What's New on the Rialto
The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical
Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Mark N. Grant's The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (Northeastern University Press: $40) is ambitious, generally fascinating, and often provocative. When you finish it, you may well feel that you understand some important things about the American musical that you didn't understand before. If it were consistently at the level of its best parts, it would be an astounding addition to the literature on the American musical. As it stands, it's an important one, sure to be loved by some but to provoke, for a variety of reasons, more mixed feelings in others.
Grant describes the book as "an inquest into what happened to raise an inconsequential entertainment genre to a level of popular art, and then to lower it back again to an inconsequential entertainment genre." In five chapters (or "Acts"), each divided into two or three subchapters ("Scenes"), he tries to identify the people who were most influential (whether for good or ill) and what made their contributions so crucial.
Grant starts with an introduction ("Curtain Raiser") in which he defines the "golden age" of the Broadway musical as the period from 1927 till 1966: "The best musicals of Broadway from about 1927 to 1966 coalesced and integrated the complementary theatrical arts - playwriting, music, design, dance, movement, truthful acting - in a way that differentiates them from and raises them above all other light music theater genres of the world, past and present: Spanish zarzuela, German singspiel, British Gaiety musicals, Viennese operetta, Parisian opéra-comique." Although I would go with the more common opinion that the golden age began with Oklahoma! in 1943 - how many earlier musicals are really in the repertory? - I can't argue with Grant's statement regarding the quality of the best shows of that period.
Grant tells us that he has "sometimes taken a novel tack to shed light. Some well-known figures, for the purpose of illustrating a point, are given much more prominence here than other well-known figures, while some behind-the-scenes players in the theater come dramatically to the fore." This turns out to be true, and one refreshing aspect of The Rise and Fall is that Grant often focuses on people who have received little attention in other books.
In his first chapter, Act One, Grant focuses on the history of singing on Broadway, dividing it into "Before the Microphone" and "After the Microphone." One of Grant's main objectives is to explore how changes in the types of voices heard on Broadway affected the composition of the music. In his research, Grant studied recordings of Broadway singing from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Act Two explores "How Mavericks, Highbrows, and Enlightened Collectivism Invented the Book and Lyrics and Tweaked the Music."
Act Three covers "Revolutions in Broadway Rhythm," with subchapters on the "Era of the March," "The Foxtrot and Rhythm Section Revolution," and "The Rock Groove Cataclysm."
Act Four first discusses the creation of the classic Broadway sound, mostly focusing on the role played by the orchestrators and arrangers, and then moves on to how that sound has been changed by amplification.
In his brief conclusion (the "Rideout"), Grant discusses the rise of the "McMusical."
When Grant is good, he can be very good indeed. In Act One, for example, in a section headed "The Afro-Irish Invention of Musical Comedy Singing," Grant tells us that during the period in which most singing in musicals was operatic or semi-operatic, there was also a good deal of talk-singing, with George M. Cohan an influential performer in the latter style. Grant describes a 1911 recording on which Cohan sings "in a nasal twang in which his voice ornaments some pitches by gliding between them like a trombone slide, falling off on other pitches like a brass instrument smear. Al Jolson, soon after Cohan, did much the same thing. They ornamented their singing or talk-singing by imitating instruments heard in vaudeville pit bands even before jazz, and long before Louis Armstrong, who is generally credited with the invention of this practice. The fact that Cohan used these vocal practices indicates that they were not unique to African-American styles; rather, there was an interactive melting pot of Irish and African-American that eventually brought us to modern nonlegitimate-voiced musical comedy singing."
In another interesting section (in Act Two), Grant focuses on Lehman Engel's career and teachings. Though he is respectful of Engel - in fact, almost adulatory - Grant has some criticisms of Engel's teachings, which he says "devolved into codifying and recipe-izing the construction of common-practice period musicals of the 1940s and 1950s: write a 'charm song' here; put an 'I want' song there. Inspiration cannot be manufactured." This is very insightful, even if Grant's discussion of Engel's belief that musical theater improved when adaptations became prevalent becomes a little silly when Grant suggests that this "licensed vulgar and unenlightened producers to option properties and use poor artistic judgment in turning them into musicals written by indifferent talents for the sake of commodifying a sellable show." Can this be regarded as Engel's fault?
Further on in Act Two, Grant focuses on Sondheim, admiring him for many things (including that "his musicals are the only ones of recent decades to feature consistently strong books," a statement with which I agree), but criticizing his scores from Pacific Overtures on for a reliance on "extended musical vamps and ostinatos not just as incidental accompaniments ... but as the essential tissue of his musical material." Grant deserves credit for bringing this up. I haven't seen this written about before, and whether this compositional style is detrimental to Sondheim's shows is worthy of discussion. I part with Grant when he writes that as a result of this style, "the ear begins to hear an undifferentiated singsong instead of melodies," but unlike some critics of Sondheim's music, Grant at least seems to be listening to the music and analyzing it seriously.
Grant has more fascinating things to say in Act Three, especially on the foxtrot and the rock groove. Though his basic observation regarding the foxtrot's tremendous presence in Broadway songwriting during the golden age is not original, his explication of its usefulness in dramatic songwriting contains much that does seem original and striking. He makes a good case for his assertion that the foxtrot "is singularly adaptable to spoken interior monologue."
When Grant is at its best, he is able to clarify things in a very specific way on subjects that are often written about in generalities. For example, when defining the "rock groove" and elucidating its inadequacies as a vehicle for dramatic expression, he writes, "When four equally accented quarter-note beats or eight eighth-note beats accompany a lyric, the emotion of the lyric is attenuated by the beat's very sameness."
Further, he suggests that the rock groove "elicits a call-and-response emotional response from the theatergoer similar to the call-and-response of African-American gospel music and spirituals. But call-and-response, although visceral and valid, is a communal gesture of religious revivalism, not a mode of theater." He aptly quotes Elizabeth Swados: "You should not want to get up and dance with a character who is not even supposed to know you're there."
Another place where I found Grant insightful was his discussion of Hello, Dolly! This is likely to be one of the controversial parts of the book because Grant regards the show as the beginning of the end of the golden age, writing that the plot and characters are not only "subordinate to gestures of staging, they are enveloped and overwhelmed by them." Grant's critique is thought-provoking, even if it could have been a bit more specific at times.
The above gives you some examples of what is good about this book. There is a lot more that is of similarly high quality. But there are problems as well.
This photograph of Beggar's Holiday shows a simple painted backdrop still typical
of Broadway musical design in the 1940s and early 1950s.
Theatre Collection, Museum of the City of New York
First, as Grant's point of view on Hello, Dolly! probably suggests, he writes strongly negative things about some beloved shows, writers (though he doesn't blame the writers for what he thinks is wrong with Dolly!) and director-choreographers. Some people may be bothered by this. For me, the problem is that some of his criticisms don't add up. For instance, he writes that "In almost every Kander and Ebb show virtually every song is some variant of camped-up neo-Jolson razzmatazz," which doesn't make me reassess Kander and Ebb as much it makes me question how well Grant knows their shows.
Second, if Grant likes any shows by younger writers, he doesn't identify them. What's troublesome is not so much that he has almost nothing positive to say about the younger writers, but that in almost everything he writes about them, he generalizes about them as a group. I wish that he had written about at least one or two of them a bit more specifically.
Third, apart from some of his questionable criticisms, some of his larger points don't quite add up. For example, he writes that "Sound design and the microphone may have liberated the physical staging, but they have also erected an invisible psychological barrier between the audience and the stage that is the opposite of theater." On the next page he repeats a complaint that he voiced earlier in the book: that "rock-based musical theater has a permeable fourth wall." But if there is a psychological barrier between the audience and the stage in heavily amplified shows, can the fourth wall be permeable in those same shows? Grant may well be able to defend this seeming inconsistency, but he doesn't seem to realize it's there and consequently doesn't address it. And this, as well as a few other inconsistencies, should be addressed.
Fourth, as is so often the case with books on musical theater, there are many factual errors (along with statements that are so vaguely phrased that it's hard to be certain whether they constitute factual errors), as well as silly overstatements, occasional misuse of terminology and some writing that is stylistically sloppy.
In some cases, Grant seems to have just been a bit careless in his fact-checking. For example, when discussing the gradual lowering of tessitura that allowed lyrics to be sung more clearly, he says that the singing ranges of both Ado Annie and Laurey in Oklahoma! "stay below g2 the whole time." I suspect that he simply forgot to look at the reprise of "People Will Say We're in Love," in which Laurey sings several As. While this is minor and doesn't invalidate Grant's basic point, it's the sort of wrong detail that makes you wonder whether you can trust Grant when he writes on subjects that you don't know much about.
A few other examples: Grant includes Mamma Mia! and Movin' Out in a list of shows that are "presented frankly as revues." (He also includes the Bacharach revue The Look of Love in that list, which makes it even stranger that in a later chapter writes, "As the love affair with the written and spoken word has died, 'jukeboxicals' have stepped into the breach - desperate attempts to salvage the songs of Gershwin, Porter, Kern and even Burt Bacharach by interpolating them into new, artificial librettos.")
Attempting to demonstrate the superiority of original cast recordings over studio cast recordings, Grant compares the original Broadway cast recording of Brigadoon with Lehman Engel's studio cast recording, writing that the former "makes the chase ballet palpably dramatic in a way that the Engel recording does not." But the original cast recording doesn't include one note of the chase sequence.
And then there's Grant's description of the prologue of West Side Story as "a five-minute finger-snapping dance pantomime without music."
I'm sorry to say the errors I've noted represent just a small percentage of those that are present. With many of the errors, as with his statement regarding Laurey's highest note, the point that Grant is trying to illustrate is a valid one, which makes it more puzzling that he didn't consistently find suitable examples.
Grant seems not to know some information that he should. (With all the research he did on the history of amplification on Broadway, it's a little odd when he implies that Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! was the first performer on Broadway to have worn a wireless mike, since it's generally believed that Anna Maria Alberghetti wore one in Carnival! three years earlier.) I wish that Grant had cleaned up confusing quotations from a couple of the people he interviewed. Also, he is not too reliable on the technical aspects of singing. (I suspect that he has not read much of the science-based literature that reports on what happens physiologically during the act of singing.) And despite a generally laudable degree of specifying sources, Grant fails to do so in some places where he should have. (I don't doubt that DuBarry Was a Lady was amplified in 1939, but I'd like to know where Grant got this information.)
However, I don't want to overemphasize the negative. The thing that separates The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical from other recent books on musical theater that contain the same types of problems is that Grant has many valuable - sometimes even revelatory - things to say. I enthusiastically recommend this book to people who take musicals seriously.
Search What's New on the Rialto