Ben West spends his days poring through the archives of musical theatre—old Playbill, script drafts, sheet music, official archives of famed theatre creators. As artistic director of UnsungMusicalsCo, West’s mission is to consume as much theatre history as he can and create his own docu-musicals as a way to highlight the intersection of past, present, and future theatre as it reflect the American consciousness. West converts mounds of documents into digestible, musical histories in his The Show Time! Trilogy, which began with Show Time! The First 100 Years of the American Musical at the York Theatre Company in 2018.
While the second installment (45 Minutes from Coontown, recognizing the undersung heroes of black musical theatre) premieres September 12–15 and the third (68 Ways to Go featuring the history of female musical theatre writers) is in development, West has expanded his preservationist work beyond the stage.
Starting October 1, the history of the Broadway revue will be on display in Sex, Satire, and Song, a new museum exhibition at Yale University’s Irving S. Gilmore Music Library.
A compilation of personal papers from E.Y. Harburg, Rosamand Johnson, Cole Porter, Harold Rome, and Kurt Weill tell the story of the construction and evolution of the Broadway revue, which dominated musical houses in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. But West’s exhibit shows they did far more than revolutionize the stage. These works laid the foundation for television variety shows like The Carol Burnett Show, Laugh-In, and even Saturday Night Live.
But the exhibit goes beyond papers. West brings to life tunes from this quintet of writers through exclusive recordings, such as the below “The American Punch” by Porter.
“Though I personally have a passionate aversion to Cole Porter, I have warmed to his early revue work in recent years,” West admits. “His songs for Wake Up and Dream and various editions of Greenwich Village Follies and Hitchy-Koo, for example, are far more interesting and exciting to me than are his later—more familiar—offerings. ‘The American Punch’ is the perfect example. It is a rouser of a number that bristles with dash and dexterity. Three years ago, this 1922 trinket unexpectedly marched its way into my heart.”
The original manuscript and the recording will be featured in Sex, Satire, and Song—along with other streaming songs. (And elements of the exhibit, including this recording and the manuscript, will be available online.)
As the exhibit recognizes where today’s musical theatre originated, West’s upcoming The Passing Show of 2019 confronts theatre’s present head on. Inspired by the revues of yesterday (the first of which was called The Passing Show), the one-night-only December benefit will feature sketches and songs by undergraduate students and emerging writers mentored by Jeff Bowen ([title of show]), Adam Gwon (Scotland, PA), Anna K. Jacobs (POP!), Kait Kerrigan (Republic), and Georgia Stitt (Snow Child).
Then, someday, maybe those papers will end up in an archive where, no doubt, some curious theatrelover will dig them up and begin connecting the dots all over again.