Ben West hated history in high school. “Math and science were my subjects. I seriously considered doing a physics minor in college,” he admits. So perhaps it’s strange to find out that West is the creator of the documentary musical Show Time! The First 100 Years of the American Musical, running September 13–16 with The York Theatre Company.
A souvenir program from Cy Coleman’s The Life changed the course of West’s analytical path to life. “That souvenir program became my blueprint to the past,” says West. Though he had already been collecting Playbills, cast recordings, and librettos, the program connected the dots between The Life and Coleman’s other works, which led West to draw parallels to other writers and shows close to the Coleman catalog. West put his data-driven mind to work and, in 2014, began researching the history of the American musical. After four years, ten states, and over 20 archives, West presents 100 years of musicals divided into seven eras during his two-hour romp, weaving songs with critical quotes and historical context thanks to music collaborator Fran Minarik. “[These] works and their respective authors—reveal who we are as a people, embodying the social, political, and cultural climate of any given time,” says West.
From the Cosmic Collisions (1866–1899) of The Black Crook to The Rise of the Golden Age (1925–1930) with Dorothy Fields and Oscar Hammerstein to The Fall of the Golden Age (1971–1980) with A Chorus Line, West shows us who we are theatrically as a consequence of our origins. “As Harold Rome put it, ‘Whether you want to be original, or whether you want to be conventional, you still have to know what has been done, in order to be either.”
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So many people love Broadway lore, but may not be willing to go through the painstaking research you’ve done. Are there gems you’ve come across that reinvigorate you in times of frustration or feeling weighed down?
Ben West: Over the last four years, I have come across a number of thrilling artifacts. Some of them made their way into Show Time!, but here are two that did not:
“Dear Max: Thank you for your letters. I feel sure that you did everything that was humanly possible to give [Sunny River] its chance to find a public, and it didn’t. I don’t believe there is one – certainly not in New York. Operetta is a dead pigeon and if it ever is revived, it won’t be by me.
“I have no plans and at the moment I don’t feel like making any. It looks as if Metro will want me to come out for the final script of Very Warm for May in about six weeks. Meanwhile, I am trying to write a good song that might do something for the nation’s war morale. This seems to me the best way to be of some use in the present crisis. I have not yet hit on a really good idea, and anything less than that is just no good at all. I am convinced that all the war songs I have heard so far are on the wrong track. But I know that there is a great situation for a great song and I am going to hunt it out – if it takes me a year.”
The second is a letter from author Charles Gaynor to No, No, Nanette (1971) producers Cyma Rubin and Harry Rigby, 20 October 1970:
“Dear Cyma and Harry: I am in receipt of [replacement director-adapter] Burt Shevelove’s communication of October 19th. I realize he is under a great strain, but I find his list of directions for lyric changes and revisions, as well as additional lyrics to be beyond any further consideration by me. His demands far exceed any contractual obligations that were made between you as producers and myself. I regret that my contributions have not proved to be satisfactory to you, and I feel I have cooperated to the fullest extent in trying to adapt them to your constantly changing specifications.
“Under the circumstances, I would be most happy to sever my connection with No, No, Nanette completely – to the extent of removing all my lyrics to the additional Vincent Youmans numbers from the show. I think that only in this way can the increasingly unpleasant tensions between us be removed. I do wish you great success on the production. Sincerely, Charles Gaynor.”
Not only is Show Time! a documentary about musicals, you’re presenting it in musical form. What can audiences expect from the style of your musical? Do the songs about each period sound like the musicals from that period?
Show Time! utilizes—in whole or in part—59 existing songs that shaped the canon, all of which have been, quite literally, woven through documented articles, critical quotes, creative musings, and historical narration to paint a detailed portrait of the American musical, highlighting both the evolution of the form itself as well as its cultural significance. While Stephen Flaherty, Stephen Schwartz, and Stephen Sondheim are some of the more prominent writers that audiences can expect to find discussed in Show Time!, the piece is also infused with several musical sequences highlighting the significance of minstrelsy, vaudeville, burlesque, operetta, revue, 1920s floor shows, and the development of ragtime and jazz and how these often overlooked factors laid the foundation for the work of future artists.
Tell me about naming the seven eras of the American musical and dividing history the way you did.
I began by creating a timeline. Once I started to fill in the key entries of each year, certain trends became apparent. It is those trends that led to the description, definition, and delineation of each era, thus yielding: Cosmic Collisions (1866-1899); Birth of an Art Form (1900-1924); Rise of the Golden Age (1925-1930); Golden Age, Part One (1931-1950); Golden Age, Part Two (1951-1970); Fall of the Golden Age (1971-1980); and Growing Pains, or Identity Crisis (1981-1999). Each era exhibits individual characteristics that speak directly to the relative state of the form.
The Rise of the Golden Age (1925-1930), for example, was a time of tremendous change, with an incredible influx of talent, artistry, and invention. While George and Ira Gershwin were in the midst of their musical comedy climb, several relatively new artists (e.g. Howard Dietz, Dorothy Fields, Herbert Fields, Oscar Hammerstein II, E.Y. Harburg, Lorenz Hart, Moss Hart, Richard Rodgers, Arthur Schwartz) were bursting onto the scene in a major way, many of them instrumental in furthering the form throughout its Golden Age. As such, I chose to define this collective ascent as The Rise of the Golden Age (1925-1930).
In addition to the above list of treasured white talents, the years between 1925 and 1930 also saw the proliferation—in both Times Square and Harlem—of hard-hitting all-black song-and-dance revues. This, too, contributed to my classification of 1925-1930 as The Rise of the Golden Age. In 1925, for example, the Plantation Club premiered Tan Town Topics. Considered by many at the time to have been the greatest all-black floor show of the era, this Jazz Age jamboree featured budding starlets Josephine Baker and Ethel Waters. Elsewhere in these six seminal years, the Cotton Club attained iconic status, and a number of significant black songwriters hit the scene, Duke Ellington (Chocolate Kiddies, 1925) and Fats Waller (Keep Shufflin’, 1928) among them.
Since part of your mission is to demonstrate how musicals of yesteryear influence future work, can you pick three musicals post 2000 that were influenced by musicals you talk about in Show Time!?
To borrow another line from Show Time!, what’s past is prologue. That said, I feel individual influences are personal to each artist. Speaking then more broadly about the form itself, let us address what is perhaps the most momentous musical of the century thus far: Hamilton.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s landmark is a direct descendant of the American musical’s Golden Age. Its careful craft and construction are thoroughly conventional, in the best sense. What is new about the piece is the language—musical, verbal, physical—in which the story is being told. Similarly, its inspired stagecraft—especially the employment of double turntables—borrows more than a few pages from the iconic Broadway revue form, following firmly in the tradition of visionary director and lighting designer Hassard Short. Utilizing moving scenic platforms for Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue (1921), popularizing the use of double turntables with Dietz and Schwartz’s The Band Wagon (1931), and later helming such groundbreaking book musicals as Lady in the Dark (1941) and Carmen Jones (1943), Hassard Short revolutionized theatrical stagecraft and musical storytelling. His impact on the development of the form is still being felt today, whether or not our contemporary artists are aware of it.
Rent is a prime example of the evolution of the form. Jonathan Larson, once wrote, “I’ve studied the traditional form, but grew up listening to Springsteen, Paul Simon, and The Who, and my music reflects that. My goal as a lyricist-composer is to take the best aspects of traditional American musicals (well-made plot, three-dimensional characters, sense of humor, and integrated choreography) and combine them with current themes, aesthetics, and music. I believe theatre should (and could) again be a source of pop music, which would attract a new audience.”
While traveling for research over the past four years, I had the opportunity to see a number of regional productions. One new musical continues to stand out: Royce Vavrek and Josh Schmidt’s Midwestern Gothic. This potentially splendid new piece—which was still in development when I saw it – is deliciously dark, joyously unsettling, and disturbingly warm. It will not give anything away to say that the musical dramatizes murder. The subject matter seems a straight line to the works of Oscar Hammerstein II, who was instrumental in paving the way for honest musical dramatizations of dark and dangerous subjects. One of my favorite musicals is undoubtedly Hammerstein’s short-lived but well-received 1928 epic, Rainbow, which also dramatizes murder.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.