What Works

Michael Friedman

  • The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity by Raymond Knapp
    Princeton, 361 pp, £22.95, December 2004, ISBN 0 691 11864 7

What is wrong with American musical theatre? It seems to make people nervous, in ways that none of the other native forms do. Jazz, rock, movies and television have all been easily absorbed into American culture, but the musical languishes as a kind of embarrassing cousin. The reason could be political. Musicals could be seen as a blue-state phenomenon – urbane, sinful, excessive and sophisticated, probably homosexual and Jewish – that has somehow ‘insinuated’ itself into American popular culture. Or perhaps they are a red-state art form: patriotic, sentimental, hopelessly unhip and white, full of small-town values, at home in suburban high schools. Unlike jazz and film, which gained respectability as pop and TV supplanted their popularity, the musical holds its own lonely place in culture; it doesn’t quite belong to anyone.

Raymond Knapp is a musicologist who has in the past written about Brahms and Tchaikovsky. In setting out to explain ‘how and why musicals have mattered to people, and to American culture generally’, he argues that their central preoccupation is with defining America. As with all forms of popular culture, they reflect national identity even as they contribute to it. It would be overstating the case to see them as major forces of change: they do not so much create national identity as help it to coalesce or cohere. Two famous musicals confront the question of labour unrest: The Pajama Game resolves all its complications, and makes the issues palatable, funny, sexy and safe; The Cradle Will Rock encourages political change, and makes the issues contemporary, dangerous and difficult to face. The Pajama Game was a huge hit and by far the more influential show. It is probably also the better of the two. But its success indicates that the musical is a form in which social issues can be addressed and made comfortable for mass audiences.

Less contentious is the importance of the musical in the history of the American theatre, which has been, for most of its life, inseparable from musical theatre: in fact, before O’Neill, there was no tradition of non-musical theatre in America to speak of. The transgressions of the minstrel show, the hodge-podge of vaudeville and the dance-musical spectacular have had an enormous influence on American consciousness. Also, American theatre, unlike opera and most European theatre even today, is almost wholly commercial. There is hardly any tradition of state subsidy in American theatre, and the musical, from the minstrel show to Mamma Mia, has developed primarily as a way to make money. What ‘works’ is therefore liable to be more important than what matters. And because it is in the business of pleasing the majority, the American musical seldom has any real political force. So, while it may have political themes and even messages, its overall effect tends to be comforting; when it has had an influence on radical American culture, it has been in secret, or by stealth.

If the musical is no different from almost all American drama from O’Neill to Kushner, from the mainstream of American film from Griffith to Spielberg, or from most American art, in its preoccupation with national identity, why do musicals make so many people – liberals and conservatives, intellectuals and philistines – so uncomfortable? The answer lies in the role of the music in the musical: separate from the drama, yet unsettlingly part of it. Coupled with this is a sense that the musical disguises its transgressions as mass entertainment: The Pajama Game may be comforting, but strange things are happening in the dark at Hernando’s Hideaway. Not only do musicals not declare their subversiveness: it seems not even to disturb their veneer, which is why so many intellectuals dismiss them, or enjoy them only as camp. But the great, strange achievement of the American musical has been to combine the forces of the minstrel show, the operetta, the drag act, the issue drama, the boulevard farce and the political rally on a single stage and still find a way to make itself acceptable in the marketplace.

In many ways, the musical is no different from 19th-century opera, another collaborative musical-theatre art form that embarrasses many people, but has undeniable political overtones. Oklahoma!’s reflection of 1940s political unity in the mirror of the frontier has a parallel in Nabucco’s treatment of Italian independence in the setting of the ancient Middle East. Nineteenth-century grand opera took what had been an aristocratic medium and turned it, from Meyerbeer to late Verdi, into an almost programmatic statement of Republican values. American musical theatre has never shown such consistency; nothing in it combines the popular art and barefaced politics of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Nabucco or Boris Godunov, nor has any single genius been able to sweep away collaboration in the writing of musicals, as Wagner and Verdi did with opera.

Musicals, unlike operas, almost never end badly, and avoid bloodshed. They are about bringing together, not destroying, and they seldom challenge the status quo. They are a way of telling us who we are now. We are the audience of the Cotton Blossom, and we should be more racially sensitive; we are the residents of Oklahoma, and we need to learn to get along and function as a coherent society; we are the people of Carousel, and our sexuality is frightening and confusing.

The problem of opera – how to make music that is equal to the drama of the libretto without rendering the libretto unnecessary – plagues the musical, too, but with a difference. Its problem is how to make the numbers transcend the book without making the book seem like padding. Musicals that don’t manage this, like most of those by Jerome Kern or Andrew Lloyd Webber, end up as song cycles barely held together by text. When they do pull it off – Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man – they can make for extraordinarily powerful theatrical experiences.

Knapp does an excellent job of tracing the roots of the musical, avoiding much of the received wisdom, though he underplays its Viennese and Eastern European influences, as well as the role of Jewish immigrants in its development. There is also rather more to be said about the relationship between jazz and the music in musicals. But he does see in The Black Crook, generally considered the grandfather of the musical, an ‘adroit balancing act between seriousness and frank frivolity’ that will inform almost all musical theatre in the following century. And by addressing two very different influences, the minstrel show and the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, he refocuses our thoughts on the origins of the musical. His scrupulous chapter on the influence of blackface and minstrelsy reroots the musical in African-American culture:

In blackface, exaggeration and a ritualised transgression against ‘naturalness’ prove to be liberating; in musicals, however, this plays out differently, as we in the audience pretend through the convention of ‘suspending disbelief’ not to notice how artificially the emotional level has suddenly shifted into a higher gear – all the while relishing the performance as such, as an event unto itself.

It is this combination of the performance as brilliant transgression with Gilbert and Sullivan’s lyrical irony that informs the best musicals.

Oklahoma!, as Knapp shows, is about nation building, cowboys and World War Two; Assassins about American power and its discontents; Show Boat about race relations; and The King and I about imperialism. Unfortunately, his focus on the American theme means that he avoids musicals that have almost nothing to say about America: My Fair Lady, The Lion King (which trumped the aggressively American Ragtime in both critical and financial success), Oliver! and almost all Sondheim’s early musicals, which attack the form without having any real American content. And as part of the same problem he does not explain whether thematic content is responsible for the success or failure of musicals. He blames the failure of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Limited on its unpalatable message about English and American imperialism but neglects to mention that it is one of their weaker works.

It isn’t clear whether Knapp means to show us what particular musicals have to say about their own historical moment, about the moment of their historical setting, or about the present. Cabaret, for example, is included as part of America’s reaction to the Second World War, and Fiddler on the Roof under the heading ‘Race and Ethnicity’ (both are examples of post-Holocaust America’s relation to pre-Holocaust culture), but it is also important to note that Fiddler (1964) and Cabaret (1966) appeared within two years of each other, and that there is a curious parallel between their opening numbers, in which a charismatic central figure addresses the audience directly. The two musicals are as much representations of 1960s rebellion and unrest as of Weimar and the shtetl, and their books offer upsetting depictions of a cruel and unpleasant contemporary world. But the scores offer echoes of Weill, 1920s Chicago jazz and Hebrew music. These brilliant pastiches of old styles offer a refuge from the political and social complexities reflected so strongly in the popular music of the 1960s; and in film versions and revivals, the comfort is doubled as we recognise the famous tunes. Sam Mendes can frighten us with syphilitic dancers and Nazi flags, but the music tells us that everything is all right.

The 1960s and early 1970s were also the era of the enormous movie musical. There is a clear difference between stage musicals and their filmed adaptations. Not only is live performance, which can differ from night to night and involves a direct relationship with the audience, different from filmed performance in obvious ways, but the number of songs in a stage musical is much higher than in a film, so that its texture and structure are different. Film is also a more naturalistic medium, and it is therefore a greater disruption when a character breaks into song on film – which is why so many of the great film musicals are set in the theatre. Knapp insists at the beginning of the book that live performance is essential to the way musicals work, yet almost every illustration in his book comes from a film, and his interpretations of The Sound of Music and Cabaret are based almost entirely on the film versions. Unfortunately, much of the time, film adaptations of musicals are travesties: South Pacific seems more progressive and less preachy on stage, Guys and Dolls scrappier and funnier, more an expression of American know-how and wit; even Fiddler on the Roof is watchable. The most interesting film musicals are original, and often have few numbers: Swing Time, a Depression-era film and the best Astaire-Rogers movie; Meet Me in St Louis, an extraordinary evocation of the American family and the darkness looming within it; Nashville, a definitive portrait of the American social experience of the 1970s.

Knapp never quite defines what a musical is, but Arlene Croce, in her Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book of 1972, successfully sets the boundaries, when she describes the musical’s numbers as ‘the only serious business’ in them. A musical is a dramatic form in which individual song and dance numbers are the most serious business, but, unlike opera or ballet, not the only business. The seriousness can be frivolous, but the songs must carry the weight of the show. That is why a film such as Meet Me in St Louis, with a relatively small number of songs, still works structurally as a musical: each of the songs centres and clarifies the film, while also existing as an autonomous unit. While there is far more music and singing in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, the songs do not really function on their own, but interact with the text in a way that leaves the play feeling still very much like a play. In a musical, the numbers are both connected to the libretto and stand forever apart from it.

Knapp is well aware of the way attention is allocated to performer and performance during numbers in a musical, in which emotion is intensified, and time suspended. These moments violate the integrity of the drama, but also give it definition. D.A. Miller, in Place for Us (1998), a brilliant essay on the American musical and homosexuality, describes the ‘fundamental structural opposition between narrative and number’ and points out that in Gypsy, so often taken as a paradigm of the integrated musical, the book and the music are ‘so radically at odds that every positive value in one becomes its exact negative in the other, and vice versa’. It is precisely because musicals are a gay genre, Miller argues, that they have been lucky enough to escape serious intellectual attention. Similarly he suggests that it is precisely the gap between numbers and script, between stylisation and realism, that makes musicals so American, and so gay. He regrets that musicals, in their self-importance, have tried to take on the great themes and dramatic consistency of ‘straight’ drama, whereas drama has shown little interest in taking on the more fluid structure of the musical.

The gay content and gay participation in musicals is a barrier to their popular acceptance as an expression of American identity, as Knapp notes, but their submerged ‘gayness’, like their origin in blackface entertainment, allows the numbers to tell a more interesting story than the surface would seem to suggest. The performer, in both cases, may not be what he or she seems, and in the gap between storytelling and musical number, we can read the complicated dialectic between how Americans present themselves and what Americans might actually be. Nellie Forbush may be ‘just folks’, but in Act II of South Pacific she sings about dumping a man to a bump-and-grind rhythm wearing only a towel, then performs a vaudeville turn with a cross-dressing marine. If we identify with Nellie Forbush, as we are clearly meant to do, what does that say about us?

When Knapp focuses on the structure of musicals, and how it works to move us and persuade us, he is very effective. He puts the American waltz back at the centre of the musical theatre tradition, and his exegesis of Kern and Harbach’s ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ is a model explanation of the interaction of music and lyric. His description of the balance of parody and lyricism in Yum Yum’s aria in the Mikado reveals the emergence in the musical of the blend of sentiment and cynicism that would become distinctly American in the 20th century. Best of all is the discussion of The Music Man, in which every character is at some point deceived, seduced and persuaded by the music itself, just as the audience is deceived, seduced and persuaded by the performance. To watch a musical is to be, briefly, an American: ‘We, too, have willingly joined the band, and the moment of joining, at least, is an exhilarating one.’