Theatre Lover's Journal for December 1999

The Century of the Musical

by John Kenrick

As the 20th Century ends, historians and journalists are piling up labels for it. Well, its time someone pointed out that, among other things, it was The Century of the Musical.

Yes, the modern musical has its roots in the 19th Century, but this century saw musicals become a worldwide cultural force. This was partly due to the introduction of new media (records, radio, film, television), but also because of a multitude of extraordinary writers, composers and performers. They brought the musical places that must have seemed unthinkable one hundred years ago.

1899 was actually a very dark time for musical theatre, a form that had shown great promise in the 1880’s. Offenbach and Strauss were dead, Gilbert & Sullivan had stopped collaborating, and America’s Harrigan and Hart had split-up back in 1884. Most musicals were empty-headed, slapdash spectacles built around stars like Lillian Russell or DeWolf Hopper. Even people in the theatre considered musicals to be less important than dramas and comedies. The biggest Broadway and London hits of the 1890’s (Wang, Reilly and the 400, Castles in the Air, Robin Hood, Gaiety Girl, Belle of New York) are unrevivable and essentially forgotten today. With the exception of Robin Hood’s "Oh Promise Me," the showtunes of that decade are mostly forgotten.

However, the first decade of the 20th Century saw the rise of Victor Herbert and George M. Cohan, and the re-birth of continental operetta thanks to Franz Lehar and Oscar Straus. The Red Mill, Little Johnny Jones, Floradora, Babes in Toyland, The Merry Widow, and The Chocolate Soldier are still remembered, and their best songs are still familiar. Each succeeding decade has provided a healthy quota of great musicals on stage and (eventually) screen.

Today, a New Yorker could catch an early screening of Singin’ In the Rain (1952) at a revival house, catch a matinee of Rent (1996) at the Nederlander, an evening broadcast of Crazy for You (1992) on PBS, and finish off the day listening to a new Ohio Opera recording of Victor Herbert’s Eileen (1917) or watching a video of Astaire and Rogers in Top Hat (1935). (No, I haven’t really done all that in one day myself - but I’ve come darn close!) Could there be more graphic proof that this was the century when the musical came of age?

Although some of the musical stage and screen greats were born in the 1800’s, most did their greatest work in the 20th Century – Abbott, Berlin, Bernstein, Coward, Drake, Freed, Garland, the Gershwins, Hammerstein, Herman, Jolson, Lerner, Loewe, Kern, Martin, Merman, Porter, Rodgers, Sondheim, Ziegfeld . . .and that is just the top of a massive list.

So as we greet the year 2000, offers an affectionate tribute to the thousands of talented people who made musical theatre and film a vibrant part of our popular culture. Farewell to the 20th Century musicals, where "life and love and luck may be changed, hope renewed and fate rearranged."

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