- Lady in the Dark: Biography of a Musical, and: Oklahoma! The Making of an American Musical
The 1930s and 1940s saw a number of innovative contributions to the genre of American musical theatre. From Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's forward-looking Showboat (1927) to the Federal Theatre Project's controversial The Cradle Will Rock (1938) to the commencement of a sixteen-year collaboration between the legendary Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, musical theatre during this period demonstrated an ongoing evolution toward maturity of content, form, and style. Two musicals pivotal to this evolution, Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin, and Moss Hart's Lady in the Dark and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! are discussed at length by music scholars Bruce McClung and Tim Carter in their detailed biographies of these respective works.
A good biography of a musical, much like a biography of a person, provides a detailed history of its subject, drawn from records, memos, journals, articles, books, and interviews as well as analytic commentary on the subject's key contributions within a specific social, cultural, aesthetic, and/or political context. Despite exhibiting minor drawbacks, both of these books are successful on that level and effectively contribute to the historiography of musical theatre. McClung and Carter also employ similar presentation structures; yet the overall emphases and writing styles of these two authors differ significantly.
McClung, in focusing on Lady in the Dark, ad-dresses the underdog of the two musicals—that is, the lesser known and less often produced work. Presumably for this reason, he smartly begins the musical's biography with a chapter describing the opening-night experience from an omniscient standpoint. Detailing the 23 January 1941 stage production scene by scene, he narrates the event, from the filtering of expectant patrons into the lobby, to the first actors' entrances, to the stagehands' first cue to rotate the turntables, to various audience reactions (including those of the creators). In providing this opening-night narrative, McClung effectively presents a synopsis of the piece in its final format to those unfamiliar with it, and establishes a participatory, anecdotal approach that successfully informs the remainder of the biography.
The seven chapters that follow chronologically narrate the life of Lady in the Dark from conception through major revivals and films, contextualizing its themes of psychoanalysis and women's issues in conjunction with the formal innovations that render the piece a precursor to the concept musical. In accomplishing this, McClung illustrates both the significance of Lady in the Dark as an inventive musical and the specifically modern nature of its themes that inhibited its staying power within the changing American social milieu. As the author states in the prologue, "by understanding Lady in the Dark's original context, one comes to appreciate why it was so quickly overshadowed by Oklahoma! and how vividly social history can be read through the lens of the American musical theatre" (xvii).
In particular, McClung addresses the piece's popular status as a "musical play" or, in Weill's terms, "dramatic musical," referencing both the operettas of preceding decades and the more recent move toward the advancement of story through music (the "integrated" approach). He also offers a bit of background information on the history of psycho-analysis that led to this show's topicality within its social context, although this discussion is somewhat sparse. If McClung is least comfortable discussing [End Page 328] the history of psychotherapy, however, he appears most comfortable analyzing the show's score. In chapter 3, a twenty-page analysis of Weill's score, McClung clearly and succinctly addresses the elements of tonal structure and dance idioms that define the score's format; the composer's use of motive and leitmotif, as well as their function in the show; and the rather elaborate system of keys in which Weill wrote Lady in the Dark, as well as this system's correspondence to the...