Modern American Musicals
The great American musical
The first American musical, The Black Crook, opened in 1866 at Niblo’s Garden on Broadway. It was an extravaganza with lots of scene changes and big musical numbers including The March of the Amazons. It was a great success on Broadway and in London–the chorus girls scandalously revealing lots of leg may have helped.
In 1898 The Belle of New York became one of the first all-American musical smash hits to reach London. However it was the Gershwin musicals of the 1920s that heralded a new era of the American popular musical in the UK and made stars of Fred and Adele Astaire. Over the next two decades, American composers such as George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter contributed to many British revues and musicals.
Brothers Ira and George Gershwin were born in New York in 1896 and 1898. They became the great musical team of the Jazz age - George writing the music and Ira the lyrics. Hits included Lady be Good, Of Thee I Sing, Funny Face, Porgy and Bess and Oh Kay! starring Gertrude Lawrence. Their work became hugely popular through recordings and film.
Fred and Adele Astaire
Lady be Good in 1924, starring Fred and Adele Astaire, was the Gershwins’ first full-scale collaboration as composer and lyricist. The score included standards such as the title song and Fascinatin’ Rhythm. It came to London in 1926. The Astaires brought to British musical theatre energy, fluency, dexterity and a casual slickness that contrasted with the laid-back style of British musical stars such as Jack Buchanan.
Adele gave up the stage in 1932 when she married Charles Cavendish, youngest son of the Duke of Devonshire. Fred went on to partner British performer Claire Luce in Cole Porter’s The Gay Divorcee. This was his first romantic lead and his last stage show before taking up a Hollywood contract. His first major starring role was a film version of The Gay Divorcee with Ginger Rogers. Gershwin wrote several films for Astaire, including Shall We Dance and Damsel in Distress which featured the song A Foggy Day in London Town.
Fred and Adele Astaire in 'Stop Flirting'
Most people know Fred Astaire from his films with Ginger Rogers, but before that he was a great stage star in musical comedy with his sister Adele. This photograph shows them in Stop Flirting, the show in which they first appeared in London. At first it was not a success. So as publicity, the streets were littered with mock wallets, showing the top of a ten shilling note inside. When opened they revealed only the top part of a note - the rest was simply an advertisement for the show! Then, just as it was due to close, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, came to see it. Suddenly it became the show to see and it ran for over a year. Then came Lady Be Good and Funny Face. But in 1932 Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish, youngest son of the Duke of Devonshire, leaving a distraught Fred wondering if he would ever work again. Despite the success of his partnership with Ginger Rogers and others, some critics felt that Fred spent his life searching for another Adele.
Adele was Fred Astaire’s older sister and during their stage career she was the more famous half of the duo. He was the perfectionist, whereas Adele was much more relaxed about her performances, though she always suffered from indigestion before opening nights. Adele was charming and attractive as well as a skillful dancer and a delicious comedienne. Her bubbling charm can still be heard on the recordings that she and Fred made of their hit shows. She had innumerable boyfriends, but in 1929 she caught the eye of Lord Charles Cavendish, son of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Media interest in the marriage was so intense that the ceremony took place in secret at Chatsworth, and even the household staff were not told until the morning of the marriage. Adele gave up performing and went to live with her husband at Lismore Castle in Ireland. When asked if she missed her life on the stage, she replied simply ‘Never’. She once said that she had always really wanted to be a chemist.
Magazine page advertising Adele and Fred Astaire
Lady Be Good was written specially for Fred and Adele Astaire by George Gershwin, who particularly admired Fred’s ability to put over a song. As composer Burton Lane said, ‘George was born to write for Fred and Fred was born to dance to George’s music’. As well as the title song, Lady Be Good included ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’ and the comic ‘I’d Rather Charleston’, with Adele as a dizzy brunette who would rather dance than learn history. The Astaires were idolised in London. Headlines like ‘Fred and Adele Astaire – Please Come Back to London’, were common whenever they opened a new show in New York. Lady Be Good was the last show to be performed at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square before it became a cinema. On the last night the audience included the former star of the Empire ballet, Adeline Genée, and audience and cast gave her a great ovation. Also there was the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) who after the show threw a last night party for the Astaires at St James’s Palace.
Funny Face programme
Funny Face was a successful show both personally and professionally for Adele Astaire. It ran for 263 performances in London and on the last night in 1929, Adele met Lord Charles Cavendish, youngest son of the Duke of Devonshire. They met again in New York and Adele proposed to him at a party. The next morning Lord Charles reminded Adele of her proposal and told her if she didn’t marry him now he would sue her for breach of promise! Jessie Matthews saw the Astaires in Funny Face and remembered their sophistication and professionalism, but she was most impressed by Adele’s comic skills. The show had a wonderful score by George Gershwin including the title song, and ‘S’ Wonderful’. Many years later, when Fred was a famous Hollywood star, Funny Face was filmed. Fred played a photographer trying to persuade a bohemian Audrey Hepburn into a career as a model, but only the title and the Gershwin songs remained from the stage show.
Hart, Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein
The 1920s and 1930s were the era of the great American song-writing teams: George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. In their shows, songs began to be integrated rather than just inserted into the plot, and were used to help develop storyline and character.
Musicals were growing up. First of the great book musicals to be seen in London was Show Boat, composed by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, which opened at Drury Lane in 1928. 'Show Boat' was the story of the Cotton Blossom, a floating theatre travelling up and down the Mississippi. With a sub-plot about racial discrimination, the musical heralded a more realistic plot line in musicals and contrasted with the sentimentality of British musicals of the period. The hit song ‘Old Man River’, sung in London by Paul Robeson, became an anthem of black oppression.
Musicals began to explore more serious issues - Joey in Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey was no conventional musical hero but a heartless nightclub performer who walks out on his girlfriend for an older woman who has the money to set him up in his own club. The original 1940 Broadway production made a star of an unknown called Gene Kelly. The last London revival in 1980 starred Denis Lawson.
Programme for the musical Show Boat
In 1928 Show Boat, a new musical adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and music by Jerome Kern, opened at the Drury Lane theatre. It had been produced in New York the previous Christmas. The play takes place on the show boat, 'Cotton-Blossom', a floating theatre that travels up and down the Mississippi, stopping to put on performances along the way. The great American actor and singer Paul Robeson played a minor role, but stole the show with the song 'Ol Man River'. All the reviews singled out Robeson, one claiming that he and the other black member of the cast Marie Burke, ‘towered above everybody else on the stage in their suggestions of character and atmosphere’. His position at fourth in the cast list shows that the producers didn't underestimate his worth either. Robeson was a major pioneer among black performers. He visited Britain several times in the 1920s and 30s, starring in a number of films here and appearing on stage in London and with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon.
Music sheet cover for Ol' Man River
Show Boat combined the talents of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, both of whom had felt for some time that Broadway musical theatre was suffering from a surfeit of fluffy musical comedies and needed some depth. Based on Edna Ferber's sprawling novel of life on the Mississippi, Show Boat opened in New York in 1927 and set out to deal with issues such as unhappy marriages and racial prejudice. It opened in New York in 1927 and ran for 572 performances. Magnolia Hawks, whose father owns the show boat 'Cotton Blossom', falls in love with a gambler named Gaylord Ravenal. They marry, but he gambles away all their money and they separate. The subplot involves Magnolia's mulatto (a person having one white and one black parent) friend, Julie La Verne, who is forbidden to perform when her parentage is revealed. The show mixed white and black performers, and 'Ol' Man River', sung by Paul Robeson, became an anthem for black Americans. He repeated his role in the 1936 film, starring Irene Dunne and Alan Jones as Magnolia and Ravenal, who appear on this sheet music, rather than Robeson, who actually performed the song.
Scene from the musical Pal Joey
Pal Joey, with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart, was based on a series of short stories by John O'Hara about Joey Evans, a small-time, fast-talking Chicago entertainer. Starring an unknown called Gene Kelly, it opened on Broadway in 1940, but didn't run, although many of the songs became standards with the big bands of the time. Not until 1952 did it become a hit when a new production played on Broadway for 540 performances, sparked a twelve-city national tour, and went on to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for 'Best Musical'.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma! revolutionised musical theatre. Oklahoma! was the first musical that integrated songs, lyrics and dance with the dramatic action of the play. Both song and dance were used to reveal a character’s emotions or to move the plot forward.
Although Rodgers and Hammerstein were big Broadway names with their partners Lorenz Hart and Jerome Kern, they had never worked together before. They had real trouble selling the show – the backers could see no interest in a show, with no star names, that tells the simple tale of a young girl’s attraction to two men, and where the burning question was who would take her to the local social. Nor did its original title 'Away We Go' inspire confidence. A critic at the out-of-town previews summed it up No jokes, no girls, no hope.
Renamed Oklahoma! (the exclamation mark was a last-minute thought and the poor press department was up all night inserting 4000 exclamation marks into 1000 press releases before they could announce the show) it opened on Broadway in 1943 and was an immediate smash hit.
Choreographer Agnes de Mille created a dream ballet at the end of the first act which reveals the heroine’s state of confusion in her attraction to both the honest, simple Curly and the dangerous, unstable Jud Fry. Like the songs, the dance now created an emotional subtext to the story and was completely integrated into the plot.
Oklahoma! opened in London in 1947, again with a cast of unknowns. Curly was played by Harold Keel, who, as Howard Keel, was to star in some of the most famous MGM musicals of the 1950s, including Kiss Me Kate, Calamity Jane and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The show was an immediate hit. To grey, post-war London it brought energy, youth and a feeling of boundless optimism. It smashed Chu Chin Chow's 20-year long-run record.
Oklahoma! chorus girls
This photograph shows dancers from the 1943 New York production of Oklahoma!. They are dressed as saloon girls in the dream ballet, which closed the first act. Based on Green Grow the Lilacs, a stage play by Lynn Riggs, Oklahoma! brought together for the first time composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. They went on to write nine Broadway musicals together, but none as important for the development of musical theatre as Oklahoma!. Story, song and, especially, the dances choreographed by Agnes de Mille, were fully integrated. For the first time dance was used not as an interlude but, in the dream ballet, to reveal the heroine’s hidden fears and desires. Oklahoma! opened in New York in 1943 and ran for 2,212 performances. When the show opened in London in 1947, its energy and optimism were a tonic for war-weary audiences and it initiated a nine year domination of Drury Lane by Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.
Howard Keel in Oklahoma!
When Oklahoma! opened in London in 1947, its youthful energy and optimism was a huge tonic for war-weary audiences and it initiated a nine year domination of Drury Lane by Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. As in the New York production, the cast were all unknown but the show made them stars. This photograph shows Harold Keel as Curly, the ‘good’ cowboy who eventually wins the love of farmgirl Laurey. He had a huge success and was immediately snapped up by Hollywood on his return to America. Renamed Howard Keel, he became one of MGM’s biggest musical stars in the 1950s. What made Oklahoma! different was that the songs, lyrics and dances all helped move the plot or characters forward. It was considered so revolutionary that Rodgers and Hammerstein had difficulty finding people to put up the money. They were also working together for the first time and backers thought that, without their usual partners (Lorenz Hart for Rodgers and Jerome Kern for Hammerstein), the show didn’t stand a chance.
Howard Keel and Betty Jane Watson in Oklahoma!
This photograph from the 1943 New York production of Oklahoma! shows Howard Keel and Betty Jane Watson as Curly and Laurey, ‘jist married’ at the end of the show. They are peering out of the carriage which is the subject of one of Oklahoma!’s most famous songs: ‘The Surrey With the Fringe On Top’. Oklahoma! brought together for the first time composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/ librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, who would go on to write nine smash hit musicals together. It opened on Broadway in 1943 with a cast of unknowns playing out the simple plot about which of two hopeful young men would take farmgirl Laurey to the local dance. It seemed an insubstantial thing, which would disappear fairly quickly. However, it was a revolutionary musical in that for the first time the songs, lyrics and dances weren’t simply interludes in the plot. They all contributed to moving the story or characterisations forward. Oklahoma! was also the first show to have an ‘original cast’ recording made, so starting another trend.
The Auction scene in Oklahoma!
The burning question in Oklahoma! is who will take Laurey Williams to the box social (the local dance) - the decent Curly McLain or the sinister Jud Fry. It is set against the background of Oklahoma's attempts to be recognised as a state (which it finally achieved in 1907, celebrated in the rousing title-song), and the arguments between the farmers and the cowboys about who has the greater claim to the land. This scene, from the 1947 London production, is one of high drama within the bounds of the plot. At the box social the men bid to buy the picnic 'boxes' prepared by the girls – with the girl's company thrown in. Curly and Jud get into a bidding war over Laurey's basket which spirals out of control. Here Curly, played by Howard Keel, offers to sell his saddle, which he needs to make his living as a cowboy, in order to match Jud's bid of his life's savings.
American musicals post-1950
After Oklahoma! American musicals dominated musical theatre in Britain for 30 years. Rodgers and Hammerstein followed Oklahoma! with Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music.
This was the era of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, Lerner and Lowe’s phenomenally successful My Fair Lady and Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls.
Lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s revolutionary West Side Story were written by Stephen Sondheim – who was to write music and lyrics for some of the most important musicals of the late 20th century, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which was the basis for Frankie Howerd’s hit TV show Up Pompeii), A Little Night Music and Into the Woods.
Richard Gere in Grease
In the days before he became a Hollywood star, Richard Gere spent some time working in London, in both theatre work and temporary jobs. He got his big break as greaser Danny Zuko in the 1973 London production of Grease. Grease with music, lyrics and book by Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey, opened off-Broadway in February 1972 to such a response that by the summer it was playing on Broadway. It satirised the dress, manners, morals and music of teenagers at the beginning of the rock and roll era. The plot revolves around the attraction between greaser Danny Zuko and the virtuous Sandy Dumbrowski and the 'makeover' that leads to their happy ending. The show's hits included 'Summer Nights', 'Greased Lightning', and 'You're the One that I Want'. Despite its huge Broadway and London success, the stage version of Grease can't compete with the enduring popularity of the 1978 film version starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John.
Bill Johnson and Patricia Morison in Kiss Me, Kate
The plot of Kiss Me, Kate, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, revolves around a theatre company putting on a musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. The offstage relationship troubles of the four leading players start to interfere with the action of the show they are 'performing'. Here, Frederick Graham in his role as Petruchio has lost his temper with his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi, who is playing his wife-to-be, Kate the shrew. He decides, to Lilli's absolute fury, to go off script to dish out some punishment, causing complete confusion to the audience and the rest of the cast. The two fantastic comic/ romantic leads, Fred Petruchio and Lilli Kate have some of Porter's best songs including, 'I Hate Men', 'So in Love', 'Were Thine that Special Face', and 'Where is the Life that Late I Led'.
The chorus from the musical Kiss Me, Kate
Kiss Me, Kate was first produced at the New Century Theatre, New York in December 1948, and was the only one of Porter's musicals to exceed a thousand performances on Broadway. The book was written by Sam and Bella Spewack, a husband and wife team who collaborated on many successful Broadway shows. One of the reasons for Kiss Me, Kate's popularity was the depiction of the 'backstage lives' of the company. The chorus get several great numbers while they are 'rehearsing' or in the 'intervals' including 'Another Op'ning, Another Show' and 'Too Darn Hot'.
Lauren Kennedy inl South Pacific
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's South Pacific brought new realism to the musical. Opening in New York in 1949, it was set in the South Pacific in World War II, only four years after the war had ended. It told of love, racial prejudice, cultural clashes and the frustrations of the war - in a musical at once enchanting and thought-provoking. Adapted from two short stories by James Michener, it chronicles two love affairs - Lt Joe Cable with a Polynesian girl and Nurse Nellie Forbush with Emile de Becque, a French planter. The show was full of such memorable Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers as 'Some Enchanted Evening', 'There is Nothing Like a Dame', 'I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy' and the lovely 'Younger Than Springtime' which they had actually written for a completely different show but had been cut. This photograph is of Lauren Kennedy as Nellie Forbush in the National Theatre production in 2001, singing 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair'. When the show was first produced at Drury Lane in 1952, Nellie was played by Mary Martin and among the nurses was a young actress called June Whitfield.