On the 20th Century
As we approach the Millenium we all tend to look back at the year just ending and search for the highlights of the season. And surely there were many highs and lows but, if you look at the entire century, it was one big high!
In the last 100 years the world has progressed 100 times faster than in all its history. When it was New Year's Eve in 1900 the electric lights on Broadway were only a few years old and in 1904 when the Times building was erected in Longacre Square the area was re-named Times Square. Theatres were built in the first decade in the area we now know as the theatre district, including the recently refurbished Ford Center and New Amsterdam on 42nd Street.
George M. Cohan wrote his first musical in 1905 and owned Broadway for the next 20 years. Ragtime was the rage in the 1920's. And 1927 gave us, perhaps, the century's greatest musical, Show Boat, by Jerome Kern. Meanwhile, Ziegfeld had patrons dancing on the roof of the New Amsterdam theatre after the Follies. Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker and many more were the stars on the Great White Way. The 1930's brought America into its own in the world of drama with brilliant new plays presented by The Theatre Guild. Eugene O'Neil and George Bernard Shaw were just two who made their mark during this decade of the Depression.
It seems like ages ago but it was only yesterday that Oklahoma! exploded on the scene; changing, yet again, the face of musical theatre. Sailors and soldiers stood in the back of the theatre with tears of pride in their eyes for they knew they "belonged to the land which was grand." And during this war-torn 1940's, America had come together as a nation to fight for freedom for all nations. The theatre community joined hands as well, from touring companies to entertain the troups on the front to the Stage Door Canteen in Times Square, where volunteers like Antoinette Perry fed and entertained the visiting soldiers and sailors.
Peace and prosperity followed and the Golden Age of Broadway Musicals was well under way. From 1950 to 1970 scores of some of the greatest musicals ever written were produced year after year after year. Guys and Dolls, Pajama Game, Gypsy, West Side Story, Sweet Charity, Hello, Dolly!, Mame and the list goes on and on. Today, many of these magnificent shows are performed nightly somewhere on this planet.
During this same period, though, Hollywood and television emerged as the main entertainment for the masses and Broadway began it's slow death, but that's been said since 1930 when Radio was the rage.
The decade everyone loves to forget, the 1970's, brought us some of the best work of Stephen Sondheim, including his masterpiece, Sweeney Todd. And one can't forget the singular sensation, A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett's masterpiece, at the Shubert Theatre. Just two blocks away was another little musical by Kander & Ebb called Chicago starring the incomparable Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon. Whe knew then that this show would usher out the millenium?
The 1980's belonged to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Cats and Phantom of the Opera both opened in this decade and they are still playing in their original runs. The trend for spectacle and long-running musicals emerged as costs and ticket prices soared.
We approach the Millenium and Ragtime is the rage again, but this time as a musical. However, due to the world of high finance, we are losing this great show. With tickets now reaching a record price of $85.00 a person, that's still not enough to keep this show from being in the red. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind bit the dust on the road and didn't make it to Broadway, nor did the workshop of Stephen Sondheim's Wise Guys. It makes you wonder where we are headed after the ball drops in Times Square on the eve of 2000.
Broadway will always be the dying invalid, but like a Phoenix, it will always be there, re-inventing itself as new composers like Adam Guettel, Frank Wildhorn, Jason Robert Brown, Ahrens and Flaherty, and Michael John LaChiusa accept the helm and lead us into the new century.
I don't know about the previous 900 years, but I'd say the last century was a pretty good one, and I'm looking forward to the next.
See you on the aisle on Wednesday!
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