By its very nature, Encores! is, always and forever, looking back. But in the 2008-2009 season, we're presenting three shows that share the hallmark of eagerly, some would say recklessly, looking forward — three pieces that, in their own time, pointed toward an unknown future.
The artists who created them were consciously trying to break the mold and take the art form someplace it had never been before. Each of these shows, in its own way, had a lot on its mind. Music in the Air, On The Town, and Finian's Rainbow all delighted in taking chances, formal, political and dramatic.
The earliest, 1932's Music in the Air, which we are presenting in the middle of our season, is the most deceptive, the slyest in its experimentation. Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern had already set the groundwork for the modern musical play with Show Boat in 1927, taking on serious subjects like race relations and using an epic form that covered forty years of American and show business history. From that point on their work together became more intimate and their innovations more formal. At first blush, Music in the Air appears to be more in the tradition of old-fashioned operetta than modern musical theatre. Its Alpine setting and comic twists on the lives of the theatrical elite of Europe belong to an old Viennese tradition. But Hammerstein wanted to explore a real subject: the nature of romantic passion as it evolves from youth, to middle age to the embers of memory in the elderly, a rueful look at how youth squanders what age can never recapture. He did it with a wonderful urbanity, pitting the rural against the metropolitan, country naiveté against city sophistication. He created memorable characters based on classic archetypes and stirred them into a deliciously amoral plot that prefigured the best work of the German émigré film director Ernst Lubitsch. Hammerstein's ambitiousness seemed to inspire more than a distinguished melodic outpouring from Jerome Kern; the composer was determined to take the subject as seriously as his collaborator, and wrote a unique score that reinforces the dramatic and comic scenes as well as providing conventional songs, two of which — "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star" and "The Song Is You" — became standards.
As Encores! music director, Rob Berman, describes it, "Kern and Hammerstein designed a score incredibly tightly matched to the acting beats and the stage action. When the characters sing, it is almost always because they are actually singing in the story, whether it be a songwriter demonstrating his latest work, a choral society rehearsing or a hiking club singing their walking anthem." Kern also provided extraordinary amounts of underscoring, anticipating the way filmmakers would ultimately use music to underpin the emotional arc of each scene. The show's stage directions, which are in many cases paragraphs rather than sentences long, specifically instruct the director as to which bar of music is to coincide with which spoken word or action. The entire event is as controlled a piece of composition as a symphony, yet the end result is an evening much more sophisticated — and far funnier — than most of the knockabout musical comedies with which Music in the Air shared the 1931-32 season on Broadway.
A little more than a decade later, in 1944, On The Town burst on the scene, with a reckless abandon that appears to be the very opposite of Music in the Air. But like Kern and Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden and Adolph Green were convinced that the theatre audience was bright enough and hungry enough to enjoy something ambitious and new. Robbins was a choreographer making a major name for himself in the dance world. Bernstein was a composer of serious modern classical music. Yet the two of them wanted to do a musical comedy, not a dark drama (they would save that for West Side Story 14 years later) or an art piece (they would leave that to others).
Their tale of three sailors given a 24-hour shore leave in New York was shot through with emotional resonance for wartime theatergoers; many of their loved ones were facing the enemy overseas. But, thanks to bookwriters Comden and Green, the tone of On The Town remained zany and sweet-natured, even as the music and dance elements were wildly ambitious. Years later Bernstein recalled that, "it was a very serious show from a structural point of view, and from the point of view of everybody's contribution and the integrity of the esthetic elements. The subject matter was light, but the show was serious." Indeed, ballet and symphonic music ("Prokofiev stuff," according to director George Abbott) had never been used as boldly in a Broadway show before, yet the good-natured tone of On The Town made it easy for audiences to sit back and relax, and the show was a surprise hit, the first truly innovative show to catch on with audiences after the previous season's Oklahoma! As part of this Fall's Leonard Bernstein Festival, we'll open our season with a new production of it.
Bernstein's characterization that "the subject matter was light but the show was serious" may be effectively stood on its ear to describe 1947's Finian's Rainbow, which concludes our season: The subject matter is serious, but the show is light. The comic iconoclast E.Y. ("Yip") Harburg set his penchant for left-wing politics on a collision course with his equal passion for inventive whimsy, and the result was another unexpected hit, thanks in part to the almost unbelievably enjoyable score by Harburg and composer Burton Lane. Harburg, with co-librettist Fred Saidy, concocted a tale set in a mythical southern state and populated it with tobacco farmers, a man of the people based loosely on the American political troubadour Woody Guthrie, and a viciously bigoted Senator probably based on Mississippi's Theodore Bilbo. But for as much of the show as these characters took up, they were all subplot. The plot, such as it was, revolved around an Irish ne'er-do-well named Finian, his charming daughter (the nominal leading lady) a stolen crock of gold, and Og, the leprechaun to whom the crock rightly belongs. What with the Irish and the African-Americans, the poor white labor force and the progressive folksong types like Guthrie, Burton Lane had the opportunity to compose music in a wide variety of styles, and he made the most of it; amazingly, the score, with its ravishing Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations, maintains a unity of outlook (sunny, charming and wryly ironic) and a pure Broadway sound while celebrating a lot of different ethnicities and nationalities. And it boasted a bouquet of hits, from "How Are Things in Glocca Mora" to "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I'm Near)."
The show contained so many plot elements, and Harburg was so enthusiastically in love with all of them, that disaster should have befallen, but sheer ambition (and that score!) saved the day. Rarely, if ever before, had a musical comedy taken on the issue of racism in America so boldly or comically. Finian's features a white villain who actually is turned into a black man so that he may get a taste of his own medicine. That trick, originally accomplished with blackface makeup, is harder to pull off today, and what was boldly progressive in 1947 runs the risk of making audiences uncomfortable in 2008. Still, no political satire had previously been this successful with audiences, and it may be the genius of the show that its very messiness — the rag-tag structure and tone of it — kept audiences from asking too many questions. They simply fell in love with it, which only proves that there are many ways of having a hit.
Music in the Air did it with form, On The Town with spirit, and Finian's Rainbow with satire and sentiment, but each of next season's shows prove that even in the commercial world of Broadway, vaulting ambition and a disregard for the rules can lead to unique forms of success.
This piece appeared in the July 2008 Playbill for New York City Center.