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9.3: Musical Comedies of the 1920s and 1930s

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  • Musical theatre in the 1920s and 1930s was all about entertainment. Dance —particularly tap dance —was a crucial element in the early musical comedies popular during these decades. The plots of musical comedies are usually considered frivolous, a result of viewing them through the lens of today’s book musicals. Musical comedies of the rp2os and r93os, like any other genre, need to be understood in their own time, place, and context. They do have narratives, but they stand apart from book musicals because their emphasis is more on comedy and dance than on drama and character development. The musical language of jazz and other types of American popular music greatly influenced musical theatre of this era.

    The brothers George and Ira Gershwin (composer and lyricist, respectively) created many of this era’s most popular works. Songs from some of their musicals took on lives of their own, becoming popular in their own right, independent of the shows in which they had their premieres. At the same time, many of the era’s big stars had their debuts in Gershwin shows. The title song of Strike Up the Band (4927) was the Gershwins’ first hit of the 1930s. The catchy tune “Faseinatin’ Rhythm” with its driving syncopations was first heard in Lady Be Good (1924), the show in which siblings Fred and Adele Astaire made their debut as dancers. The lovely ballad “Someone to Watch over Me” was first heard in Oh, Kay! (1926). Girl Crazy (4930) introduced Ethel Merman to the theatre- going public. Her performance of “I Got Rhythm,” and Ginger Rogers’s of “Embraceable You,” helped to popularize these songs. The show spawned the partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, one of the greatest dance teams in the history of musicals. Although the show itself, like many of the musical comedies of these decades, did not enjoy lasting popularity, it took on new life much later, being revamped as Crazy for You in 1992. The Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing (1931) was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama and the first show to have its book—the spoken dialogue apart from the song lyrics —published separately.

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    Composer George Gershwin. Photo ® Lebreeht Music and Arts/Corbis.

    The best known musical of this era is decidedly not a comedy. Show Boat (19217), by composer Jerome Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, is an actual book musical, widely considered the very first in the genre’s history. With its serious tone and treatment of controversial issues of race, this work stands apart from the popular emphasis on comic entertainment that characterized shows from around its time. Based on a 1926 novel by Edna Ferber with the same title, the show deals with issues of race and class, demonstrating the controversy surrounding miscegenation (interracial marriage). Another innovation concerns the integration of the songs into the plot. Show Boat’s songs are more central to the narrative than those of earlier (and later) musical comedies. This element would become a defining characteristic of the later book musical. Some of Show Boat’s songs are related to each other through similarity of their musical material. For instance, the famous song “01’ Man River” (in the familiar song form, AABA) is linked to “Cotton Blossom” through inversion of melodic material: the first few notes of the opening of the melody of “01’ Man River” are the same as that of “Cotton Blossom” when the tune is run backward.

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    The 2013 production of Show Boat, produced jointly by the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, and Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Dan Rest.

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    This 2011 Portland Center Stage production of Oklahoma! was performed by an all-black east. Traditionally, this story of love In a farming community In 1906 Is done with white actors. However, director Chris Coleman discovered through his research that at one point, one third of cowboys In the West were black, and during the time of the play, there were fifty all-black towns In Oklahoma. Photo by Patrick Welshampel.

    Unfortunately, Show Boat did not inspire a trend. The work and its innovations would not be influential in the development of the musical until the 1940s, when Oklahoma!, the next great book musical and the one to usher in the tradition of greater emphasis on dramatic content, had its premiere. Instead, musical comedies continued to dominate.

    Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, the first composer-lyricist team to attain recognition as such, had a hit with On Your Toes (4936). The great choreographer George Balanchine created the dances, which were central to the plot, and Rodgers and Hart wrote the book together, in a partnership that would span twenty-four years.

    Irving Berlin is known better today for a show that came much later in his career: Annie Get Your Gun (1946). His reputation in the 1930s was built on the strength of his songs, many of which were wildly popular, such as “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “Blue Skies,” to name a few. Berlin wrote both the music and lyrics for his songs, as did Cole Porter, one of the most important figures from around this time. Porter, like Berlin, was classically trained in music, and like Berlin, Porter also had a hit later in his career with Kiss Me Kate (4948). Porter’s songs have a technical complexity unmatched by those of any of his contemporaries. Porter’s lyrics are witty and suggestive and often exhibit a sophisticated use of rhyme. His Anything Goes (1934) was a vehicle for Ethel Merman (it highlighted her as the star); the title song is typical of Porter’s style. Again, dance is a central element in the narrative. The show’s recent successful Broadway revival demonstrates its popularity with modern audiences. Porter’s turbulent career and personal life is the subject of De-Lovely, a biopie with Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, which presents an intriguing montage of many of Porter’s songs (and is named for one of his best-known ones).