How Broadway Conquered the World

America’s most energetic art form owes its success to compulsive singability.
Courtesy Everett Collection

Though his book is unusually good, Larry Stempel is not the first to sum up the history of the Broadway musical theater. The literature, as they say, is vast. They say that about subjects where literature is not the first thing you want. You want it only later on, after you have already fallen for the subject because of its inherent enjoyability, and not because of what can be brought to it by way of explanation. In that respect, Broadway itself was vast almost from the start, when a musicalized version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first staged in 1853, included Stephen Foster’s catchy lament “Old Folks at Home,” of which even the lyrics were in blackface. “All de world am sad and dreary …”

The way the word world sat on the note clinched the deal. Anybody’s grandmother could have a crack at singing it, even though she herself was as Old Folks as you could get. Something similar was true for any other show that clicked. People would come to it so that they could go home singing. People who didn’t go to the opera loved going to the musicals. Eventually people who did go to the opera went to the musicals as well. More eventually still, the musicals turned into operas—Carousel and its many successors are essentially operas, but with easier arias, and plots that add up—as America’s most energetic indigenous art form went on conquering the world. Most eventually of all, the British musicals conquered Broadway, but they got the idea from the place they conquered. The same would be true if a show starring Kim Jong Il—also responsible for music, book, and lyrics—started its New York run next week.

It’s a big cultural story, and Stempel does well to fit it neatly into one volume, with an inoffensive neutral style—except for the word diegetic, which we will keep caged until later—and a wealth of information. (Did you know that the first lyricist for Man of La Mancha was W. H. Auden? He was paid off and replaced: a telling illustration of the Broadway principle that commerce comes first, even in an off-Broadway production.) Apart from the word diegetic—my God, it broke loose, throw a net over it—Stempel’s book is a large but light-footed embodiment of the truth that nothing keeps you sane like being mad about your subject. Enjoyment keeps theory at bay. If you can do a fair bathroom impersonation of Ezio Pinza singing “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (“You may see a strange-or”), you are less likely to talk high-flown nonsense about an influence that got into you by a low route, under the radar of the higher brain centers. “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair …” Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mary Martin onstage in New York, Mitzi Gaynor in the movie) sings that line three times in the one stanza, as if it were an interesting line in the first place. It isn’t, but just try forgetting it. Some alchemy of words and music, some enchanted something or other, benumbs the critical powers.

It’s hard to know which is the bigger waste of time, insisting that the Broadway musical is an art form or insisting that it isn’t: but we can be sure that the question would never have arisen if the shows that became famous all over the world hadn’t been full of singable moments in the first place. And the singable moment, the moment you can’t get out of your head, got in there before it could be asked for its credentials. It could cross the globe without a passport.

When I was growing up, in Sydney in the 1940s and ’50s, the local production of the latest hit American musical was always the biggest show in town. The principal roles were taken by the most famous local performers, who worked hard on their American accents, not always to convincing effect. Performers who would become famous later on got their start in the chorus. (In the London production of South Pacific, one of the sailors was the young Sean Connery. “There ish nothin’ like a dame …”) Even if you didn’t see the show, the numbers were in the hit parade, and later on, they were on the cast albums. South Pacific I actually saw onstage when I was still in short trousers. My mother took me because everybody went: it was the thing to do. Though it might seem, at this distance, a pretty extraordinary thing to do—the Americans were behaving not only as if they had won the war against the Japanese all on their own, but as if they intended to win the peace as well—nobody questioned it then, partly because, as the Hollywood movies had already proved, American cultural imperialism was not only too big to fight, it was too seductive to ignore.

I had no idea what the chorus of male sailors were on about when they kept singing “There is nothin’ like a dame”—what did they have in mind?—but I still thought “Some Enchanted Evening” was fabulous. I had already memorized some of the lyrics before I left the theater, and subsequently I learned the rest from listening to the radio. On the radio, they were playing the song as sung in the original Broadway production by Ezio Pinza, he who had created the role of Emile de Becque. A favorite at the Metropolitan Opera, Pinza was a bass in the fine tradition of Chaliapin and Kipnis, the tone warm and the timbre profound. For someone my age whose voice had not yet broken, imitating Pinza was not easy, but I managed it by tucking my chin well into my chest. “Once you have found her, never let her go …” My bass notes shook the bathroom.

When the movie came out, Pinza wasn’t in it, his death having preempted the break that would have turned him from an artist into an icon. Because the studio bosses couldn’t cast Pinza, they decided not to cast Mary Martin either. (These details are not in Stempel’s book, for a reason we will get to.) Those in charge of the movie, who included Rodgers and Hammerstein, were unanimous in wanting Rossano Brazzi for the role. As European and distinguished as a Romanesque cathedral with only superficial bomb damage, Brazzi was perfect in every way but one. He was lying when he said he could sing. When Rodgers and Hammerstein found out that he couldn’t carry a tune any further than a few inches, they insisted that his voice be dubbed, even though Brazzi himself was adamant that he could do the job. Dense as well as proud, he never got over not being allowed to, and for much of the filming, as the recorded sound was played in so that he could make with the mouth, he behaved like a beast with its amour propre on the line. They could have got me for half the money.

Brazzi could afford to be petulant because his ass, or at any rate his throat, was being covered by Giorgio Tozzi, whose voice equaled Pinza’s in the professional accomplishment that is known on Broadway as “legit”—that is, trained. Broadway has always been able to use trained voices as long as they don’t sound trained. The underlying assumption is that the audience for a musical doesn’t want to hear what it can’t possibly do: it wants to hear what it might have done if life had worked out differently, and still might do after a few drinks.

Later—much later—I learned that Rodgers and Hammerstein, while the war was still on, had worked a revolution in the musical when they concocted Oklahoma!, the first show to be fully “integrated,” with every number growing organically out of the book and back into it, instead of just decorating a flimsy plot line as of old. Stempel gives a good account of the historic moment when Rodgers and Hart gave way to Rodgers and Hammerstein, although he might have said a little more about what was undoubtedly lost when the cleverness of the old numbers gave way to the organic relevance of the new ones. Even then, before I had started listening to Hart’s lyrics, I could tell that Hammerstein’s were straining to sound so relaxed. (And anyway, Hammerstein himself seemed oddly unready to quite give up the old tricksiness: has anybody ever asked what Nellie Forbush, theoretically a down-home girl in love with a wonderful guy, is up to when she sings a word like bromidic? Stempel doesn’t.)

But that transition from the simple form that had the complex songs to the complex form that had the simple ones was part of the history of the genre: the succession of events that Stempel so meticulously covers in his text. Once, the show had existed so that a song could stand out from it: pre-war, Cole Porter wrote songs for shows with not much more structure than had once been boasted by the ZiegfeldFollies. Later, the songs existed for the show: either they were part of the structure, or they got cut before the show reached town. Such was the dynamic of artistic development, which always looks inevitable in retrospect. But at the time I am talking about—a time when almost everything from Oklahoma! through to West Side Story was either already onstage or in the works—very few people even in New York, and almost none at all elsewhere in the world, had any idea of an art form developing. They were just being hit by an experience: or rather, one experience after another, as the musical shows and movies unfolded a wonderful and unexpected wealth. Thus it was that I moved on from being Ezio Pinza to being Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls.

Frank Sinatra was in the same movie, but I didn’t want to be him. After seeing The Tender Trap several nights in succession, I had put a lot of effort into adopting his identity (I owned one of the first Sinatra-red shirts to reach Australia, probably in the cargo hold of a Pan Am Stratocruiser), but my impersonation was hampered by the fact that Sinatra could sing. Brando’s Sky Masterson was more in my range, especially after my voice broke. I had a sinus condition anyway, so it wasn’t hard to get the intonation. All you had to do was pull in your nose as if you had just run into a closed door. If I had lived in New York I might have been watching Robert Alda on Broadway, but I was in Sydney, and I was watching the same guy who had been strictly incomprehensible in The Wild One being almost lyrical when he sang “Luck Be a Lady.”

Lyrical, perhaps, but not really musical. Brando could barely carry a tune, and I could tell he couldn’t. But it didn’t matter. The numbers came across. That was what the stars were doing up there. They were delivering songs to a not very music-minded mass audience, which would listen a bit harder because the face was famous. The face was delivering Broadway. Singin’ in the Rain was never a Broadway show, but after I saw Gene Kelly starring in the movie, he, for me, was Broadway. (In fact he had been the original star of Pal Joey on Broadway in 1940.) Though it went straight to the screen without even touching the stage, Singin’ in the Rain was made possible by a hundred years of know-how from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. In long pants now and all set to burn the boards, how I loved the songs, how I adored Debbie Reynolds, how I laughed at Jean Hagen, and what a mistake I made when I copied Donald O’Connor’s trick of running up the wall and turning a back somersault. In the few seconds of consciousness remaining, I began to realize just how good O’Connor was.

Presented by

Clive James is an Australian poet and critic who has lived in London since the early 1960s.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In