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Musical Theatre Part 2

The Golden Age of American Musical Comedy

The production of Oklahoma! in 1943 ushers in what is commonly considered the "golden age" of the Broadway musical. The experiments toward greater unity that began with Show Boat by 1943 are normally true of musicals. The specific contribution of Oklahoma! is the incorporation of dance in new ways integral to plot and character, the origin of the term choreographer and the choreographer's essential role on the production team, and the beginnings of the style of dance that is different from earlier jazz dance and specific to the American musical theatre. This new dance form is a hybrid of the dance styles of ballet, jazz, and modern. Until the mid 1960's the music from musical comedies was a part of mainstream American culture; "show tunes" were played on top 40's stations. Broadway stars had national reputations, and many crossed over to recording careers or movie careers. Broadway was truly part of American popular culture to a much greater extent than it is today.

Oklahoma! was composed by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. It tells the story of a young farm girl, Laurie, who is too coquettish to admit her love for Curly. These two characters are the romantic leads, and their vocal parts are, respectively, soprano and tenor. The majority of the "legitimate" singing in the musical is done by these two characters, and they therefore have the majority of the show's ballads. For example, Curly enters singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning", and Laurie sings "Out of My Dreams". The major character parts are Ado Annie, Will, Ali Hakim, and Judd. Character parts generally sing patter songs, are featured dancers, sing or songs in an unusual style appropriate to their characters. Ado Annie's best known patter song is "I Can't Say No", while Will has the featured dance number "Kansas City", and Ali Hakim does not sing. Judd is the heavy, or antagonist, in the musical. The chorus is made up of people who live in the town, both farmers and ranchers.  Their presence is justified dramatically through conventions like the town's "box social" - a luncheon to raise money, in which the men bid over box lunches made my different women - or the return of a local boy, Will, from the big city. The large cast musical numbers take place during these scenes. The dances are justified as well:  Will demonstrates the latest dance steps learned in Kansas City, and Laurie's indecision over loving Curly enters her dreams and is presented theatrically in the "Dream Ballet". The dream ballet, which choreographer Agnes DeMille originated in this musical, became a standard convention for presenting a character's inner thoughts and turmoil in non-verbal, dance form. The dance style, while based in ballet, heavily draws on popular dance steps of the time the play was set and on American folk dance generally; this fidelity of the dances to the story's time and place was novel. DeMille successfully applied the ideal of unity to musical theatre dance, bringing it to a new level of integration with plot, characters, and music. Like all comedies, the play ends happily with the projected marriage of Laurie and Curly and Ado Annie and Will.  However, like Show Boat, it also has serious themes, such as the prejudice and mutual suspicion in the small Oklahoma community between farmers and ranchers, and it presents Judd as a serious threat to Laurie. All of these elements of plot, character types, music, and dance are typical of musicals of the golden age.

In 1957, the musical West Side Story, conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Steven Sondheim brought the integration of song, dance, and drama to even greater levels. It also challenged the appropriatness of calling the show a "musical comedy", as it is a dramatization of Shakespeare's tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet.  Like Shakespeare's antecedent, the musical is a tragedy; this show began the slow shift to calling the genre "muscial theatre" or simply "musicals". West Side Story updated Shakespeare's story of warring Renaissance Italian families to New York City's upper west side, and it demonstrated the racial hatred and gang violence of 1950's New York City with a degree of realism and ultimate despair that had yet to be seen on the musical stage. Bernstein used latin rhythms and melodies as the basis for most of the music sung by Puerto Rican characters, and the music for "The Dance at the Gym" was based on popular dance music of the late 50's. Robbins created dances that were just a step away from fight movements for his gangs' musical numbers and rumble scene. Music underscores much of the dialogue before songs are introduced, lessening the rupture of style between more illustionistic scenes and frankly theatrical songs. The chorus are simple the street gangs and their girlfriends, almost all of whom are named characters who engage in action that directly furthers the plot. The musical has a continuing appeal in its honest portrayal of racial tensions in an American city and the power of the love story between Tony and Maria, two people from different cultures. The characters, although more three dimensional than many characters in earlier musicals, generally remain true to the types outlined above. Tony and Maria are the soprano and tenor romantic leads. The character part of the soubrette, like Ado Annie, is Anita; she is usually cast as a dancer, as is Bernardo, in order to take primary focus in "The Dance at the Gym" and to lead the dance sections in "America". Riff, the leader of the American gang, has the patter song "Cool". Like Oklahoma!, West Side Story was translated to a popular film; unlike its predecessor, a great deal of the show had to be changed to fit the stricter ethical codes against swearing and sexual innuendo in Hollywood.

Other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals of the golden age includeCarousel(1945), South Pacific(1949), and The King and I (1951), many of which have had recent, successful Broadway revivals, testifying to the continuing popularity of golden age style musical. Other popular composers of this era are Lerner and Lowe, who collaborated on Brigadoon(1947), My Fair Lady(1956), and Camelot(1960); and Frank Loesser, who wroteWhere's Charley (1948), Guys and Dolls(1950), Most Happy Fella (1956), and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961). Many of these Broadway musicals were taken up by Hollywood within a few years of their Broadway debut, often with many of the Broadway actors and much of the staging and choreography retained for the film versions. By now, Hollywood musicals fully adopted the integrated style of the Broadway musical, and musicals were some of the most successful films, by both critical and popular standards, that Hollywood produced. Dance became a more integrated part of the Hollywood musical as well: in 1944 Jack Cole was hired to train and rehearse a permanent dance ensemble for Columbia Pictures. Both Broadway and Hollywood remained segregated, for all practical purposes. Broadway musicals and Hollywood musicals with all-black production teams and casts did get produced, but they tended to receive lower budgets.  Some of the most successful, that originated in New York and then were filmed are Cabin in the Sky(1940), starring Ethel Waters and Lena Horne, Stormy Weather (1943), and Green Mansions (1959). George Abbott continued as the most successful Broadway director during the golden age, but the young director Hal Prince emerged in these years; Prince remains the most successful Broadway director today. Choreographers include DeMille, Jack Cole, Jermome Robbins, and Hanya Holm. The stars of these musicals became household names; some of the most famous were Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Shirley Jones, Anne Miller, Rita Moreno, and Lena Horne.

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