Monday Meditation: I am Not Over the Old Masters

Sheet music from Victor Herbert's BABES IN TOYLAND

Sheet music from Victor Herbert’s BABES IN TOYLAND

Hamilton may be breaking new ground in musical theatre, with Lin-Manuel Miranda consolidating breakthroughs in mainstream musical theatre production that may or may not redefine the form, but while I enjoy keeping up to date with new developments in musical theatre, I find myself continually returning to the works of the book-writers, lyricists and composers who laid the foundations of the form as it know it today. Sometimes its easy to forget just how far musicals have come; it’s also easy to dismiss how much the ground-breakers were doing at the time.

I don’t know why I have such an intense obsession with musical theatre history. I guess I like to see the origins of things and to imagine what making and seeing theatre might have been like prior to the 1930s.

What was it like to hear Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” for the first time in 1928? What must it have been like for Herbert Fields, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to create Dearest Enemy in 1925? How do the “new” Gershwin musicals really compare with the their originals? When Irving Berlin saw his debut musical, Watch Your Step, staged, did the audiences of 1914 anticipate a full score by the writer of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” the same way that the audiences of today anticipate the full score of Waitress from “Love Song” songwriter Sara Bareilles? How much do Disney’s new fairy-tale musicals on stage owe to Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough’s Babes in Toyland and The Wizard of Oz, with its The Lion King-like – in length – list of contributors.

There were of course many more – including Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II and others who came before them – who crafted and influenced the musical in its formative years and some of these theatre-makers were still making musicals decades later, reacting to later developments in the form and – in some cases – innovating these developments themselves. When you’re downloading Hamilton later this week, why not pick up a recording of Fifty Million Frenchmen, Oh, Kay!, The Red Mill or Sunny and see what you think?

In the meantime, tell us who your favourite “old master” of musical theatre is in the comment block below. Any recommendations of recordings or books to read would be great too!

This post is inspired by and a response to “I Am Not Over the Founding Fathers” in Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That and Other Confessions.

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