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9.5: Varieties of Nostalgia in the 1950s

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  • The shows of these two towering creative teams were not the only ones to receive acclaim or to introduce innovations. Musicals carried different meanings for different audiences. The themes of the stories and situations dealt with many different issues and topics that were both appealing and thought-provoking in diverse ways and in varying degrees. Several important shows by other composers evoked a nostalgic view of America. They are known as works by their composers alone, rather than as ones that represent a partnership. Guys and Dolls (1950), by Frank Loesser, was based on characters from stories by Damon Runyon set in the New York underworld of the 1920s and 1930s ( which became known as “Run- yonland”). The Music Man (1957), by Meredith Willson, another classically trained musician, is the love story of a librarian and a traveling salesman set in small-town Iowa. Audiences loved the sweet, romantic view of urban and rural surroundings depicted by these two shows. Gypsy (1959), by Jule (pronounced JOO-lie ) Styne, can be viewed as representing nostalgia of a very different type. Set during the vaudeville era, it was based on the autobiography of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Dealing with hard-edged subject matter, it was among the first shows to reveal the unpleasant side of human relationships, with several emotionally wrenching scenes and songs for Gypsy’s strong-willed mother, Mama Rose. The collaboration among members of the personnel was complex and is a good example of the strong influence performers could exert in the creation of a musical. Ethel Merman was engaged to play Mama Rose and was brought into the planning stages early on. She insisted that Styne was a better choice as composer than Stephen Sondheim, who had made his mark as lyricist for West Side Story’ two years earlier. In the end, Sondheim, who was slated to compose the music and lyrics for Gypsy, partnered with Styne, creating many of the songs and retaining his role as lyricist. Gypsy featured other West Side Story’ collaborators as well: Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, and Jerome Robbins, a significant figure in theatrical dance in later decades, who created the choreography.

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    A 2011 national tour of West Side Story. The choreography, a blend of modern dance and ballet styles, uses dance as a means of expressing territoriality and violence In much the same way as modern "dance battles" depleted In movies. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

    Leonard Bernstein is a towering figure in the history of American music. His contributions to the musical world as composer, conductor, and educator are unsurpassed by those of any other artist in America in the second half of the twentieth century. Bernstein composed concert works in various genres and film scores as well as musicals. On the Town (1944), his first musical, took its inspiration from a ballet he and Robbins had created called Fancy Free. It exhibits the thorough integration of book, music, and dance so important to Bernsteins creative vision and that would become essential to the musical’s later development.

    West Side Story’ (1957) epitomizes Bernstein’s genius as a craftsman of musical theatre and has earned its place as a classic in the genre. Opening the same year as The Music Man (demonstrating contemporary audiences’ widely ranging tastes), it involved the collaboration of the era’s leading artists: Sondheim as lyricist, Laurents as author of the book, and Robbins as choreographer. Themes of discrimination, racism, and love play out in a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York highlighting the relationships between members of rival gangs and their families. The film version of rg6r won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The show’s music is rich in melodic and harmonic invention. The ensembles are particularly challenging to coordinate, with dense textures and complex rhythms. The “Tonight” ensemble is operatic in conception, with energetic interplay between individual lines as well as choral groups. Like the best opera composers, Bernstein portrays characters and their contrasting emotions through the changing qualities of the music they sing. “America,” with its driving rhythms and shifting accents, is another high point of the show; both ensembles require performers who are skilled dancers as well as exceptional singers.