Due to last weekend’s road trip, I don’t have any movies to review. So I figured the closest thing would be a book about plays, specifically musicals.
BEAUTIFUL’ MORNIN: Broadway Musicals of the 1940s by Ethan Mordden argues that by 1940, Broadway was dying as the 1920s formula parodied in Drowsy Chaperone (no plot, no characterization, just a random collection of musical numbers) ran out of steam. Oklahoma changed that by presenting not a musical comedy but a musical play, one with a solid narrative arc and flesh-and-blood characters (it wasn’t the first to do this, but Broadway hadn’t paid attention before). Mordden shows how this slowly transformed musical theater, along with “concept musicals” such as Allegro (I think I know what he means by this, but I don’t think I could explain it). Equally important, the boom in “original cast” albums (which weren’t always the original cast or the original score) made it possible for people to love shows they’d never seen (my family played Jesus Christ Superstar endlessly), and by keeping the tune alive made it more likely they’d be revived years later. Conversely shows that didn’t receive a cast album might fade away, and the loss of the original staging could give very different ideas about a musical (on stage, the number “Younger Than Springtime” in South Pacific was clearly sung after a night of sex; on the cast album it’s just a love song).
Part of what I like about the book (along with the author’s dry sense of humor) is that Mordden doesn’t just focus on the famous A-listers. He includes good, groundbreaking shows that are more obscure (Lady in the Dark, above), shows that relied entirely on their stars, shows that were just mediocre (like the “flopperetta,” a comic operetta guaranteed to tank) and dying subgenres; the once-popular revue show was fading away, and TV variety shows killed it by offering the same format for free.
I look forward to checking out Mordden’s book on the 1950s musicals some time.
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