Thursday, February 26, 2015

When They Were The Top

There's a review in a right-wing magazine of a new book on American musicals that makes a couple of interesting factual assertions.  I believe the first one: the last song from a musical to become "an enduring popular hit" was "Send in the Clowns," written in 1973.

I believe it because I remember when songs from musicals were a much more important part of popular culture, and were regularly among the hit songs of a given year.  This phenomenon even survived the early years of rock & roll, into the early 1960s.  "Send in the Clowns" might well have been the last of these, especially to be recorded by artists not associated with the musical itself.  Judy Collins for example famously recorded this Sondheim song.  And it became such a part of the culture that nearly 20 years later a Star Trek Next Generation episode could have a 24th century character quip, "send in the clones."

The second assertion however is this: "But big-budget musical comedy has been in increasingly steep decline since the 1970s, and 10 long years have gone by since The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the last homegrown musical to be wholeheartedly embraced by audiences and critics alike, made it to Broadway."

The writer, Terry Teachout, does mention the trend to what he calls "commodity musicals" based on movies etc. as well as small-scale musicals.  Since many of these are proclaimed "hits" I had assumed they were comparatively successful in an historical sense.  So if that was the most recent big hit, I'm surprised.  On the other hand, if it is true, I'm surprised only that I have a lot of company in preferring some of the older musicals to most of the newer ones.  Then again, I enjoy musical comedy movies most of all--which Teachout suggests persuasively is an entirely different form.

In any case, the book under review sounds interesting: American Musicals is simply a two volume collection of the scripts of 16 musicals between 1927 and 1969--from the beginning through the golden age.

Moreover these are the scripts of shows as audiences saw them on opening night--which in many cases are not the same as the versions seen today on the North Coast and elsewhere.  These unabridged scripts contain, for example, racially charged dialogue by today's standards, but Teachout claims that they also contain writing that suggests why these shows worked so well on stage.

Scripts are sometimes changed to substitute contemporary references for obsolete ones, but also in dumbed down touring versions, for schools and non-urban audiences etc.  It's a reminder that shows hereabouts may not be lacking just the lavish Broadway staging of the originals.

Teachout mentions that the classic American musicals were almost always "sunny in tone" and had happy endings.  That certainly was one of the changes from Sondheim on, an apparent reaction against the artificiality of the musical comedy.  While the form may have been expanded, it may also have become something else.  Maybe there are no musical comedies anymore.  As for their relation to real life,  I think increasingly of what British TV writer Russell T Davies remarked, that only the arts can give us comedy.  If we want tragedy, we've got real life for that.

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