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Broadway Babies Say Goodnight

Today, the 121st anniversary of the birth of George Abbott, is as apt a time as any to post the review of Mark Steyn's history of Broadway and the Broadway Musical, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight.

The Broadway musical didn't really evolve from European opera so much as take a century-long detour from it. In fact, I'd argue that it replayed the evolution of opera, taking about 100 years to cover the territory that opera covered in several centuries. But it's still distinctively American, relying on stories of common, everyday people rather than the mistaken identity of royals of various middle-Europeans principalities. The beat of Viennese operetta was 3/4. The beat of Broadway is 4/4.

The story is one of every-tightening connection between the song and the book, until the book, for all intents and purposes becomes the song. At first, the Broadway musical was little more than a straight play with Tin Pan Alley-type songs stuffed in at intervals.

Over time, the songs started to be more scene-specific. Consider the Student Prince. Written in the mid-20s, it still has a Tin Pan Alley feel to it, but the songs are in character. And yet, "Deep in My Heart, Dear," and "Serenade" would fit right into Desert Song, another Romberg show.

The big change occurred in 1927, with Show Boat. Kern & Hammerstein changed the nature of the show. The songs now not only reflect the feelings of the characters, but actually advance the plot and give broader commentary. Even "After the Ball," is used to effect: it was a huge, huge hit for decades, and it was used to evoke an earlier age. It completely changed the game, but it wasn't really matched again until Hammerstein got his second immortal writing partner.

The apex of this kind of musical came with My Fair Lady. The songs are all character- and scene-specific. They all advance the plot, and they all are seamlessly integrated with the book. But the book still carries the lion's share of the plot. The acting matters as much as the singing, and the dialogue is sparkling.

And's almost as though they ran out of things to to say. The form would change again with the blockbuster musical, but also with what's called the "sung-though" musical. Think Scarlet Pimpernel. The singing barely stops, mostly just to let the actors catch their breaths. All the plot movement is done through song, and even the dialogue is mostly sung, a la operatic recitative. We've come full-circle, back to opera.

Likewise, the relationship between words and music has changed over time. The Tin Pan Alley music was usually little more than a vehicle for a story. Even by the time of the Student Prince, the songs might stand on their own, but the words and the music fit together. Now, Cole Porter songs sound like Cole Porter songs because the music is almost incidental to the words.

But by the mid- and late-50s, the words and music fit together so perfectly that you can't imagine the words going to any other notes. Or any other words, going with those notes. The words are clever, the rhymes inventive and lyrical in their own right. If you miss what the singer is saying, you miss about half the story.

Now, listen to just about any song from Pimpernel. Do you really care about the words? No, it's the music that sets the mood. And just as nobody cares who Mozart's librettists were, nobody really cares who's writing the words for Andrew Lloyd Weber, at least not since Tim Rice left.

In fact, nobody really seems to care much about Broadway now, anyway. The shows are expensive to produce, so the number of new shows each year is pitiful. The genre seems played out, even if new, original musicals like Curtains evoke the older-style musical rather than the sung-through pseudo-opera. The new ideas are all in Hollywood, and now Broadway, incapable of producing stars of its own, borrows them from TV and the movies.

If the first half of the book chronicles the rise of Broadway's music, the second tells the tale of this slow, painful decline. Perhaps the saddest comment he makes, is that if they really wanted to reproduce Sunset Boulevard in a musical, the Norma Desmond should be a fading Broadway diva, forced to act in current musicals.

Steyn's erudition about the musical theater shows in his analysis of songs, rhyme schemes, play structure. He's an endless wealth of anecdotes and analysis.

It's just a shame that all the grist for his mill is old.

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