Tuesday, April 04, 2006

No, no, no!

All I need to do to get 42nd St. Moon Artistic Director Greg to write me something for the blog is to pretend I know something about musical theatre history! Like yesterday when I said that Oklahoma! is known for being the first show to "feature songs that furthered the plot."

That little statement garnered this impassioned (and highly educational) response from Greg:
No, no, no! Oklahoma! was a show of many firsts, but it was most decidedly not "the first to feature songs that
furthered the plot." Not even close -- that's a myth that has grown up around it.

Cole Porter's Jubilee from 1935 is completely through-written -- not through-sung, they are two different things -- and all the songs are very tightly tied in to Moss Hart's script. (Of course, it helps that Porter and Hart went on a round-the-world cruise together to write the show, thus working very, very closely). They don't just stop the show to sing, they advance the plot. Even the famous opening to "Just One of Those Things" ("As Dorothy Parker once said, to her boyfriend, fare-thee-well") is cued out of the dialogue of a character who has spent the entire show quoting Dorothy Parker. Jubilee is as tightly written as Oklahoma! is, although it's of course not serious as a good part of Oklahoma! is.

When Jubilee closed after only 5 months, Porter did of course say "the hell with art" and went right ahead to do the haphazardly-written Red Hot & Blue!.

I would argue that there are other shows that have songs that further the plot, even one that you should know well, I Married An Angel. Although Angel has its notorious "Roxy Music Hall" which comes out of nowhere, most of the songs (including the famous title song, and the long "Modiste" sequence) are pretty closely tied to the script, though not as carefully as Jubilee does it.

Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach's The Cat & The Fiddle from 1931 is another show whose songs are tightly woven into the plot, with every song advancing the story.

Another myth is that Oklahoma! was the first musical to open with a solo rather than a big opening chorus number. As early as Peggy-Ann in 1926, Rodgers and Hart were experimenting with this idea, and after a solid 20 minutes with no song at all, Peggy-Ann's first number is a duet.

Jerome Kern's aforementioned Cat & The Fiddle (1931) opens with a quiet solo sung to guitar accompaniment, and Cole Porter followed suit with Gay Divorce (up next season for us), which opens -- just as Oklahoma! does -- with a solo ballad. And Porter's Anything Goes -- the real Anything Goes, not the 1962 rewrite -- also famously opens with the big ballad, Reno singing "I Get a Kick Out of You." (The Lincoln Center version in 1987 restored that as the opening).

That's just off the top of my head -- I am sure there are other shows from the 1930s -- possibly even from the 1920s - that feature carefully written scores that are integrated with the script. Credit Oklahoma! for its groundbreaking use of dance, for the solid way Oscar Hammerstein constructed the story (widely and ever-after imitated), for the use of a dark subplot -- but not for being the first show to feature songs that furthered the plot.

OK. Sorry :(

Actually I meant to say it was the first where the entire score is said to further the plot, and Greg easily points out that even that is incorrect. However, he is correct that that is the conventional wisdom that still persists about Oklahoma!

I actually hadn't even heard that "first to open with a ballad" myth.

I am only holding on to a shred of musical theatre dignity because Greg hasn't shot down my statement that sung-thru musicals were pretty unheard of at the time of The Golden Apple...unless that's a second email heading my way.

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