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American Musical Theater: a century of production Making of an Exhibit Red, Hot & Blue: In research & production seven years Nat’l Portrait Gallery/American History Sought to infuse museum w/ musical life Not just flat portraiture Posters, playbills, set design

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American musical theater l.jpg

American Musical Theater:

a century of production

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Making of an Exhibit

  • Red, Hot & Blue:

    • In research & production seven years

    • Nat’l Portrait Gallery/American History

    • Sought to infuse museum w/ musical life

    • Not just flat portraiture

    • Posters, playbills, set design

    • 3D: costumes, props, ruby slippers

    • Multi-media: Time Warner video


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Street Scene, 1866-1906

  • Bowery: 1880s

    • Minstrelsy still popular

    • Variety shows: bawdy pastiche

      • Played in saloons

      • Catered to illiterate audiences

      • Exaggerated skits and parodies

      • Spectacle appealed to non-English speakers

      • Limited appeal because of reputation

    • Tony Pastor catered to middle class

      • “Cleaned up” variety shows

      • Appealed to a wider audience . . .

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Street Scene: 1880s

  • Vaudeville: 1890s

    • Derived from minstrelsy and circus

      • “Olio” (series) of specialty acts/skits

      • Marketed as family entertainment

      • New York Herald: “rowdyish and troublesome elements” eliminated

    • From Bowery to Broadway

      • Pastor architect of popularity

      • Featured tightrope acts, Magic Flute, and everything in between

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Vaudeville & Ellis Island

  • Popular acts = immigration pattern

    • Blackface -> Irish -> “Dutch” (German)

  • Harrigan & Hart: Irish

    • Acts relied on parodies of Bowery life

    • Mimicked countrymen & others

  • Weber & Fields: Polish Jews

    • Slapstick, parody

    • Rooted in everyday experience

  • Williams & Walker: cakewalk

    • In Dahomey – performed for Queen

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Tin Pan Alley – early 1900s

  • Named for cacophony of song plugs

  • Before 1900 “plugging” by minstrels

  • Oliver Ditson & Co. also sold choral music, sacred music, chamber music

  • From old-school gents to Bohemian

  • Witmark, Stern followed profits

    • Published “coon songs” and ragtime

  • Song pluggers travelled to music halls, jockeying for position

  • Composers a licentious group

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Larger Marketplace

  • Producers send shows on tours

  • August: theater owners went to NYC to lure show “direct from Broadway”

  • Agents combine into Syndicate

    • Network of 700 theaters

    • Centralization = NYC popularity

    • Little attention to local tastes

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Vaudeville & Operetta to Musical

  • Craze for light opera

    • Lillian Russell

    • Retained European flair

  • Victor Herbert

    • Made music central, not just enhancement

    • Integrated music and story

    • Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta

  • George M. Cohan

    • Could “carry” a show

    • Lent coherence to form

    • “Give My Regards to Broadway”

  • Vaudeville grad. becoming mainstream

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Rise of the Impresario, 1907-1927

  • Ziegfeld Follies 1907 - 1943

    • Professional staff

      • Joseph Urban

    • Lavish settings, costumes

    • More attention to staging

    • “Topical comedy”

    • Feminine - er, appeal

    • Narrative loosely tied acts together

    • Stars: Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor

  • Produced “Showboat” 1927

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Rise of the Impresario, cont.

  • “Messrs Shubert”:

    Lee and J.J. Shubert

    • Imitated Ziegfeld style

    • Did not aspire to art

    • Theater “machine that

      makes dollars”

    • Encouraged individual (often native) performance styles in entertainers

    • Shubert Alley 44th/45th St., national

  • Al Jolson

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Jerome Kern’s Show Boat

  • Equal importance to story, music, and character

  • All-star production team:

  • Lyrics-libretto Hammerstein

  • Produced by Flo Ziegfeld

  • Designed by Joseph Urban

  • American sentiments in an American idiom

  • “Ol’ Man River”

  • Descendants 10 years later

  • Depression = escapism

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B-way & Hollywood, 1927-1942

  • Jazz Singer =“talkies” + musicals

  • Berkeley: Warner Bros film director

    • Elevated dance to critical acclaim

  • In movies, camera determines gaze

  • Shot and edited with one camera

  • Used fountains, elaborate costuming, cast of thousands, girlsgirlsgirls

  • RKO: Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers

    • “Each dance ought to spring somehow out of character or situation, otherwise it is simply a vaudeville act.”

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Fair and Balanced Biography

  • Biographical conventions

  • 1800s

    • Sing the subject’s praises

    • No unwarranted private information

  • 1900s

    • “Tell it like it is”

    • More smarmy details

  • A.S. Byatt

    • Biography should give factual information, make no inference

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George Gershwin 1898-1937

  • Straddled popular and classical genres

    • Tin Pan Alley song plugger

    • Studied harmony & composition

  • Musical theater: 24 scores, enduring songs popular today

  • Orchestral/instrumental works

    • Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, Three Preludes for Piano, An American in Paris


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George and Ira

Collaborated on two dozen scores together

Ira later collaborated with Kurt Weill, Burton Lane, Harold Arlen

  • Fascinatin’ Rhythm: retrofitted lyrics

  • Unusual rhymes: I’m bidin’ my time,

    ‘Cuz that’s the kinda guy I’m . . .

  • Word Play: Love is Sweeping the Country

    Waves are hugging the shore . . .

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Political Operettas

  • Strike up the Band – 1928

    • Commercial, but not critical success

  • Of Thee I Sing – 1930

    • Wintergreen runs for Pres on platform of love: contest for fiancee

    • Pokes good-natured fun at electorate

    • Won Pulitzer Prize

  • Let ’Em Eat Cake – 1933

    • Commercial flop

    • Too sardonic for Depression audiences

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  • Schoenberg:

    • Many musicians do not consider George Gershwin a serious composer. But they should understand that, serious or not, he is a composer—that is, a man who lives in music and expresses everything, serious or not, sound or superficial, by means of music, because it is his native language. There are a number of composers, serious (as they believe) or not (as I know), who learned to add notes together. But they are only serious on account of a perfect lack of humor and soul.

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Gershwin: jazz composer?

  • Regarded as such in his lifetime

  • Jazz emerging, not clearly defined

  • Deems Taylor: Gershwin “a link between the jazz camp and the intellectuals”

  • Gershwin on jazz

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Porgy & Bess

  • African American cast, set in South

    • “Blue” motives urban/rural

  • Four characters recurring motifs

  • Connections, musical foreshadowing

  • Armitage: “In P&G is a promise of a future Gershwin operain which he might have been able to eliminate even the aria.”

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  • Died at age 38 from brain tumor

  • Oscar Hammerstein:

    Our friend wrote music

    And in that mould he created

    Gaiety and sweetness and beauty

    And twenty-four hours after he had gone

    His music filled the air

    And in triumphant accents

    Proclaimed to this world of men

    That gaiety and sweetness and beauty

    Do not die . . .

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Broadway & Hollywood

  • Golden Era of musicals:

    • Oklahoma, Wizard of Oz, Carousel, South Pacific, Sound of Music, King & I, My Fair Lady, Meet Me in St. Louis, Music Man

  • Composers/Lyricists:

    • Lerner & Loewe, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bernstein & Sondheim, Comden & Green, Frank Loesser, Meredith Willson

  • Choreographers:

    • Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins

  • Designers: Harold Prince, Oliver Smith

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Oklahoma - 1943

  • Ran on Broadway 2,248 performances

  • 10+ years touring

  • Most successful to date

  • R&H worked forward from setting & story

  • No “show stopping”

  • Opening/Act I Finale: this will be different!

  • Agnes de Mille choreo

  • Wartime optimism, “open air spirit”

Live and in person!



Jason Robert Brown

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West Side Story

  • Recasting of Romeo & Juliet in NYC

  • Shows constraints of art. difficulty:

    • Needed dancers who could handle Robbins’ choreo

    • Didn’t get “real” singers

    • Arthur Laurents insisted no opera!

  • Bernstein recorded w/opera singers and symphonic players

  • Opportunity to explore rehearsal process

DVD #1, 8, 10

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Redefinition (1960-)

  • Boundary-pushing:

    • Hair, Pippin, Cabaret: sex, drugs

    • Godspell: Jesus as . . . game show host?

    • Tommy: rock music

    • Cabaret: Nazi Germany

    • RENT: AIDS

  • New forms of musical

    • Twyla Tharpe/Billy Joel dance-ical

  • Twist on familiar story: Wizard of Oz

    • The Wiz (African American retake)

    • Wicked (told from Witches’ POV)

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Different forms of revival

  • Disney: animated musicals

    • Little Mermaid, Aladdin, B&B, Lion King

    • Many are revivals of familiar stories

    • Use popular composers for theme song

  • Chicago, Moulin Rouge, RENT, Phantom of the Opera, Annie

    • Revivals of popular musicals

  • Stage versions of opera

    • Aida, RENT (Boheme), M. Butterfly

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New compositions

  • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

    • Dave Zabriskie: video games/slots

    • Musical version of traditional story

    • Premiered Oct. 29, 2004

    • Croswell Opera House

    • Lyricist looked online for composers

    • Only five pieces written when booked

    • Still being written during rehearsal!

    • DVD recorded for marketing purposes

    • “Ichabod Crane” and composer to NYC

#26 DVD

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  • Armitage, M. (1938). George Gershwin. New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

  • Crawford, R. (2001). An introduction to America’s music.New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

  • Ewen, D. (1970). George Gershwin, his journey to greatness. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

  • Gershwin, G. (1926). Does jazz belong to art? In G. Suriano (Ed.), Gershwin in his time. New York: Gramercy Books.

  • Henderson, A. & Blocker Bowers, D. (1996). Red, hot & blue: a Smithsonian Salute to the American Musical. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press.

  • Jablonski, E. & Stewart, L.D. The Gershwin years. New York: Doubleday & Co.

  • Peyser, J. (1993). The memory of all that. New York: Simon & Schuster.