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Bit by Bit.

Stephen Banfield Finds Five Ways of Looking at Musicals Author(s): Stephen Banfield Source: The Musical Times, Vol. 135, No. 1814 (Apr., 1994), pp. 220-223 Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1002770 . Accessed: 16/02/2014 14:29
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New views ofpopular


.

music

BIT

BY

BIT

Stephen ways of

Banifield looking

finds

five

at musicals

re Musicals musical?'WilfridMellers asked in these columns and a half years ago,l reviewing a compilation CD of Hollywood songs and scores, and not quite venturing a definite answer. Are they popularmusic? Commercial,certainly,but isn't the whole point of Lloyd Webber'stunes, not to mentionhis plot, in Thephantom of the opera, that the audiencethinks it is soaringinto classical realms? In any case, where do we draw the line where operettais concerned? Was HarrySecombe's performanceof 'If I ruled the world', from Pickwick,a pop song - it got into the chartsera or an epigone from the foreshadowingthe Pavarotti-in-Hyde-Park /
xtwo

days of Richard Tauber? And what is the difference between an operettaand a musical, or, these days, with all-sung shows like Les miserables, Miss Saigon and the Lloyd Webber ones, between a musical and an opera? What does the Kiri-Te-Kanawa-sings-WestSide-storyphenomenon,a hugely influentialcultureshift affecting a whole generation,signify? 'All forms of musical theatre,whatever their means of achievement,' may be 'a single family', as Tom Sutcliffe, reviewing The Vikingopera guide, writes in the December 1993 MT,2but family memberscan get prettyconfused, unhappyand mutually destructive if they are not allowed to define their own space, needs and uniqueness. And if such tokens of our postmoder value-systems as Classic FM, GCSE syllabuses and the aims of the the academy mean thatthose of us representing NationalCurriculum in one way or another(as, indeed, does MT) are increasinglycoming face to face with, for instance,prospectivehigher educationstudents whose creative portfolio - what they put on your desk when they come for interview- consists of ballads,homespunsongs of various shades, or whole shows that may even have been staged in their schools and colleges, bearingabout the same stylistic relationshipto what and how they are going to be studying at university (Schoenberg,Schenkerand Scheidt, let us say) as an old wives' saying does to Aristotle,what do we do aboutit? My suggestion would be that we should neither resist such new blocs of taste, experience and culturalexchange or sell out to them like so many storekeepers,but make a little distance by keeping distinctions, disciplines, histories and perhaps theories in mind. Identify the animal, and we may be halfway towards understanding and accepting its behaviour. First, we should rememberthat the musical is collaborative and interdisciplinary, not only, as its film subspecies has been described, 'the most complex art form ever devised'3 but one in which no single medium - music, poetry, prose, dancing, acting, staging, costume and so on - has the controlling interest. True, we call musicals 'musicals', and it has been said that no one leaves the theatrewhistling the book (or whistling the scenery, as a recentvariant has it on the strengthof currentspectaculars). But a good book (libretto) can enable a stage musical to flourish despite a mediocre score; film musicals can make do with very few musical numbers (only three original songs in Meet me in St Louis); and, above all, composers do not wield anything like the authority they enjoy in most forms of high art music. (Let us call the musical a vernacular genre by distinction.) The composer may vary from a musically illiterate tunesmith such as Irving Berlin, who could only play the piano in F# and used an amanuensis all his life (while retaining strict control over the harmonic and textural solutions that were played back to him), to a thoroughlyprofessionalcomposer such as Meredith Willson, who coincidentally, and like Frank Loesser, sought to re-extendthe authorialcontrol that had been lost through the developmentsof 20th-centurycommercial art by writing music, lyrics and book himself. But even Bernstein didn't have time, undercommercialtheatreconditions, to write out his own full score in shorthand to for WestSide story, and he dictatedhis orchestration

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The The was

entire London thrown

library Palladiun into

of

a slip

Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. Sondheim has back, with a new plot and book, as Crazyfor some and yea trs ago, never orchestrated a show; conversely, you. Complete vocal scores are in many instances not published (they weren't for the JonathanTunick, his most regularorchestrator, rti 1920s Gershwin shows), or, as with the splenmight be thoughtto deserve separatestudy, and did Edwardian musical comedies of Lionel he has contributed not a little to the overall sawS Tee d, due .were to sa Monckton and his contemporaries, are pubidentity of a show such as Into the woods, ifre lished minus their overtures, entr'actes, only in terms of its instrumental colour and of a the inter7 vel ntion chamberconception. (Tunick does not have to underscoringand routining (the development of songs into dance numbers and the like). meddle with Sondheim's harmonies or basic horrifiec da Full orchestral scores have never been pubvoice-leading, whereas for less literate musical theatrecomposersthe orchestrator lished, are seldom used in the theatreand in many cases may have may also act as arranger.) Even in ballet and opera the theatrical event sometimes shows disappearedfor ever along with the parts. (The entire libraryof the London Palladium was thrown into a skip on the pavement some signs of precedenceover the piece as an authorialartefact- the title 'Romeo and Juliet' will often be used in the theatrewithout referyears ago, and only portions of it were saved, due to the intervention of a horrifiedpasser-by). Songs get cut and moved aroundand ence to a composer,as thoughone is not supposedto be interestedin the score being by Prokofiev or Gounod, whereas one would never transposed,all to suit what is 'working' in the theatreas the show is dream of advertising the fantasy overture without the composer's rehearsedand developed. Sometimes they never get written at all, if the director has rehearsed the script to the end and found the name (Tchaikovsky). In the vernacularmusical theatrethis dispersion of authority,this lack of a dominatingviewpoint on the partof show too long or has run out of rehearsaltime or has got so many the musical creators(including the musical director)applies all the of the details perfectly into place that the composer cannot find the time or the right inspirationfor a final number (Sondheim never more, and it is a matterof where and how one locates the subjectfor the purposesof drawingin the greatestnumberof recipients. There found time to write lyrics or music for Tobias's final speeches in are two books on HaroldPrince's theatrecovering, for a sequenceof Sweeney Todd; Bernstein never found the music for Maria's final several centralchapters,much the same ground(the same shows) as speech in WestSide story). On the otherhand, the canonic statusof the four books on Sondheim;the musicals in question can take the a musical production is achieved on the first night, after all the alterations of out-of-town tryouts and two or more weeks of predifferingemphasis, which even in three of the four Sondheimbooks is more on his lyrics thanhis music. Two books on Michael Bennett views, and it is rare for anything much to change, except the cast, also overlap, this time appealingto the director-choreographer axis over the next few months, years, decades... (in the case of A chorus of authorship. And the more the art form veers towards value-forline, Les miserables and Cats). The production rather than the the more it is the producer(meaningnot, as in work becomes canonic, and if musical materialbecame subsidiary money entertainment, to productionvalues at some point in the creationprocess, it tends opera, the director,but in the theatresense, the person who puts up or gets up the money, hires the creators and performers,can have to stay that way. The boot is on the director'sfoot, while the direcultimate say on content, and shouldersand controls the show overtor's eye must be on the audience. Sondheim wrote four splendid last songs for Company, but three of them were for endings that all) whose artefact the show is seen (literally) to be. Florenz didn't work or were felt to be too strong or puzzling for the audiZiegfeld; Richard D'Oyly Carte; David Merrick's 42nd Street; in ence. The one thathas become canonic, 'Being alive', does not promany ways these examples are not so far from Bertram Mills' Circus - a sequence of performers,material,acts, with or without a vide as powerful a culminationto the score as would at least one of the rejectedones, 'Happilyever after'. What this amountsto is that single theme or a narrative structure, put together by an astute in the commercialmusical theatrethe lines of authorityrun from the impresarioto a recipe that satisfies the public palate. The 'concept' musical can seem the oldest thing in the world the closer it audience to the creators, not the other way around:the audience authorises what 'works' by applauding, laughing, buying tickets, approaches revue or variety, where the real theme, like that of a weekly comedy programmeon the radio such as Round the Hore, writing rave reviews, telling their friends;there is little or no sense is the formulathat satisfies the listeneror spectator. in which the composer,or any of the other creators,is given license If music as a set of dominantvalues is undercutby the collaborato educateor improvethe audienceor even instil a vision. tive and interdisciplinarynature of musicals, so too may it be by The problem with this is that what works with an audience their second property:they operate as a commercial art form, tendchanges greatly over the years, yet there is no mechanism giving a creator space or permission to essay a vision for posterity. ing to both the ephemeraland the heavily canonic. Much documentation and theatrelore can bear witness to the ephemerality. Most 'Happily ever after' is, to my mind, such a composer's vision, to of Gershwin'sbest songs are from shows that have not survived- I which I suspect an audience, or certain audiences, would now was about to say in the repertory,but the very fact that stage musirespondpowerfully if it came at the end of an appropriately adjustcals are not represented by a tangible definitive artefact can put ed Company. Another way of saying this is to suggest that maybe the musical, for all its popularityand commerciality, could do with paid to the idea of a repertory, and what was Girl crazy comes

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a bit of an avant garde, a few creatorsmaking us change the way we listen and think and how we watch even entertainment. Some would argue that Sondheim has fulfilled this role (though in many ways he is deeply conservative),but it is noticeable that he has had to turnaway from Broadwayto develop it, particularly in Assassins. It is also true, of course, that with very few exceptions such as Assassins and, earlier, Thefantasticks, stage musicals get created and canonisedpurely in terms of Broadwayand/orthe West End, as though no other types of venue or performerexisted. Why is noone acknowledgedto have hit the highest mark with a musical for colleges, for regional theatres,for children? The answeris: money, as demonstrated by the statisticsof a Broadwayor West End run. I can think of no examples, perhapswith the exception of Sondheim once more, where the highest has been essentially defined in any other terms. West Side story may not have had the longest Broadway run, but it was nonetheless purely as a Broadway show and then a Hollywood film that it gained its status, and the fact that its composer was a classical music Wunderkind was neither here nor there. To achieve immortality a musical has to sell things millions of seats, tickets, cast albums, singles. Critical adulation, usefulness to amateurperformers,a message that fits a certainconstituency(e.g. in a religious show) are not enough. The third thing about the musical that musicians need to accept and consider is that, whatever its status as popularart, it is at least vernacular,using specific techniques. I think this is a matternot so

2 EXAMPLE

HIGH Monumental (serious/grand/ritual)


A

oratorio,

morality pageant varietyshow LOW Epigrammatic (witty) ICONIC * (static)

opera

melodrama grandopera rockopera

musicalcomedy

farce comedy

'

DIALECTIC (dynamic)

much of restrictingthe role or scope or complexity of the music and its language as of recognising two propertiesthat pertainimmemorially to the vernacularand, in my conservativeview, are in danger of being lost in many present-daymusicals. One of these properties is that of word-music relationships (melopoetics) and word-dance relationships(melokinetics). The other is wit. 'Musical comedy' has been a useful term that we have jettisoned at our peril: there isn't much humourin Thephantom of the opera, and once you lose the wit you all too easily lose the music appropriate to it and fall to rather than seriousness. prey pretentiousness Opera, at least afterRossini, has on the whole not been very happy with wit, and it is striking that whereas comedy and laughter have always been a legitimate pursuitin literatureand drama- one of the emblematic masks in the spoken theatre- they have little place in those areasof music that we actually call 'serious'. But they can still function in vernacular musics, despite what sometimes seems like rock and pop's sustainedattemptto kill them off or turnthem aside into the topoi of hystericalor cynical stage presentation. Melopoetics are not just 'word-setting',a musician's loaded concept thatdoes not really applyin the musicaltheatreany more thanin popularsong in general:tunes may come first and have lyrics fitted to them, and often do. And the melopoetic and melokineticqualities referredto above are so intertwined that one ought to be able to find number of to any single examples illustratethem all. Ex. 1 is an of one such example, bb.l-16 of the first refrain of 'You analysis can't get a man with a gun' fromAnnie get your gun (permissionto reproducethe score has proved problematic- anotherfrequentbugbear where musicals are concerned). Both the lyrics and the music are by Irving Berlin, and although,as with every song by him, it is to a musicianto wonderexactly for how much of the detail intriguing he himself was responsible(in particular, how much of the harmonic the does not affect how the words and melody and nuance), question dance topoi work together. This is not Annie's entrancesong, but it comes shortly after it and is crucial in establishingher energy, her warmthand opennessof character (and simplicityof speech) and her as well as hillbilly provenance, settingup her romance. Such melopoeticmoments,normallysyllabic(one note per syllable) within simple 'quadratic' in tune and verse, cadence phrasestructures andrhyme(thatis, ones thatworkby multiplesof two andfour),may be the small changeof wit, memorability, meaning,gesture,and character in a musical, or indeed in any song with a vernaculartheatre dimensionto it, but they are the pennies from which the musicaltheatre'spoundsaccrueand can be left to take care of themselves. They

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involve specific techniques, style and range of topos when he teamed up with developed over the whole him shows this, and it historyof western song, and in no era are they lightly probably took a specifically Jewish flexibility - with acquired. Berlin's method of composition may have depths and resonances of been instinctive and unletits own - to achieve it. Lerner and Loewe had tered, but his songs did not arrivewithoutsweat. something of the same The fourth point is that winning mixture of provethe musical has a coherent nance (Loewe's classical German pianism comes history and a generic profile. This takes us back to So fo~r~ much through triumphantly in the question of the differlady), and My fair ence between an opera and Sondheim, Hammerstein's i~,:,.......~,~~ ..... a musical: the musical special pupil and spiritual theatrehas a diachronichisson, has honed it further. No one has ever quite tory and a synchronic i OPERA, AT ENGIIISHN{ATIONA 1987 Photo Zoi Dominic PACIFICOVERTURES A SCENEFROM worked out where Weill generic spectrum, which is a posh way of saying that there are different types of musical thefits into this history; there is a kind of third stream involved, atre, sometimes shading into one another and ranging on various rough and dirty and pretentious all at once. Nor is it soon enough axes from all-sung opera, through opera with spoken dialogue, to be able to judge how Lloyd Webber will have swung the pendulum back in favour of British musico-dramatic modes, or what operetta and the musical play to musical comedy, the play with the new Germany will do with its operetta traditions (seeing Into songs, the play with incidental music, indeed the play with no music at all. Film musicals and stage musicals are quite separate the woods, in German, in a small town in the former East Germanya few weeks ago was an intriguing experience). genres with utterly differenthistories and considerationson the one hand and a great deal of crucial interconnection,of practitionersas So much for the diachronic. The fifth and final point is that the well as specific shows and types, on the other. Above all, the musimusical needs theory, for the synchronic spectrum - different cal has a coherent history that can be traced in such a way that the types of musico-theatrical experience and genre available at any curve of stylistic detail illuminates the social trajectorywhere such one time - is a matter of cohabiting tastes, aesthetics, formulae, matters as changing dance matrices, new colloquial styles of verse none of them purely musical, as we have already noted. Bakhtin, and dialogue, types of singing actor and actress and types of 'act' the man who celebrated carnival and heteroglossia, the high and and scene - modes and units of presentation- are concerned. At the low continually co-existing and undercutting each other's least, this can be done from the mid-19th century onwards. Before viewpoints, in life and literature, the presence in any society or that it is a bit hazy, though it would doubtless respond to research extended work of art (he applied it to novels such as Dostoyevsky's) of different languages, more or less colloquial or (Nestroy, for instance, is a real missing link between Mozart's or Schubert's musico-dramatic vernacular and Offenbach's). formal, gives us a useful start.5 And the good thing about genre Offenbachput togetheringredientsthat have never become obsolete theory is that it accepts difference as part of the scheme of things, - couplets, satire,the use of the waltz and polka as staples for stage and does not worry about whether the high is in any sense more authentic than the low. A crude but inclusive diagram such as presentation,characterenergy and musical movement - and passed them on to Johann Strauss and Gilbert & Sullivan. Strauss's folex.2 is, I trust, a good deal more reassuring than an agonised lowers, throughLeharto Romberg and Friml, ended up as what one threnodyto the decline of high culture by Adorno. might call the sentimentalwing of the genre in America (and with Novello in England). Sullivan's musical theatre 'satellites'4 occasioned a glorious Edwardiansummerthat has been sadly forgotten, as has the fact that Jerome Kern cut his teeth on its products in Notes 1. W. Mellers: 'Platform:are Musicals musical?' in MT, vol. 132 (1991), p. 380. 2. London, interpolatingsongs into the shows of others. Yes, vaudeville and variety were American injections into this formula and led MT, vol. 134 (1993), p. 708. 3. R. Altman: The Americanfilm musical (Bloomington, to the inter-war Princess Theatre shows, Gershwin, Rodgers and Indianapolis& London, 1987, pbk 1989), p. ix. 4. See A. Hyman: Sullivan and his Hart and Porter; no, the musical is not simply an indigenous satellites (London, 1978). 5. See, for example, K. Clark and M. Holquist: Mikhail American art form, for the English-languagevernacularmatrix was Bakhtin (Cambridge, Mass. & London, 1984); GS Morson ed.: Bakhtin: essays and above all fixed by the Edwardians,as a glance at the score of, say, dialogues on his work (Chicago & London, 1986); D. Lodge: After Bakhtin:essays on TheArcadians, with its deft and speedy mixtureof utopianromance fiction and criticism (London & New York, 1990). and music-hall dash, testifies. The Princess librettists,Guy Bolton and PG Wodehouse, were in any case English. For a further perspective on the Musical and a review of Stephen Oscar Hammerstein II was the great uniter of Austro-German Banfield's Sondheim's Broadway Musicals, recentlypublished by sentiment with Anglo-American wit. The change in Rodgers's Michigan UP, see p. 237.

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