How Broadway Conquered the World

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

There were other movies of the post-war period that showed a similar ability to draw on the Broadway tradition while having been concocted almost entirely in Hollywood. The Band Wagon kept only the title and a few songs of a pre-war Broadway show. Yet the movie’s magnificent final dance number, “The Girl Hunt,” would never have looked like that if its choreographer, Michael Kidd, had not developed his craft on Broadway. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was another movie masterpiece that was never a Broadway show: it just looked as if it could have been. The stage form was driving the cinematic form, like a tail wagging a dog.

Other Hollywood musical movies adapted Broadway vehicles, but dug them up from the far past, like war chariots from the desert sands. The Student Prince, scored by Sigmund Romberg, had been a hit Broadway show in the 1920s, had been revived successfully in each of the next two decades, and now was back yet again because of Hollywood’s unquenchable fondness for Ruritania, the abstract European kingdom for which so many Jewish Hollywood executives longed in their exiled hearts. Mario Lanza, with much fanfare, had been cast in the lead. Lanza got into a dispute with the studio and was fired from the movie in the brief time between recording the songs for playback and the moment when he would actually be filmed pretending to sing them. To fill the space onscreen, Edmund Purdom was whistled in. He couldn’t sing, but he was there to move his mouth while the voice of Lanza came pouring from the sound track. In that sense, all the stars in the film musicals were dubbed, but the average moviegoer was presumed to like it better when they were dubbed with their own voices, as if contact were somehow being maintained with live theater.

Though my version of “Serenade,” ringing from our bathroom at all hours of the day, lowered property values at our end of the street, I never wanted to be Edmund Purdom. I did, however, want to be Mario Lanza, whose voice I thought glorious. As it happened, I was right about that, and today there are experts on opera (tenors such as Rolando Villazón among them) who are ready to say that Lanza’s voice was one of the greatest of the century; but at the time he was a figure of fun, because he could not control his weight. This is not the place to talk about Lanza, just as Stempel’s book is not the place to read about him: the book has very little about musicals onscreen. As a one-volume work, it was bound to have some limitations, but this is a serious limitation, because the movies were the medium by which Broadway got to all those millions of us who weren’t going to get to it. All too obviously, going to the actual show, or anyway to its revival, is Stempel’s ideal. He is a buff. But the musicals, in my view, worked their most remarkable effect on those of us who weren’t buffs at all. We were just ordinary people, most of us a long way away from the action, and yet somehow this thing reached us, like an airborne virus, or a swarm of bees with intercontinental fuel capacity.

Sometimes the cast album was enough to do the trick. I never saw The Music Man, either onstage or onscreen, but in Sydney one of my friends owned the cast album. In this and in all the other Broadway shows none of the musical effects would have meant much without the lyrics. When I started listening to grand opera, I soon realized that its musical resources hugely exceeded most of what was available in the Broadway musical, but I also realized that any opera spends most of its time proving, through the music, that the text is a pretext.

In the musical, the words make the music happen. Among those who wrote or even just talked about musicals, it was generally assumed that in the old pre-Oklahoma! tradition, the words had been self-consciously marvelous. After all, everyone could sing a few things by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. But the shows were long gone—this was in the days before anyone thought of running old-Broadway revivals anywhere, let alone on Broadway—and it was hard to check up, except through what the more respectable popular singers chose to sing. Then Ella Fitzgerald chose to sing everything, and the whole picture emerged seemingly overnight. In the 1950s and early ’60s, Ella’s Song Book albums were so absorbing that you were still on the previous one when the next one arrived. The wealth of great material made it all too easy to conclude that something had been lost when the integrated musical took over.

But it wasn’t necessarily the right conclusion, or not immediately, anyway. Even Hammerstein, whose lyrics I took to be the sticky outpourings of a sentimentalist even when I couldn’t get them out of my hair, hadn’t lost touch with the old heritage: because he knew it so well, he knew exactly how to avoid its flashy elements while retaining its easily pronounced articulation, although often he overdid the simplicity and lapsed into the banal. At his best, he could mimic speech. In Carousel, the long song “Soliloquy,” a virtuoso musical construction by Rodgers, has bravura lyrics by Hammerstein. The lyricist’s determined avoidance of cleverness suited the character, who isn’t clever either: he’s just Billy Bigelow, the carousel’s barker. In the song, he reveals his ambitions as a father, which are very ordinary, and ordinariness, despite the opulent invocation of the supernatural, would have threatened to overwhelm the whole show, if Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn’t combined so successfully to turn out the sonic equivalent of a Norman Rockwell cover for The Saturday Evening Post. (Both of them thought it was the best show from their collaboration.)

Perhaps Rodgers’s single most glorious outlay of melody, “Soliloquy” was too long for the hit parade, but Frank Sinatra went ahead anyway, and cut a disc that had half the song on each side. Stempel might have written more about “Soliloquy,” and of how seemingly colorless words can take color from musical notes, but it has to be admitted that the analysis of lyrics is not his greatest strength. (The best writing about “Soliloquy” I have so far seen comes from Mark Steyn, who echoes and often exceeds the capacity of Alec Wilder in his knack for bringing out the complexities of a song’s construction.) It takes an ear, and finally anyone who can use a word like diegetic without laughing at himself has to be suspected of deafness. To put the word out of its misery before we bury it, a song is “diegetic” if the character knows he or she is singing it. When Maria sings “Do-Re-Mi” to the unfortunate von Trapp children in The Sound of Music, she’s singing something diegetic. On the other hand, Billy isn’t singing something diegetic when he sings “Soliloquy” in Carousel. Better, perhaps, just to accept that he is singing something amazing. Certainly Sinatra thought so, to name only one person among millions who would have thought that a diegetic condition might be cured with Pepto-Bismol.

On the whole, the integrated musical after Oklahoma! was not as prodigious a generator of hit songs as the old-style formats had been, because hit songs had been their main reason for being, whereas the integrated musical was providing a different, supposedly more elevated, theatrical experience. But not even the most advanced of the new musicals could recoup its investment if it didn’t give the audience something to go home singing. Cole Porter turned the new rules into an opportunity. A song like “You’re the Top,” from Anything Goes, had taken off from the show and established a life of its own, to the extent that many of us can sing whole chunks of it without being able to name the show it comes from. On the other hand, all the numbers in the wonderful Kiss Me, Kate are anchored in the book by Sam and Bella Spewack, who had taken over The Taming of the Shrew and incorporated it into a nest of plots whose intricacy is endless: Tom Stoppard’s Travesties before the fact. Every song Porter did for the show fits its labyrinthine structure. But still the numbers fly: “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is something you can’t stop yourself singing along with. The only danger with the new form was that if the numbers didn’t have to be separable hits, then they wouldn’t be.

With the advent of West Side Story, the danger was still hard to identify, because it was disguised as a glittering cluster of some of the catchiest numbers Broadway had ever produced. Leonard Bernstein, the composer, knew everything about how to make a melody memorable. He could put the word America on four notes so that it became a mini-anthem, a kind of musical flag, and then vary the notes so that the flags turned into a carnival. And the words were put together by a frighteningly young man who had not only learned from Hammerstein about how to grow a song out of the plot, he had learned from the previous tradition about how to be clever. He was a precocious master of the complete heritage, but the heritage was still bolted firmly to a precept that until then had been so unquestionable it didn’t even need to be formulated, except as a wisecrack. Somebody had once said that nobody ever went home whistling the set. It was a neat way of saying that the song comes first. There has to be something to sing, and the chief danger presented by the new musical—the danger that there wouldn’t be—was already there in West Side Story. The danger’s name was Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim was, still is, a genius. The term genius has always been tossed around freely in the Broadway context, for the good reason that the main street of musical show business has always teemed with greatly talented people motivated by the two great spurs to creativity, the urge to express oneself fully and the urge to make a million dollars. But Rouben Mamoulian, to take only one example, undoubtedly was a genius: for the man who put Oklahoma! together onstage, there would have been no other suitable description, even if he had done nothing else except direct the Hollywood movie Love Me Tonight. Similarly, there could be no doubt about Sondheim’s right to the title: the lyrics to West Side Story were sensational. Snapping my fingers as I moved forward in a threatening crouch, I spent a lot of time being a Jet, and it occurred to me even then that the Cold War was already over: the Soviet Union was never going to pick at its own wounds like this. Sondheim soon proved that he could write music too. To adapt the phrase he put in the mouth of Miles Gloriosus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sondheim was a parade. But so much talent, in the popular arts, can easily find itself with only one boundary left to burst: it wants to move up, to be Art. And the danger represented by Sondheim lay in his having the wherewithal to bring this about.

The latter part of the book is haunted by Sondheim, about whom Stempel finds it hard to come clean. What does this guy want? What if everybody catches this Art thing, and we all go broke? Back before World War II, Kurt Weill, in exile from Germany, where he had composed the music for The Threepenny Opera, had been proud and happy to work on Broadway. Many times he announced that it was better for people like him to take their chances in the commercial world of Broadway than to be subsidized: you can imagine him saying the same sort of thing in a Fox News interview today. Weill, however, still couldn’t help wondering what might be created in that increasingly tempting space between Broadway and Art. It’s a perennial longing, it comes with the territory, and often the results are to be admired. After all, a lot of Broadway shows are pretty stupid underneath the razzmatazz: they could do with being superseded. But there is always the risk that an essential requirement might go missing, and the lack be felt not only in the wallet, but in the blood and bone of the form. Is there something for the audience to sing?

Stempel marches dutifully through all the shows that made sure there was, no matter how tightly integrated they might happen to have been. From Cabaret, everyone can sing the title song. There are probably nonagenarian ex-Nazis who can sing it. Whether on or off Broadway, most of the shows in the latter part of the 20th century went on dishing out the take-out melodies. But sitting above it all was Sondheim, doing stuff so elevated, it was almost impossible to grab a piece of. The upshot is a strong reputation and weak box office, a fact Stempel faces squarely. He might have illustrated the point more tellingly, however. He could have talked about the urban legend—if it isn’t true, it ought to be—that the compulsively hummable “Send In the Clowns” was written at the last minute as a sop to backers. By Sondheim’s later account, he had artistic reasons for leaving it so late, but the story about the panicking moneymen steers you in the right direction: Sondheim’s later work is short of things that you can’t help singing. And he must mean it to be. After all, he wrote and placed those beautiful phrases about the clowns. You should hear my version. “Isn’t it rich …” The know-how of my early Pinza period comes in handy.

Whether there will be many more home-grown hit shows to rival The Producers at the Broadway box office—a good show about a bad show, it made you hope that self-reflexivity is not always a sign of terminal decadence—probably depends on the British going home and leaving the theaters free. The British come in waves, and one of the waves is Andrew Lloyd Webber. He is often mocked for writing a species of sub-opera, but he is really writing a species of super-musical. From the London productions, from the movies, from the cast albums, from all the sources through which the Broadway musical reached my generation, it also reached his, and he knew just how to take inspiration from it. His melodies are sometimes accused of being derivative—in Jesus Christ Superstar, the notes behind the name-check of the title song exactly match a phrase from one of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs—but usually they aren’t: they are just so catchy you can’t believe you are hearing them for the first time. And to have Tim Rice as his first lyricist was a break, because Rice understood that successful pop songs consist entirely of hooks.

Rice gave Lloyd Webber the verbal phrases with which to practice his knack for laying words on the line. He can do it dauntingly well. In the hit song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita, the phrase So I chose freedom is coupled as delectably to the notes as is the phrase Te revoir, ô Carmen in Don José’s “Flower Song.” The difference—the crucial difference—is that Webber’s aria might just conceivably be sung by you, whereas you had better leave Bizet’s to Rolando Villazón and the other boys, unless you want to sprain your spleen on the interval at the end of the seventh line. Finally it’s the difference between the musical theater and the grand opera. But who, except the tone-deaf, cares about that difference? Why not love both? You only have to love music, and Stempel has written a book to convince us that the history of Broadway has multiplied our reasons to do that.

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

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