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David Sexton is so Wrong About Musicals
Last uploaded : Sunday 4th May 2008 at 20:58
Contributed by : Carol Gould



I nearly fell off my chair yesterday, sitting in my favourite haunt, ‘Spizzico’ in deepest Barnet, reading David Sexton’s pronouncement on musicals in ’The Evening Standard.’ (25 April Comment Section) He referred to them as ‘ the whole filthy genre.’

I do appreciate many people detest the curiously American art form known as the musical. Many people detest conventional theatre and ballet. But to lump this remarkable product of the Great Immigration to New York that has veritably shaped the destiny of American culture for a century is to condemn one of the greatest metamorphoses of the musical form since the time of Monteverdi.

‘Musicals’ did not just happen, like ice lollies or miniskirts. The British operetta had satisfied the needs of Victorian audiences but the turmoil of the great exodus of Jews and Italians from an impoverished Europe to the New York of Emma Lazarus meant entertainment would change forever. Already, the Negro spiritual had engendered the Blues, whilst Ragtime and Jazz were bursting upon the scene. Add to this the arrival of Jewish men and women who wanted to shed Orthodoxy and contribute to the cultural maelstrom of Broadway and the mix was incendiary. In the early 1920s the Jewish-American novelist Edna Ferber (‘Giant,‘ ‘Cimarron’) was writing about miscegenation (black and white liaisons) and this became the revolutionary musical ‘Show Boat‘ -- now acknowledged as worthy of the opera house repertoire -- by Jerome Kern, also the child of Jewish immigrants. The show tackled what in those days were virtually untouchable topics: racial prejudice and intermarriage. Paul Robeson singing ‘Ol’ Man River,’ which expressed the anguish of the African-American, was an enduring emblem of the campaign for civil rights. ’Show Boat’ was an immense hit and opened the eyes of audiences to the scourge of racism. This David Sexton calls a ‘filthy’ genre?

One could provide a litany of musical achievements in this column but I feel it is imperative that readers, most particularly the young, appreciate the impact the Broadway and, to a lesser extent, West End musical has made on the prejudices of audiences since the time of the Great Depression. In the year before the election of Franklin Roosevelt, still believed to have been America’s greatest President, Ira and George Gershwin wrote ‘Of Thee I Sing,’ a spoof on impeachment. The United States had endured the administrations of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover and was on its knees. The irreverent show, which brought joy into the lives of audiences in total despair, won the Pulitzer Prize.

During the Depression Florenz Ziegfeld, yet another Jewish immigrant, delivered endless shows to appreciative audiences and provided jobs for countless performers, just as today thousands of jobs are being provided in London’s booming West End to the huge supply of fine British talent that would otherwise be manning call centres or working abroad. That David Sexton thinks this is somehow the manifestation of a ‘filthy genre’ beggars belief.

In the 1930s the magnificent opera-musical ‘Porgy and Bess’ burst upon Broadway with a black cast. Again, this was an opportunity for the large array of black talent in New York to appear in a deeply moving portrayal of their oppressed but still hopeful universe. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I can say that nothing remotely of this calibre or of this level of social commentary was coming out of the West End. In London Oswald Mosley was marching and Winston Churchill was speaking to deaf ears about Hitler in the wilderness years. ‘Porgy’ and ‘Showboat’ had a profound effect on white America.

In the politically turbulent 1930s, when many Americans were looking at Communism and Socialism as the way out of poverty, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union presented a show in New York, ‘Pins and Needles’ by Harold Rome. It opened in 1938 as a semi-amateur showcase but ended up running to sold-out houses for 1,104 performances. The story revolved around the plight of union members and resonated amongst the thousands of people who came to see it. It was a tribute to American democracy that such shows were not closed down by the authorities. David Sexton regards the genre as ’filthy’ but neglects to understand how it shaped the thinking of a generation and sustained the morale of a nation.

The 1930s also saw ‘Hellzapoppin,’ an irreverent look at the entire world that featured Hitler speaking in a Yiddish accent and other spoofs of world events and figures. It ran for an unprecedented 1,404 performances. The legendary entertainer George M Cohan performed ‘I’d Rather be Right’ to alert Americans to the struggle Franklin Roosevelt was having in passing through Congress his watershed programmes that would transform the country and take it out of depressed Hooverville forever. For pure entertainment in 1938 Rodgers and Hammerstein produced ‘The Boys from Syracuse,’ a musical version of ‘The Comedy of Errors’ and Rodgers, Abbott and Hart generated the stunning ‘On Your Toes,’ which featured two full-length ballet scores. ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ is now regarded as one of the great symphonic works of that era.

Meanwhile Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and Beatrice Lillie were entertaining British and American audiences with acerbic humour in the lead-up to the Second World War. Their brilliant revues may not have been of the weight of the great musicals but they served to amuse an increasingly apprehensive world on the verge of a major conflagration.

Political commentary became more and more an element of musicals, and as Hitler rampaged through Europe, bombed Britain and exterminated Jews and others he regarded as undesirables, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Hart, Weill, Arlen and Harburg brought out an endless stream of masterpieces. ‘Oklahoma,’ though with little political significance, is said to have represented to many worried New York Jewish audiences the dream of a rural Jewish homeland free of persecution with every day dawning as ’Oh What a Beautiful Morning.’ This was also true of the stunning finale of Bernstein’s ‘Candide.’

‘Carmen Jones’ was another all-black musical; its cast was made up of newcomers but it was a sensation. ‘Lady in the Dark,’ starring Gertrude Lawrence, explored psychosis and psychoanalysis and was another major hit. It introduced Danny Kaye and had a magnificent book and score by Kurt Weill, Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin. Such is not the stuff of a ‘filthy genre.’ Likewise ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ by the eternal iconoclast Yip Harburg, contained a major theme of racism.

In the period during and after the Second World War Rodgers and Hammerstein dominated Broadway and every one of their shows had a political message: ‘Carousel’ was a dark tale based on Ferenc Molnar’s ‘Liliom’ and explored the inner workings of the criminal mind and the wife-beater. ‘The Sound of Music’ was a classic story from the Nazi era and ‘South Pacific’ took racial prejudice on with the gloves off : ‘You’ve got to be taught to hate all the people your relatives hate…’ was a song that tackled every aspect of bigotry.

Yip Harburg’s superb ‘Flahooley’ featured the Baird Puppets in an allegory about American corporate greed. It was, in fact, shut down because of a review by the then-legendary critic Dorothy Kilgallen and by anti-Communist pickets who scared audiences away. This was the era of the dreaded HUAC, the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and its adherents managed to get ‘Flahooley’ out of the public eye. It marked the debut of Barbara Cook but to this day she will not discuss those events.

The impact of social commentary in musicals could be felt around the world when ‘Cabaret’ by John Kander and Fred Ebb debuted; it explored yet another aspect of the Nazi era. ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ by Sheldon Harnick, so adored to this day by non-Jewish audiences, depicts the appalling lives of millions of Jews inside the Czar‘s Pale of Settlement and the anguish of their expulsions from village to village. ‘Plain and Fancy‘ by Hague, Horwitt, Glickman and Stein ( sounds like a Manhattan law firm!) was a pulsating view of the Amish community and had a deeply anti-war political message in the song ‘Plain we Live.‘ Its searing book and lyrics made the pompous, overindulged lives of the ‘City Mice’ -- nowadays the hedge fund traders -- look grotesque set against the simplicity of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The show featured the building of a barn at every performance, symbolic of the shallowness and staggering cost of Wall Street megastructures.

‘West Side Story’ by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim was revolutionary in the score’s atonality and brash lyrics. It bared the open sore of gang warfare and of hatred of Spanish-speaking immigrants by whites in New York. No song could be more political than ‘I want to be in America’ -- it formed part of a Broadway musical that to this day sears the heart of all who see it. Not quite a ‘filthy genre.’

In this column I have stressed the Jewishness of the composers and lyricists, and have not even mentioned Jerry Herman (‘Hello Dolly,’ Mame’, ‘La Cage aux Folles‘), Jule Styne ‘(‘Funny Girl’, ‘Gypsy‘); Lerner and Loewe (‘My Fair Lady;’ ‘Camelot’), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (‘ Singin’ in the Rain,’ ‘On the Town’) -- this is important because emigration to the United States seemed to have a liberating effect on creative people escaping from pogroms and ghettoes. In turn these writers and composers felt an obligation to include political commentary in much of their work. Modern musical geniuses in Europe, Britain and America responsible for ‘Les Miserables,‘ ‘Miss Saigon,’ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,‘ ‘A Chorus Line,‘ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ also set out to educate and inspire. David Sexton reduces a staggering period of creativity to a simple, condemnatory epithet and it does not hold water. The Broadway and West End musical has made a profound impact on generations of theatregoers and is anything but ‘filthy.’

Carol Gould is the author of ‘Spitfire Girls,’ about wartime women pilots (Random House-Arrow 2009) and ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ ( Social Affairs Unit/Encounter Oct 2008) . She has been a panellist on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Any Questions?’ and is a political analyst of the American elections for Sky News and writes a regular column for ‘Current’

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