheim’s two great masterpieces: Company, in which he (with book writer George Furth) deconstructs marriage, intimacy, and friendship; and Follies, his (and book writer James Goldman’s) meditation on mortality and time itself. This course meets once a week.