How Broadway Conquered the World

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

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.

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