In The Heights is the most feel-good, uplifting movie I have seen in a long time.
It’s not a film of the stage show, it is a proper film in its own right, directed by Jon M Chu, who made Crazy Rich Asians. It’s packed with the most magnificent ensemble dancing build around stirring rap and Latin music and heartwarming stories about love and community. I know you may be tempted to wait to see it on your TV but I’m telling you, no matter how big your TV is, it will not do justice to the huge dance sequences nor that Latin beat.
It’s not quite sung-through but one song follows another so quickly that’s there are only short scenes of dialogue and then you’re on to another spectacular dance sequence. There’s dancing in the street, Fame style, there’s dancing in a club, Saturday Night Fever style, dancing on bleachers, Grease style, and dancing in a swimming pool- Busby Berkeley style. You can see where the $55 million dollar budget went.
And there are romantic songs, the loveliest of which is between Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace, when they dance in a fantasy moment up the side of a building –La La Land style.
In The Heights started as a stage musical back in 2005, eventually opening on Broadway in 2008. It was Lin Manuel Miranda’s first hit, ten years before Hamilton.
Although there is a central character called Usnavi, a young man who owns the local store and is played with a delightfully shy manner by Anthony Ramos, this is the story of a Latinx neighbourhood in Washington Heights in north Manhattan. Almost equal weight is given to other members of the community, like the woman he fancies Vanessa, a vivacious performance by Melissa Barrera, his friend Benny played by the cool and handsome Corey Hawkins.
I don’t know why I’m saying he’s handsome because frankly, these are all highly attractive people. Like Nina who is the pride of the community because she has a place at Stanford University. It’s a strong performance by Leslie Grace but she’s not only the cleverest person around, she’s also the most beautiful. Her father Kevin, the taxi business owner, is Mr Cool himself Jimmy Smits, for goodness sake, and Olga Merediz is the twinkling kind-faced matriarch of the community.
So what you don’t get are any horrible characters or any of the abrasiveness in relationships that can light up a movie with their sparks. It’s not that kind of movie. Having said that, the main characters have about as much depth as a paddling pool.
Arguably Quiara Alegría Hudes who wrote the book of the musical and wrote writes the movie screenplay. could have expanded on the characters because real people on stage carry you along much more easily than the close-up of people on film.
But it doesn’t really matter because the central character here is the community, one that answers discrimination by working hard and making a success of oneself. Yes, it’s a romantic ideal but it is an uplifting journey in which Usnavi, who longs to live in his homeland of the Dominican Republic, comes to realise the strengths of this little piece of Latin America in New York.
The action- and that’s not really the right word- builds up to an electricity blackout that occurs at the height of a very hot summer. And this is also the low point for the characters in the film- Nina having rejected financial help, a key character revealed as undocumented and therefore with limited prospects and the ever-present threat of repatriation, and Usnavi and Vanessa’s relationship in peril. And that’s about as much tension as this happy film generates. The blackout changes everything as the people, at first resigned, rediscover their community and the ways they can support each other.
Although there is romance, this is very much a family film with hardly a suggestion of sex. However, the three women (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco) who run a nail bar forced out by gentrification, are not only funny, they strut their stuff in no uncertain way. They’re almost from a Carry On film and this is just one way in which this film feels like a throwback to an earlier time. Nostalgia is sewn into its fabric.
If you want cheering up, this is just the tonic you need. I had a smile on my face throughout.
And by the way, don’t leave before the end of the credits because Lin Manuel Miranda’s character, the Piragua seller, makes a return appearance.
The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation recently criticised the lack of opportunity given to black and minority ethnic performers in drama schools. If we don’t have more diversity in our theatres, we miss our opportunity to see the best possible shows on stage. So, let’s celebrate the people of colour who have made a major contribution to the stage musical.
10. Eubie Blake & Noble Sissel
These days blind casting, whereby, unless the part is written for a specific skin colour, you choose the best person for the role regardless of colour, has made a huge difference to the number of people of colour on stage. But racial discrimination was rife in the past. A hundred years ago, black performers were restricted to a few slots on the Broadway stage- no more than one act per show.
Frustrated by the situation, the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissel, got together with some other black artists and wrote their own musical comedy Shuffle Along. They managed to hire a theatre right on the edge of the theatre district. The artists feared a reaction from white audiences against a portrayal of black people in romantic situations, but this was the beginning of the jazz age and audiences lapped up the genuine article.
Shuffle Along was a huge success running for 504 performances with many spinoffs. It launched or at least helped the careers of, among others, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker. The biggest hit from the show was I’m Just Wild About Harry.
9. Adelaide Hall
Born in 1901, Adelaide Hall was a major star in the Harlem scene of the 1920s. In 1938, faced with a lot of prejudice in the States, she moved to the UK. A year later, just after the Second World War broke out, she took part in the BBC’s first live show to be broadcast worldwide. She became a British resident and it was here that she added musicals to her resumé. In 1951 she appeared in Kiss Me Kate and then two more West End musicals before returning to Broadway to appear in the Lena Horne vehicle Jamaica and in the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. Live concerts and recordings remained her big passion and in 2003 at the age of 102 she entered the Guinness Book Of Records as the world’s most enduring recording artist.
8. Sharon D Clarke
Sharon D Clarke is one of the UK’s leading ladies. She began her West End career as General Cartwright in 1996 in Guys And Dolls. Over the years she’s been Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, Mama Morton in Chicago, Oda Mae Brown in Ghost and the star of the National Theatre production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Probably most will remember her as Rafiki in The Lion King, a musical that did much to give opportunities to black performers. Her leading role in the Chichester production of Caroline, Or Change won her an Olivier Award, one of three she’s won. In 2017 she was awarded an MBE for services to drama.
7. Gary Wilmot
Gary Wilmot is another of the UK’s greatest musical stars. His musicals career began with the lead role in Me And My Girl in the West End. One of his earliest roles was as Joe in Carmen Jones, the musical in which Oscar Hammerstein wrote new lyrics for a black cast to Bizet’s music. In all he’s taken part in over two dozen musicals and played Fagin in Oliver!, Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Billy Flynn in Chicago. His brilliance at comedy roles may have held him back from the more serious parts his voice and acting ability make him more than capable of.
6. Ethel Waters
After she starred in Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer, there was a time in the 1930s when Ethel Waters was the highest paid performer on Broadway- that’s not highest paid black performer, that’s highest paid performer of all. She began to branch out into large and small screens and was the first African American to have their own TV Show. Her biggest hit on Broadway came in 1940 with Cabin In The Sky.
5. George C Wolfe
Director George C Wolfe has directed twenty Broadway shows from Jelly’s Last Jam featuring the music of Jelly Roll Morton in 1992 to Caroline, Or Change to the revival of Shuffle Along. Perhaps his most famous Broadway show is Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk which he conceived and directed in 1996. It tells the story of the black experience in America from slavery to hip hop primarily through the medium of tap, choregraphed by the great Savion Glover. Wolfe has received 23 Tony Nominations and won five. He also directs movies, most recently directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which is up for an Oscar.
4. Paul Robeson
In the early days of Broadway, it was almost impossible for black people to get exposure on what was appropriately nicknamed ‘The Great White Way’. But some white creators of shows were determined that people of colour should have their proper place in stage musicals. George Gershwin, for example, wrote Porgy And Bess in 1935, with the bets of intentions despite subsequent criticism, and Oscar Hammerstein introduced people of colour and questions about racism into a number of his musicals.
Back in 1927, Hammerstein co-wrote Show Boat with Jerome Kern which was a groundbreaker, not only because it told a serious story but because it was the first musical to feature a mixed black and white cast on stage together. The part of Joe, a stevedore, was expanded as a showcase for my Paul Robeson. Unfortunately, he was unavailable to take part in the Broadway premiere but when the show opened in London he took his rightful place in the cast. The show became the Theatre Royal’s most profitable production of the 20th century.
At a time when black actors were mainly playing servants, Robeson brought a much needed dignity to black acting, taking on major roles in cinema and on stage, including a legendary Othello.
3. Lea Salonga
The Filipina soprano Lea Salonga was the original Kim in Miss Saigon for which she won an Olivier Award. She reprised the role on Broadway and became the first Asian woman to win a Tony. It launched her career on Broadway where she also played the roles of Eponine and Fantine in Les Miserables. She has continued to play leading roles on Broadway and in the Far East including Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.
Notably, she had a starring role in 2015 in the musical Allegiance which explored the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2.
2. Audra MacDonald
Audra Macdonald is the first and only performer ever to win six Tony Awards.
Trained as an operatic soprano, her Broadway successes include her performance in the revival of Carousel back in 1994, Ragtime in 1998, 110 in the Shade in 2007, Porgy And Bess in 2012. Perhaps her greatest role was as Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar And Grill in 2014.
We started in 1921 with a musical that brought the first all black cast to Broadway. A hundred years later, the biggest show on Broadway and the West End is another groundbreaking musical featuring a cast almost exclusively of people of colour. Thanks to its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton has set a new standard for colour blind casting by employing mainly non-white actors to play people who were historically white. This casting provides a real and metaphorical illustration of the contribution of people from immigrant backgrounds can make to their adopted country, both in the USA but also here in great Britain. The number one is not one individual but all the casts that have made Hamilton a showcase for the talent of people of colour.
Two To Watch For
Here are two young people of colour destined to be major musical stars.
Miriam-Teak Lee had just left drama school when she blew everyone away with her performance in the Open Air Theatre production of On The Town. Then she got a part in the ensemble of original London production of Hamilton, followed by the lead role in the jukebox musical & Juliet, again giving a jaw-dropping performance for which she rightly for which she won an Olivier Award.
American Eva Noblezada has already played Kim in the 2014 London and subsequent Broadway revivals of Miss Saigon. She follows in the footsteps of Lea Salonga 25 years ago when she originated that role and has also followed her in playing Eponine in Les Miserables. Recently she played Eurydice in Hadestown to much acclaim. Hopefully we won’t lose her to the screen but her starring role in Yellow Rose was unforgettable.
You can see performances by many of the artists featured by visiting the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews and clicking on Playlists where you’ll find Top 10 People Of Colour in Stage Musicals.
The Box Office Radio podcast My Top Ten People of Colour in Stage Musicals presented by Paul Seven Lewis is available on mixcloud.com
Let’s face it, for many of us, the only way we’re going to get to see some theatre in the foreseeable future is on a screen, either online or on TV. So here are the best theatre shows that you can watch in your own home.
All my recommendations come with a health warning. This is because films of stage shows rarely convey what makes theatre unique. Film can offer highly realistic spectacle whereas spectacle in a theatre requires more imagination. On the other hand, its physical reality in the form of a massive set or two dozen dancing feet can be eyepopping, and the physical presence of actors performing in front of you creates a tension that can’t be replicated in a film where things are re-filmed and edited to predictable perfection. Also, what seems totally natural when you’re watching it- the louder voice, the bigger gesture- looks totally unnatural when you see it on a screen because the language of film is about small facial expressions in close-up and words delivered at conversational levels.
Experienced theatre goers can of course allow for this but I worry that people new to theatre will simply think how ‘stagey’ it all is.
Top of my list is Hamilton. It’s one of my favourite musicals so disappointment at a film version was almost inevitable but, against all my expectations, the film of the Broadway show is a triumph. It remains a theatrical show but the music and movement carry you along. As a bonus, you get to see the original cast including Lin-Manuel Miranda. Even if you’re not interested in Toy Story and Frozen, take a month’s subscription to Disney Plus, just for Hamilton.
Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s classic play about getting old and wasted time and unrequited love, sensitively modernised by Conor McPherson, was having a phenomenally successful run at the Harold Pinter Theatre when Covid cut it short. So the producers decided to film it and what we get is not simply the play filmed but a stage play enhanced by film. In some ways, because the cast can speak normally and to camera, it’s better than the original and that’s saying something of a production that got pretty much universal five star reviews. The leads Toby Jones, Richard Armitage and Roger Allam live up to the epithet ‘stars’. It’s on BBC4 at 10pm on 30 December and then I assume on BBC iPlayer.
Sea Wall by Simon Stephens starring Andrew Scott is another stage play specially filmed without an audience. It’s a one man show in which the camera barely wavers from looking at Scott as he recounts a tragic event that engulfed him. It is devastating as a play and in no small part because of the visceral performance by Andrew Scott. and you can buy it for about £5.00. Find out more at seawallandrewscott.com
A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic
One of the most anticipated Christmas shows in recent years has been the annual revival of the Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol. This year’s Scrooge is Andrew Lincoln. I saw the show a couple of years and it was one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve spent in a theatre. I was a little worried when I heard that the Old Vic were streaming it because the production relies so much on being an immersive performance where actors and props are coming at you from all directions. However what the Old Vic are doing, even though the theatre is closed to the public, is to continue to stage live performances until Christmas Eve and stream them. Again, like Uncle Vanya, they can adapt it for the camera. Some of the best bits of immersion, such as all the food flowing from the circle to the stage, can’t be conveyed, and some of the use of Zoom is clunky, but it’s still an uplifting experience. Tickets are available from oldvictheatre.com
Lots of enterprising theatres have made their pantos available online including the National Theatre’s Dick Whittington. It’s radical, it’s politically correct and rather garish but an excellent production. You watch Dick Whittington for free on their YouTube channel from 3pm on Wednesday 23 December, then available on demand until midnight on Sunday 27 December. More details here on the National Theatre website.
For me the panto to watch with the family this Christmas is Peter Duncan’s traditional Jack And The Beanstalk. He understands panto and does everything you’d expect from a panto, including lots of audience participation. It may be old fashioned in many ways but I found that rather comforting in these troubled times, like a Christmas pudding- and its saving the planet theme is bang up to date.
I’ll mention a couple more children’s shows that the whole family can enjoy. The Wind in The Willows with a script by Julian fellowes and an hilarious performance as Mr Toad by Rufus Hound can be streamed for £4.99 from willowsmusical.com And you can watch the delightful Timpson The Musical in which gigglemug Comedy imagine how the high street cobblers came also to cut keys by portraying the warring houses of Montashoes and Keypulets united by a pair of star-crossed lovers. And that’s free on YouTube.
Lots of arts streaming services have been springing up this year, the biggest of which from a theatre goer’s point of view is NationalTheatreAtHome who are gradually making available their vast archive of productions. Right now you can watch Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, Helen Mirren’s Phedre, Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in Othello, and for one month only War Horse (in the UK only). There are many more National Theatre productions and some by other theatres including the Young Vic’s Yerma. This is one of the best stage productions I’ve seen but I’ve no idea how it will come across on film, since the set involved viewing through a glass careen with the rest of the audience opposite, giving the effect of a fish tank. Still, it should be worth seeing if only for Billie Piper’s performance of a lifetime as the anguished would-be mother.. You can rent individual shows or take a monthly subscription at just under £10.
Other streaming services worth looking at are digitaltheatre.com which hosts the excellent Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, which I thoroughly enjoyed in the theatre) , Zoe Wanamaker and David Suchet in All My Sons, Richard Armitage in The Crucible, the Regents Park Open Air production of Stephen Sondheim‘s Into The Woods and Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True which is a funny but shocking dramatization of the trial of the man who raped painter Artemisia Gentileschi which turned into a trial of herself. That alone would be worth a month’s subscription of £9.99 but you can rent it as a single film for £7.99.
At Stage2View you can rent such treats as 42nd Street, Kinky Boots, An American in Paris and Red starring Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko. Each costs £5 or so.
Amazon & Netflix
Finally, if you subscribe to Netflix, check out Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a film of August Wilson’s play which stars Viola Davis
Over on Amazon Prime, try Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over. Inspired by Waiting For Godot, it’s about two men who are trapped by being black and persecuted by the police. It was filmed by Spike Lee in front of a live audience and Mr Lee knows how to make theatre work on film.
Hamilton was filmed during the initial Broadway run. The recording of the live show was meant to saved for later but with theatres dark, the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to make it available now. After some intense bidding, it was Disney+ who secured the rights.
So, these are the questions: If you’ve already seen Hamilton, is this film of the Broadway show worth watching? If you haven’t seen Hamilton, does the film do justice to the stage production? Finally, if you’re not interested in Frozen II and Star Wars, is it worth subscribing to the Disney+ streaming service just to see Hamilton?
The answers, in my opinion, are ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘oh yes’. I’ve been quite critical of live recordings of large scale stage shows as removing the excitement of theatre while being too theatrical for film but, if anything, this is better than the stage show. Of course, you can’t being ‘in the room’ with live actors but here you’re able to appreciate every aspect of this great musical. You can watch a dance sequence from the best seat in the circle, then see the faces of the performers as if you’re in the front row of the stalls.
It doesn’t harm that you get to see the first and quite possibly the best cast, including the writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton. His character is driven to make a difference in the world at all cost to his personal life (“I’m not going to waste my shot”). He helps lead the American revolution, which is over before the end of act one, then is one of the founding fathers of the American republic. His single-mindedness makes him enemies leading to political fights that drive the second half. His flaws, as in any great tragedy, lead to his downfall. Thanks to the music, his story is told with excitement, passion, and humour.
There are two other characters who develop through the course of the show. Aaron Burr, beautifully sung and played by Leslie Odom Jr, is the narrator and ‘damn fool who shot him’ as he says of the end of his difficult friendship with Hamilton. He starts off uncommitted but, in a moment of tremendous excitement, realises that the important decisions are being made behind closed doors and he needs to be ‘in the room where it happens’.
Hamilton’s wife Eliza, played with poignancy and the sweetest voice by Phillipa Soo, changes from a love-struck girl through pain to a powerful woman.
There is an excellent supporting cast including Renee Elise Goldberry as Angelica, Eliza’s intelligent, sensual sister who is Hamilton’s love, if not lover. Daveed Diggs is the Marquis de Lafayette and later Thomas Jefferson, both larger than life and played to great comic effect.
The background is the birth of the United States and the midwives are immigrants or the offspring of immigrants. Hamilton himself is an immigrant from a poor background. To underline the point, a mainly non-white cast play the rebels and their musical numbers are Hip-hop, the music of the disadvantaged.
We’re always aware that we are looking back from today. This is emphasised by the use of a narrator and by other asides to the audience. ‘Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?’ is a question asked by the musical, because our view of history changes with each generation. Miranda has said that this is ‘the story of America then told by America now’. We notice the parallels with today. One song says: ‘Immigrants- we get the job done’ to a cheer from the audience.
Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s music is clever, subtle and catchy. It’s no wonder millions have bought the soundtrack who haven’t even seen the show. Hip-Hop dominates but he plunders other genres as needed. For example, when Jefferson returns from France, he sings a jazz song, thus showing that he not only missed the War Of Independenceshows but also a change in musical taste. The love songs exude the pain of love.
Hip-Hop is a terrific dance music and, in the poetic language of rap, Miranda has found the perfect form to tell a story and communicate the thoughts and feelings of his characters.
The original director of the Broadway production Thomas Kail directs the film which means he knows exactly what he wants to put across. Every change of shot, whether a close-up or the whole stage, seems to come at exactly the right moment. I never felt I wanted to be looking somewhere else.
The show looks great too, thanks to set designer David Korins and Paul Tazewell‘s costumes. What a clever idea to remove the female dancers’ voluminous dresses and show off their moves in 18th century underwear.
Well worth a month’s subscription to Disney+ and you get to see Frozen II as well.
Hamilton is streaming on Disney+. When theatres re-open, the British production can be seen at Victoria Palace Theatre, London.
How musicals came to dominate theatre for 90 years
Musical theatre has dominated Broadway and West End stages for nearly a hundred years but there are five musicals that shaped the modern musical. In choosing these five musicals what I’ve tried to look at is not their quality or success at the box office but the way each one brought something innovatory to the musical.
The modern musical followed the footsteps of the European tradition of opera and Gilbert & Sullivan style operetta but it was born in America.
Song-and-dance shows in one guise or another had been produced in New York since the 19th century. These included the racist Minstrel Shows, popular variety shows in which white entertainers ‘blacked up’.
By the late 19th and the early part of the 20th century, Broadway was awash with revues. Many of these spectacular song and dance entertainments were produced by Florenz Ziegfeld under the recurring title of The Ziegfeld Follies. It was an era immortalised by films like 42nd Street and revisited by Stephen Sondheim in his musical Follies.
There were also Musical Comedies. Successors to and to some extent popular rivals to the more middle class operetta, this genre originated in late Victorian London but soon became a staple of the New York stage. They offered lightweight, often banal plots punctuated by brilliant singing and dancing. Think Fred & Ginger movies. It’s a format that’s never completely gone away.
In the Twenties The Jazz Age took hold, inspiring a range of talented composers. Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and, perhaps the greatest of all, George Gershwin were all part of the Broadway scene, penning songs for revues and comedies. It was probably the most prolific period in Broadways’s history. In 1927 alone, fifty musicals were launched.
One of them launched what we know as the modern musical, or musical theatre. It was the first major musical show to feature a proper drama- and incidentally it was Florenz Ziegfeld who brought it to Broadway.
1. Show Boat
From 1912 onwards, Jerome Kern had written many musical comedies into which he brought more complex believable plots, but what he needed was a lyricist to match his vision. Then he met Oscar Hammerstein II. In 1927 they wrote Show Boat and set the template for the next 90 years of so-called ‘book musicals’, that is to say, musicals with a believable narrative and realistic dialogue. And this certainly was a serious story: it encompassed alcoholism, racism and marital conflict.
Thus the musical became a vehicle to support and enhance drama, just as opera does. As Leonard Bernstein said: ‘Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.’ As well as covering racial themes, Show Boat was the first musical show in which both black and white performers appeared and sang on stage together. And the first to feature an inter-racial marriage.
Songs drove the drama and included Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.
Other weighty musicals followed. Of Thee I Sing, a political satire from 1931 by George and Ira Gershwin, won the Pulitzer Prize. Four years later, the Gershwins along with librettist Dubose Hayward created Porgy And Bess. George Gershwin decided it would be appropriate to use African-American folk music- spirituals and folk songs with a jazz-like feel. The use of popular music and the way the music ran continuously through the work meant, although it was technically an opera, Porgy And Bess had a significant influence on musicals. And, unusually for Broadway, it featured an all African-American cast.
Oscar Hammerstein had some fallow years after Show Boat but when Jerome Kern turned down an idea he had to make a musical from a play called Green Grow The Lilacs, he got together with Richard Rodgers. Rodgers had been looking for a new lyricist to replace the unreliable Lorenz Hart and, coincidentally, had also been interested in Green grow The Lilacs. Together they produced a revolutionary musical, possibly the greatest of all time: and the first to fully integrate music, drama and dance.
It was 1943 and, in the midst of war, Americans were ready for a celebration of American values. They found it in Oklahoma! When Alfred Drake sang those opening lines Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ unaccompanied off stage, musical theatre changed forever.
First, there was the music. Nothing said ‘the music element matters’ more than by giving the parts to singers who could act rather the common practice of actors who could sing.
Then, there was the drama. Oklahoma! was the first musical in which every element served the characters and furthered the story. And, for the first time, that included the dance sequences. Agnes de Mille choreographed expressive dances so challenging that professional dancers were required for some of them. Songs included People Will Say We’re in Love, Surrey With A Fringe On Top and the rousing title song.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were the perfect partnership: contrary to the usual pattern, both liked to get the lyrics first and set them to music. There followed a succession of great musicals: Carousel, The Sound Of Music, The King and I, South Pacific and doznes more. Other composers took inspiration from them and created a Golden Age of the Musical with Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, Lerner & Lowe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls…. the list goes on and on. And all these shows made the journey from stage to the big screen to create the so-called ‘Golden Age of the Hollywood Musical’.
Dance played a part in enhancing the drama of Oklahoma! and many subsequent musicals but the final building block of the modern musical came in 1957 when dance came into its own.
3. West Side Story
The musical’s credentials were great: the book was adapted by Arthur Laurents, the music was by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, but it was the role of Jerome Robbins as the director that was crucial. He was the preeminent stage choreographer of his time, which meant West Side Story not only incorporated dance into the narrative but let it take the lead. The famous finger snaps say it all.
A writer in Time magazine found the dance and gang warfare more compelling than the love story and noted that the show’s ‘putting choreography foremost, may prove a milestone in musical-drama history.’ He was right. That the show ended tragically was also groundbreaking. Memorable songs included Maria and Tonight.
Many more musicals followed as the Golden Age rolled on, not least another contender for greatest musical of all time, Julie Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurent’s Gypsy. The longest running musical ever, The Fantasticks by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not the singer) opened in New York in 1960 and closed 42 years later.
Tastes in music changed: rock rather than jazz now dominated the charts and perhaps audiences were getting bored with the formula of the book musical. Whatever the reason, by the mid-1960s the first Golden Age of the Musical came to an end. Musicals continued to be written and performed but not so frequently or spectacularly as before.
The time was ripe for the arrival of the concept musical, in other words, a musical where the idea or theme takes precedence over the narrative.
Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 1970 wasn’t the first concept musical. As early as 1947, Rodgers and Hammerstein created Allegro. Interestingly, a very young Stephen Sondheim worked as a production assistant on this musical. A year later, Alan Lerner of Lerner and Lowe fame teamed up with Kurt Weill who wrote The Threepenny Opera and they created Love Life. Both shows had linear plots but these were disrupted by songs that commented on a theme.
However Company was the first significant concept musical where the narrative was virtually abandoned in favour of a theme, in this case, an exploration of relationships in songs like The Ladies who Lunch and Being Alive. Other concept musicalss followed including Chicago, A Chorus Line and Cats, as well as many more by Sondheim such as Follies and Sunday in The Park With George.
Hair was another concept musical of sorts but it’s more memorable for bringing rock music into the previously jazz-based world of musicals. It’s arguable that rock is a genre better suited to the individual song than to carrying a whole narrative or theme but there’s no arguing with the success of Hair, Godspell and the early Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice collaborations like Jesus Christ Superstar.
One trend of the last few years has been the jukebox musical which recycles existing popular songs around a story: it’s not exactly new- the film musical Singin’ In The Rain uses an existing songbook but the genre has been unstoppable in the last few decades- the most successful is Mamma Mia! featuring the music of ABBA. Early examples were Return To The Forbidden Planet and Buddy- The story of Buddy Holly. Others include We Will Rock You featuring the music of Queen, Jersey Boys which tells the story of the Four Seasons and, last year, the wonderful & Juliet showcasing the songs of Max Martin.
And, having made films out of so many stage musicals, Hollywood has repaid the compliment in recent years by providing the inspiration for Little Shop Of Horrors, Disney’s The Lion King, The Producers, Spamalot, Billy Elliott and many more.
Talented writers have created musicals that continue the tradition of exploring serious themes: Rent, Blood Brothers and The Book Of Mormon to name but a few.
The mid 1980s saw the arrival of the mega musicals where the sets became as or more important than the content- and Britain led the way, revitalising this great American genre, just as The Beatles had revitalised American rock’n’roll in the sixties. In what could be described as a second Golden Age, there are two landmarks – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s almost operatic Phantom Of The Opera and Cameron Macintosh’s production of Les Misérables.
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical may be, as The Observer put it when it opened, “a witless and synthetic entertainment” but its popular appeal is undeniable. With its rousing story of doomed revolutionaries and its uplifting tale of a man who pays back a debt with heroic charity, Les Misérables is now the second longest running musical ever. It’s certainly a musical I could see again and again. However, although this musical is about revolutionaries, it’s not actually revolutionary.
We had to wait 45 years after Company before we got another genuinely revolutionary musical. In fact, in 2015, you could argue we got two in one year.
Fun Home was the first show on Broadway to have a lesbian protagonist- some 30 years after La Cage Aux Folles focussed on male homosexuality. It showed that musicals can tell complex stories about women and indeed lesbian women, who are not often represented in the mainstream, and that musicals written by women can be successful on Broadway.
Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori were the first all-female writing team to win the Tony Award for Best Score, as well as Best Musical. But is it revolutionary simply because women take centre stage? I would argue, in the male dominated world of musical theatre, that it is, but I have to admit there is no new musical form here.
However there was another musical that also started off-Broadway in 2015 that has found a new form.
Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda (streaming on Disney+ channel from 3 July 2020) does everything the best musicals do in terms of taking an engaging subject and combining it with music and dance. Miranda plundered a number of musical genres but what makes Hamilton look like the future of the musical is its use of hip hop or rap music in songs like Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down) or Right Hand Man. Rap is the music of revolution, because it expresses the angry feeling of the underprivileged. But more than that, just as the jazz sound was used by Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers Oscar Hammerstein and the other greats of the first Golden Age of the musical to create dance tunes and complex lyrics, hip hop rhythm is great for dance and rap’s poetic use of language make it the perfect music for lyrics.
Stephen Sondheim put it this way: “Of all the forms of contemporary music, rap is the closest to traditional musical theater… both in its vamp-heavy rhythmic drive and in its verbal playfulness.”
Ninety years previously Show Boat was the first musical to put black and white performers on stage together. In 2015, there has been deliberate casting of non-white actors in Hamilton as the mainly white Founding Fathers and other historical figures. It is, as Miranda put it, ‘the story of America then told by America now’. Hamilton has found a way of making what we’ve been calling the ‘modern’ musical for nearly a hundred years actually work for a modern audience.
It remains to be seen whether more rap-based musicals with such wide appeal will emerge but the signs are good. One of the best new British musicals I’ve seen in the last couple of years is Poet In Da Corner by Debris Stevenson which features grime music.
What Stephen Sondheim said about Hamilton could apply to any of the five musicals I’ve chosen: “What it does is empower people to think differently. There’s always got to be an innovator, somebody who experiments first with new forms.”