23 September 2012
From West Side Story to Spring Awakening: The Evolution of the American Musical
Broadway, also known as The Great White Way, no matter how you chose to describe it, they describe a place that for over one hundred years has put on the most spectacular musicals in the world. From Ancient Greece to the Globe Theatre and finally to Broadway, these places have all been known for being “the” place for plays and musicals. “Broadway is the street in New York that has come to symbolize live theater entertainment throughout the world” (Talkinbroadway.com). Over the last one hundred years many things have changed in the world of the musical. Producers, directors, and actors now have more freedom and liberty with their production and the portrayal of the characters. “While the contemporary Broadway musical took its form from operetta, it got its comic soul from the variety entertainments that delighted America from the mid-1800s onward. Crude American Variety and Minstrel Shows eventually gave way to the more refined pleasures of Vaudeville -- and the rowdy spirit of Burlesque” (Musicals101.com). George M. Cohan was the first to really put his stamp on The Great White Way, and in turn he unknowingly started a change in how shows on Broadway were performed and produced. “American composers George M. Cohan and Victor Herbert gave the American musical comedy a distinctive sound and style” (Musicals101.com). With his performing past Cohan could only succeed. His biggest hit was Little Johnny Jones, wherein George Cohan would play an “American Jockey name Johnny Jones, who had returned to his hometown victoriously after being falsely accused of throwing a race at the London Derby” (Lewis 6). "While the London stage was still living in another century with The Arcadians and The Quake Girl…..outside a small section of Manhattan Island known as The Great White Way, one man was setting the American musical stage on the course it was to take for the remainder of the twentieth century” (Jackson 22). George Cohan’s contribution to Broadway inspired others. The people he inspired would go on to put their own stamp on Broadway. One of the biggest he influenced was Jerome Kern. Jerome Kern “like most of his peers was the recipient of numerous rejections from music publishers” (Lewis 8). After numerous rejections, at the age of 17 Jerome Kern’s first tune “At the Casino” was published. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II would come together and create one of the biggest musicals of not only their time but of all time: Show Boat. The difference between Show Boat and the other plays was that “the play was the thing, and everything else was subservient to that play. With Show Boat came complete integration of song, humor and production numbers into a single and inextricable artistic entity. Here, finally, was a musical with a consistent and credible story line, authentic atmosphere and three-dimensional characters” (TheatreHistory.com). Their groundbreaking musical led to the beginning of the musical theatre revolution. Show Boat opened on December 37, 1927, and “doubtlessly stunned audiences with its atypical realism” (Lewis 18). Hammerstein’s score would have no doubt left an impact on the musical’s audience. He would become one of the greatest musical composers of all time. Show Boat “caused a tremor through show circles—but not an earthquake” (Lewis 22). While it didn’t have the impact that Cohan had, it still brought on change and gave the audience something they had yet to see. After Show Boat, Oscar Hammerstein tried to repeat his success with five more productions that ultimately failed. However, the tides were beginning to change; on March 31, 1943 Oklahoma was unveiled to the world. “Within ten minutes” ‘of its opening, wrote Brooks Atkinson in his book Broadway’ “a Broadway audience was transported out of the ugly realities of wartime into a warm, languorous, shining time and place where the only problems...
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