Survey of Musical Theatre (Fall 2018)

Class meeting times: Katzen 154, Tuesdays and Fridays, 2:30–3:45pm • Instructor: Nathan Beary Blustein (nblustein@american.edu) • Syllabus: pdf • Office Hours: sign up (Tuesdays and Fridays, 11:30am–2pm)

On this page:

  1. Reckoning with the Past
  2. Fables, Comedies, Plays—and the Opera House Down the Street
  3. Broadway’s Push and Pull
  4. New Sounds, New Sights, New Stories
  5. How Can I Call This History?
  6. Finale

Overture

Week 1
AUGUST 28: Introductions/survey and contract

Unit 1: Reckoning with the Past (Back to top)

AUGUST 31: Early musical theatre
Preparation:

  • Read Stempel, chapter 1.
  • Listen to “Uncle Tom’s Religion” (mp3 | score)
  • Watch Leonard Bernstein’s lecture/performance of “You Naughty, Naughty Men” from the American Musical Comedy episode of his “Omnibus” series (AU library link | start: 12:19; end: 17:09).
  • Read Guidelines for Writing Papers about Musical Theatre (pdf).

Assignment due: Response 1A (description | submit on Blackboard)
Discussion prompts:

What were the circumstances of the Astor Place Riot? Is this a conflict that has any present-day resonances?
What did George L. Aiken and George C. Howard get right in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and what did they get wrong?
Does The Black Crook have any relevance to today’s musical theatre? Does its spectacle resemble any shows or traditions you’re familiar with?
What does Bernstein seem to be arguing for, in presenting “You Naughty, Naughty Men”?

Week 2
SEPTEMBER 4: Minstrelsy/variety
Preparation:

  • Read Stempel, excerpts from ch. 2 (“Variety Stages”: Introduction, 55–67; Williams and Walker, 85–93) and ch. 4 (“The Native Wit”: Berlin and Tin Pan Alley, 144–159).
  • Listen to “Swing Along!” (recording | sheet music), “Nobody” (recording), “Blue Skies” (recording [track 24]; also available on YouTube) and “You Made Me Love You” (recording [track 24]; also available on YouTube)

Assignment due: Response 1B (submit on Blackboard)
Discussion prompts:

Compare the running orders/general layouts for minstrel shows, vaudeville shows, and turn-of-the-century musical comedies. What do these varieties have in common? Do they bear any resemblance to what you know about other forms and styles of musical theatre—or any specific shows?
Stempel describes a view of “any departure from minstrelsy’s stereotypes as a kind of emancipation from a theatrical form of slavery itself” (p. 86). How was this emancipation advocated for and practiced after (as well as before) the Civil War?
In terms of musical repetition and variation, how do the choruses of “Swing Along!” and “Blue Skies” differ from each other? How can we keep track of these differences? Do the specific musical forms of these two numbers offer moments of excitement and surprise—or is every moment predictable?
How can we distinguish the values, goals, and/or practices among:

• Al Jolson’s iconic and transgressive performing style,
• Irving Berlin’s compositional prowess with popular song types, and
• Irene and Vernon Castle’s refinement of sexually charged dances?

SEPTEMBER 7: Scottsboro Boys (2010)
Preparation:

  • Listen to London cast recording (available for streaming on Blackboard)/read libretto (NYPL).
  • Watch “Go Back Home” from the Broadway production (YouTube)  and clips from the Center Theatre Group production (YouTube).
  • OPTIONAL: Read “Digging Up Mr. Bones” (playbill.com).

Discussion prompts:

Kander, Ebb, and Thompson frame Scottsboro Boys through a minstrel show. How do they do this early on in the show? What structural and dramatic elements distinguish this 2010 musical from the form it continually claims to emulate? Start with the basics in your observations.
A term that frequently applies to Kander and Ebb shows, as well as Sondheim shows, is “pastiche”: directly emulating a specific, older musical style. What other shows do you know that do this? In Scottsboro Boys, where is it particularly effective? What are some effects you can point to?
This show also blurs the boundaries between performer, actor, and character. What other shows do you know that engage with this concept? How does the ending of the show, in particular, tackle this?
The trials of the Scottsboro Boys began in 1931—which makes minstrelsy anachronistic, considering its heyday of the mid- to late-19th century. Is this bad research on the part of the creators? Why or why not?
How does the song “Nothing” relate to Bert Williams’s “Nobody”—in terms of musical construction, theatrical effect, and/or dramatic context?
Starting about halfway through the show, the first voices of Northerners appear. How are they (well, how is he) portrayed in the show? What’s their musical/lyrical style—is it any different from the rest of the musical?

Week 3
SEPTEMBER 11: Operetta’s Splendor
Preparation:

  • Read Stempel, excerpts from ch. 3 (“A Transatlantic Muse”: Introduction, Operetta—The Golden Age, Light Opera in America, 97–116) and ch. 5 (“The Cult of Romance”: Introduction, 171–173; Show Boat, 192–201).
  • View numbers from the 1980 production in Central Park of Pirates of Penzance (1879): “Poor Wand’ring One,” “…Modern Major General,” and “With Cat-Like Tread” (available for streaming via AU Library: Segments 10, 13, and 27).
  • View numbers from the 1936 film of Show Boat (1927): “Can’t Help Loving That Man,” “Old Man River,” and “Bill” (available to view at the AU Music Library, or on YouTube)

Assignment due: Response 2A (submit on Blackboard)
Discussion prompts:

Stephen Sondheim has described the music of Gilbert and Sullivan (in particular, their patter songs) as “surface sparkle”, verbosity and restrained lyricism. Going further, he suspects that the success of Gilbert and Sullivan is due to predictable lyrics that create a sense of familiarity. Does this line up with your thoughts while watching Pirates of Penzance?
The plot of Pirates of Penzance forwards through a series of increasingly ridiculous misunderstandings. This is a characteristic of farce, which is a form of comedy that is still common in many mediums today. Can you name any musicals that fall into the category of a farce? Further, can you name any influences that Pirates of Penzance may have had on some musicals?
In the Silver Age of operetta, composers, librettists, and lyricists recast the expressive potential of music and the emotional depths of story. How is this recasting realized broadly realized? How does this compare to operetta’s Golden Age, several decades prior?
The comparison between the Golden and Silver Ages might lead us in a particular direction—focusing on operetta in the Silver Age in maximalist terms:

  • greater musical sophistication,
  • more profound dramatic potential, and
  • deeper coherence overall.

Yet in Show Boat, Kern and Hammerstein incorporate the traditions they themselves were a part of from the days of the Princess Theater. How do songs like “Bill,” “Ol’ Man River,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” draw from earlier practices? (As a perhaps trivial example: were all of these songs written originally for this show?) How do these songs invite us to better understand the characters who sing them? Does this change if we think about the 1936 film in terms of its medium—as opposed to a live performance?

SEPTEMBER 14: Follies (1971)
Preparation: Watch film (libretto on Blackboard—>Content). Read Stempel, excerpt from ch. 6 (“A Shadow of Vulgarity”: Revues—Spectacular and Intimate, 211–213).

Discussion prompts:

During his time as an undergrad at Harvard, Frank Rich (former chief drama critic for the New York Times) saw the out-of-town tryout of Follies, and subsequently wrote an essay for his college newspaper predicting that the show would eventually be recognized as a Broadway classic. Why do you think he made this prediction? Do you think his prediction was right?
Follies was contemporaneous in its inception—it premiered in 1971 and the show takes place in 1971. How might this musical have been received differently in its original 1971 production, in contrast to a more modern day audience? Consider, for example, the fictional Weismann Follies’ “Glorification of the American Girl,” and its relationship to the real-life Ziegfeld productions through the first half of the twentieth century.
Songs such as those in the Montage—“Rain on the Roof,” “Ah, Paris!” and “Broadway Baby” (34:10–40:45)—were written as pastiches of 1920s/1930s vaudeville numbers. What purpose do these pastiche songs serve in telling the story of the musical? How about the big production number, “Mirror, Mirror” (54:06–1:01:08)? The operetta number, “One More Kiss” (1:32:04–1:35:55)? Do they remind you of any songs we’ve listened to in class, or any you already know?
Does the dramatic effect of this pastiche change with the explosion into LOVELAND (the last thirty-odd minutes of the musical)? Consider, for example, Sally’s “torch song” “Losing My Mind” (1:55:46–2:00:00)—a theft, to use Sondheim’s own term, of George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”.
In contrast to the pastiche numbers, there are also “book” numbers, in which the characters are not singing the songs they once sang in the Weismann Follies. Instead, they’re singing new songs in the moment. Is this distinction helpful—or even necessary—with songs like “Too Many Mornings” (1:15:25–1:20:20) and “Could I Leave You” (1:37:30–1:41:00)? Why/why not? How do these songs still evoke the ghosts of the past?

Quiz 1: Scottsboro BoysFollies (description)

Unit 2: Fables, Comedies, Plays—and the Opera House Down the Street (Back to top)

Week 4
September 18: Musical Comedy and Revue
Preparation:

  • Read Stempel, excerpts from ch. 4 (“Cohan and Times Square“) and ch. 6 (“Revues: Spectacular and Intimate”; “Jazz-Age ‘Jazz‘”).
  • Listen to:
    • “Grand Old Rag” (LOC recording; sheet music: rag/flag),
    • “Dancing in the Dark” (Sarah Vaughan [YouTube; lyrics on attached video]),
    • “Baltimore Buzz“ from Shuffle Along (Lyrics on p. 17 of New World Records’s liner notes from music from the production; instrumental recording—the lyrics would begin at 0:11—on YouTube); and
    • Two clips from Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed (PBS interview; clip from the Tony Awards).

Assignment due: Response 2B (submit on Blackboard)
Discussion prompts:

Each of the three songs above are in verse-chorus form, yet the verses and choruses are all strikingly different in terms of how they use lyrical and musical repetition. How can we compare the forms of these three numbers more precisely?
George M. Cohan: “As for plot, the masses don’t want it…I merely suggest, and let the audience write out the story to suit themselves” (pp. 138–39). How does this relate to Cohan’s use of nationalism in his storylines—and in song?
What are the elements of Jazz-Age “Jazz” that we find on the Broadway stage in spectacular revues like Ziegfeld’s follies, intimate revues (and shows in the same vein, like The Band Wagon), and the sensation of Shuffle Along?
Is there any freedom/flexibility to explore political and social commentary in these works? How does this resemble other shows you’re familiar with?

September 21: Gypsy
Preparation:

Discussion prompts:

Gypsy, similar to Follies, has both pastiche songs (in the form of the vaudeville and burlesque numbers) and non-diegetic “book” songs bearing more resemblance to the Broadway musical comedy of the time. How do these different types of songs function differently within the show? Where do the boundaries blur between entertainment and drama?
From what you know of musical comedies of the time Gypsy premiered (in 1959), in what ways does Gypsy? In what ways does it still fall into the musical comedy category?
Despite its importance and solid place in musical theatre legend, Broadway productions of Gypsy have almost always closed at a loss/not recouped their initial investments. Why do you think this may be?
Rose is one of the most illustrious roles in musical theatre, with all five actresses who’ve played the role on Broadway having earned Tony nominations. Why do you think this might be? Can you think of other female roles in musical theatre with similar status? How about any male roles?

Week 5
September 25: The Veterans of Tin Pan Alley
Preparation:

  • Read Stempel, excerpts from ch. 7 (Introduction; “Rodgers and Hart”) and ch. 8 (“A Musical Play,” “Oklahoma!: The Musical Play”).
  • Listen to “My Heart Stood Still“ (YouTube); and
  • View the “Bench Scene” from Carousel (YouTube)

September 28: Oklahoma! (1943) and Roundtable Discussion
Preparation: Watch 1998 London production [YouTube], and the Dream Ballet from 1979 revival.
Assignment due: First Position Paper and Roundtable (description; submit on Blackboard)

Week 6
October 2: Operatic Ambition
Preparation:

  • Read Stempel, ch. 10 (skip pp. 385–top of 391).
  • Listen to/watch numbers from…

Assignment due: Response 3A (submit on Blackboard)

Discussion prompts:

The “Gypsy Song” from Carmen is one of many hit tunes from Bizet’s opera. How many different ways can you identify Hammerstein’s changes—character, lyrics, accompaniment, time, place, use of ensemble? And Carmen Jones is a cinematic adaptation of the stage show—how do the differences between a live performance and a soundstage influence your observations?
How did Frank Loesser and Kurt Weill exerted more authorial control than most of their peers in the late 40s and early 50s? Does that affect how you experience the relationship between elements in text—melody, harmony, lyrics, orchestration, dialogue? Why or why not?
In his discussion of West Side Story, specifically its innovations for choreography in musical theatre (from his book Finishing the Hat), Stephen Sondheim names “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “America” as numbers that “serve to remind the audience that this is an entertainment, not a sociological treatise.” To what extent to you agree or disagree with his description?
How is West Side Story‘s use of choreographed movement in storytelling unique, in comparison to its historical predecessors that we’ve discussed in class? For instance: how does West Side Story‘s use of choreographed movement differ from Oklahoma, Show Boat, or even as far back as The Black Crook?

October 5: Porgy and Bess (1935)
Preparation:

  • Read excerpts from Stempel ch. 7 (“The Gershwins”) and ch. 10 (pp. 385–top of 391).
  • Listen to the 1952 live production (on YouTube—about 140 minutes). Read the libretto (on Blackboard).
  • Watch/listen to the excerpts listed in the discussion prompts below (about 15 minutes).
  • OPTIONAL: Read Barry Singer’s feature with Anne Brown, the original Bess (NYT).

Discussion prompts:

Porgy and Bess does not rest contently in a singular theatrical, musical, racial, or cultural arena. How do these tensions arise:

  • Within the musical/lyrical styles of the opera itself?
    • Compare John W. Bubbles (the original Sportin’ Life)’s performance of “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York” (sung on the 1952 cast recording by Cab Calloway, Track 53) and the duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” (Track 24).
    • Consider that the production was performed through the Theatre Guild; the Metropolitan Opera in 1935 did not allow black performers onstage.
  • Across different productions of the show?
    • Compare the trailer for the 2014 San Francisco Opera production to the 2012 Tony Awards clip of the Broadway revival. Vocal choices, acting choices, orchestral forces…What is consistent? What changes? Are these excerpts enough to get a sense of how different these productions are? Which does the 1952 cast recording more closely resemble?
      • Tony Awards: “Summertime” (Track 2), “I Got Plenty of Nothin’“ (Track 21), “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (Track 28), and “I Loves You Porgy” (Track 39—listed as “I wants to stay here,“ the opening line of the song).
      • San Francisco Opera: “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Got Plenty of Nothin’,” “A Red-Headed Woman” (Track 46), “Oh Lord, I’m on My Way” (Track 58).
  • Beyond the life of the show?
    • Compare Carmen McRae and Nina Simone’s performances of Serena’s aria “My Man’s Gone Now” with the 1952 cast recording (Track 17).
  • When considering the careers of the creators—in particular, George and Ira Gershwin, and Dubose Heyward, who were creating what G. Gershwin called a “folk opera”?
    • G. Gershwin became an overnight sensation in 1924 with the heavily jazz-inspired Rhapsody in Blue; I. Gershwin won the Pulitzer along with the playwrights for the operetta Of Thee I Sing in 1933.
    • Dubose and his wife Dorothy Heyward wrote the play Porgy in 1927, adapted from Dubose’s novel. Dubose’s mother, Janie Screven Heyward, was a Gullah folklorist.
    • While writing the opera, George Gershwin took at least two trips to Charleston and surrounding areas, to conduct musical fieldwork.

Quiz 2: Gypsy; Oklahoma!; Porgy and Bess.

Unit 3: Broadway’s Push and Pull (Back to top)

Week 7
October 9: Societal and Aesthetic Confrontation—The Cradle Will Rock (1937).
Preparation:

  • Read libretto (on Blackboard/content); listen to cast recording (YouTube).
  • Read Stempel, ch. 12, pp. 474–480 and 483–8.

Watch from the 1964 production: “Art for Art’s Sake” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzT3BjBICwE) and “Joe Worker” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipJldnG_5UM).
Assignment due: Response 3B (submit on Blackboard)

Discussion prompts:

How would you describe the concept of “Art for Art’s Sake” (the title of the duet/trio between Dauber, Yascha, and Mrs. Mister)? Is Blitzstein satirizing this concept, its ideological opponents, or the hypocrisy of its patrons and practitioners? How does he accomplish this?
Stempel describes the techniqueof “Verfremdungseffekt” (“distancing effect”), theorized by lyricist and playwright Bertold Brecht, in the overview of The Threepenny Opera. How does this effect relate both to the presentation (dialogue, musical language, use of/occasional disregard for rhyme) and the almost mythological history (considering the premiere) of The Cradle Will Rock? Is this a technique that carries through to musicals today—or does it depend on their presentation and performance, rather than their text?
“Croon Spoon” and “Honoloulu” are the most explicitly Tin-Pan Alley-esque songs in The Cradle Will Rock. But they are both distorted, unsettling, just plain not very fun. How does Blitzstein articulate the tension between popular musical style and earnest satire in these songs—in terms of lyrics, melody, rhythm, and even song form?

October 12: Fall Break—No Class

Week 8
October 16: Musical Comedy after the Musical Play—My Fair Lady (1956).
Preparation: Read libretto/listen to cast recording. OPTIONAL: Read “Lauren Ambrose and Condola Rashad in Conversation,” an interview about the 2018 revival (Ambrose) and the concurrent production of St. Joan (Rashad) (The Interval).

October 19: Group Presentations on Hello, Dolly!, She Loves Me, and Funny Girl.
Assignment due: Group Presentation and Short Paper (submit on Blackboard)

Week 9
October 23: Off Broadway
Preparation:

  • Read Stempel, ch. 12, pp. 492–513.
  • Listen to/watch:
    • Rod Raines as Don Quixote/Miguel de Cervantes at the Portland Opera House: YouTube
    • Jerry Orbach sing “Try to Remember” from the original cast recording: YouTube playlist

Assignment due: Response 4A (submit on Blackboard)

Discussion prompts:

How did unique playing spaces inform the productions of The Fantasticks and Man of La Mancha? How is this reflected in the Fantasticks original cast recording and La Mancha Portland Opera clips?
Stempel efficiently outlines a history of theatre beyond Broadway that takes us very nearly to the present. What’s changed about Off Broadway and/or regional theatre in the six-plus decades? How does this relate to your own understanding of these theatrical spaces?

October 26: Hair
Preparation: Read libretto (on Blackboard)/listen to cast recording (Naxos). OPTIONAL: Read “Not So Free Love” on the 2009 revival (The New Yorker).

Discussion prompts:

The sound of this show is almost exclusively rock—with very little of the classic Broadway sound we’ve associated with other shows especially of the 1960s. Yet as Stempel says, HAIR “redefine[s] theatricality on its own terms.” How do the values of Broadway’s musical theatre factor in at all? Consider this in:

  • the stripped-down “list songs” (“Ain’t Got No,” “I Got Life,” “Sodomy,” “Initials”),
  • songs about domestic and international turmoil (“Colored Spade,“ “Three-Five-Zero-Zero”), and
  • songs about the cosmic and spiritual—and the immediately personal (“Aquarius,” “Frank Mills,” “White Boys/Black Boys,” “The Flesh Failures”).

(Note that the libretto is from the off-Broadway production, which contains much more of a traditional “book” than its eventual Broadway transfer.)

Quiz 3: The Cradle Will Rock; My Fair Lady; Hair

Unit 4: New Sounds, New Sights, New Stories (Back to top)

Week 10
October 30: AU DPA Production
Preparation: Watch Pippin, October 18–27, Greenberg Theatre.
Assignment due: Pippin Production Response (submit on Blackboard)

November 2: The New Broadway Sound
Preparation: Read Stempel, excerpts from ch. 13 (“Prince, Sondheim & Co.”) and 15 (“Rice, Lloyd Webber, and Rock Opera”). Listen to/watch numbers from Company (“Company,” “Barcelona”), Jesus Christ Superstar (“Gesthemane,” “Everything’s Alright”), and The Wiz (“Ease on Down the Road,” ”Be a Lion”).

Week 11
November 6: The Star and the Director-Choreographer
Preparation: Read Stempel, excerpts from ch. 11 (“The Abbott Touch”) and ch. 14 (“The Ballet-Directors,” “The Hoofer-Directors”). Listen to/watch numbers from:

November 9: A Chorus Line
Preparation: Read libretto (on Blackboard)/listen to cast recording. Read Stempel, excerpts from ch. 14 (“A Chorus Line and After”).

Week 12
November 13: LGBTQ Movies, Plays, and Musicals (Carl Menninger guest lecture)
Preparation: Watch Falsettos (2016 revival: Act I, March of the Falsettos, 1981; Act II, Falsettoland, 1990).
Assignment due: Response 4B (submit on Blackboard)

Discussion prompts:

This is the first musical we’ve studied in full this semester that centers around lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters. What similarities and differences do you notice with A Chorus Line (or, if you’re familiar with it in depth, Cabaret)? Are there any other musicals from before the 1990s that you’re familiar with that deal with LGBTQ stories?
William Finn’s writing is almost entirely sung-through; unaccompanied, un-pitched dialogue is nearly absent. How does “dialogue” work in this show (consider, for instance, “The Thrill of First Love”), and what’s your response to its effectiveness? Does this tie into other elements of the music/design?
Marvin and Trina’s divorce is the catalyst for this show’s plot. How does Finn portray Trina throughout the show? Consider the contrast between “I’m Breaking Down” and “Trina’s Song.”
March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland were originally two separate shows. How would you describe the ending of Act I? Act II?

November 16: Sondheim after Prince
Preparation: Watch Sunday in the Park with George (1984). Read Stempel, excerpts from ch. 13 (“Sondheim after Prince”).

Discussion prompts:

  • Acts I and II of Sunday in the Park with George take place exactly a century apart, and every actor plays different characters in each act. What is the relationship between Mandy Patinkin’s George in Act I and George in Act II? What about the relationship between Bernadette Peters’s Dot in Act I and Marie in Act II? Consider, for instance, the three numbers “We Do Not Belong Together” (1:07:01), “Children and Art” (1:59:00), and “Move On” (2:11:29). Is this doubling effective in this arc of songs?
  • In “Color and Light” (19:13–27:48), how does Sondheim portray George at work musically and lyrically? And how does Sondheim portray George’s relationship to Dot? Does this song sound like any others (beyond this show) that you’re familiar with?
  • Sondheim has referred to the creative process behind the show as “theme and variation.” “Finishing the Hat” (53:40–57:00) and “Putting it Together” (1:49:25–1:56:03) are a great example of this. They both come at the ends of “crowd” scenes. How do Sondheim and Lapine create a sense of “variation” between these numbers musically, lyrically, dramatically—and in terms of staging, scenic effects, and perspective?

Quiz 4: A Chorus Line; Falsettos; Sunday in the Park with George

Unit 5: How Can I Call This History? (Back to top)

Week 13
November 20: Megamusicals and Roundtable Discussion.
Preparation: Read Stempel, excerpts from ch. 15 (“Mackintosh and the Megamusical,” “Disney and the Movical”). Listen to/watch numbers from Les Misérables (1980/87) and Rent (1996). Assignment due: Second Position Paper and Roundtable (submit on Blackboard)

November 23: Thanksgiving Break—No Class

Week 14
November 27: Operatic Ambition II
Preparation: Read Stempel, excerpts from ch. 16 (“Antimusicals,” “Sondheim’s Children”). Listen to/watch numbers from Floyd Collins (1996) and Parade (1998).
Assignment due: Response 5A (submit on Blackboard)

April 27: Caroline, or Change (2004)
Preparation: Read libretto/listen to cast recording. OPTIONAL: Read John Lahr’s profile of Tony Kushner (The New Yorker)

Week 15
December 4: The 80%—Passing Strange (2008)
Preparation: Watch the recording of the Original Broadway Production. Read TBD.
Assignment due: Response 5B (submit on Blackboard)

December 7: The 80%—Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (2016)
Preparation: Read libretto/listen to cast recording. Read TBD.
Quiz 5: Les MisRent; Caroline, or ChangePassing StrangeGreat Comet (description)

Finale/Bows/Exit Music (Back to top)

Tuesday, December 11, 2:30–5:20pm: Final Presentations and Papers Due