- Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical of the 1950s
The Broadway musical was once central to American culture. Before the onslaught of rock 'n' roll and the youth culture of the Baby Boomers, Broadway composers and lyricists provided tunes for the weekly Hit Parade, raw material for the improvisations of jazz musicians, and new stars for Hollywood. Broadway was a part of the "modern transmitting metropolis" (Williams 1989:40). A decidedly bourgeois form, the Broadway musical of the '50s was a complex creation. Firmly grounded in the prejudices and aesthetics of mass culture, it also displayed [End Page 174] exuberance and wit, evinced by the sly handling and subverting of sexual mores, and it provided a vast amount of sheer fun. The form flourished from the mid 1920s through the end of the '60s.
Ethan Mordden is a prolific author who has written more than 20 books on opera and musical theatre, in addition to fiction. He has embarked on an ambitious project: a decade-by-decade look at the Broadway musical. Make Believe (1997) chronicles the role of producers and individual performers in the creation of the form during the '20s. Beautiful Mornin' (1999) examines the pioneering use of narrative by Rodgers and Hammerstein and the increasing prominence of the director in the 1940s. Coming Up Roses details the quiet, decade-long revolution during which the narrative breakthroughs of the '40s coalesced, storytelling influenced structure, and, perhaps most importantly, movement and dance became central to the narrative drive of the material.
Mordden covers some of the same shows covered by Ken Mandelbaum in his instructive Not Since Carrie (1991). But where Mandelbaum concentrates on what went wrong in his dissection of legendary Broadway flops, Mordden hones in on what went right. He has previously observed "novelty was often a substitute for imagination in the early fifties" (1976:240). However, by decade's end, the increased use of adaptations made the musical more difficult and complex and more serious. There was less musical comedy and more musical play. The form shifted away from personality and towards story. He astutely observes that original shows are usually star vehicles, "built around a personality that comes more or less prefabricated" (1998:135). The '50s began with Ethel Merman in an original confection, Call Me Madam (1950), drawn from the life of society hostess Pearl Mesta, and ended with Merman in the dark fable of show business, Gypsy (1959), inspired by the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. This emphasis on story, whether drawn from fiction, movies, or older plays, went so far as to affect the structure of the musical form. While the "curtain up" number still existed, a show could now begin with a book scene if that's what the story demanded.
Mordden notes that, "only 50 percent of a given musical is what was actually written: the other 50 percent is how it was performed" (14). The introduction of the "cast album" by Decca in 1942 and the development of the LP by Columbia Records in 1948 allowed 1950s musicals to extend their reach beyond the Great White Way. Not only were the melodies and rhythms of the Broadway stage available, but a simulacrum of the original performance could be purchased. The Broadway cast album on the "hi-fi" in the suburban living room was a new and important cultural artifact for the emerging middle class. It created both a memory of and a cultural permanence for performances that used to disappear once the sets were dumped into the landfills of New Jersey.
However, there was one key element of the Broadway musical that couldn't be transmitted by the new technology, and that was the dance and movement that were becoming integral to musicals. Morrden sees the 1950s as "the decade of the choreographer" (32). He reads The King and I (1951) as a war between two competing cultures and focuses on the importance of a heroine with flaws. He duly notes that West Side Story (1959) is a...