The Saturday List: 10 Times the Musical Challenged Its Dismissal as a Relevant Art Form

Driving in the car this morning, with the original cast recording of Dreamgirls blaring from my speakers, I was reminded just how vital and versatile an art form the musical is. Although many people dismiss the musical as a relevant form of artistic expression, the musical can easily hold its own alongside any form of theatre you might care to mention. So I thought that today, I might put together a Saturday list of just ten times musicals have been completely in step with the world around them, ten times the musical did more than simply entertain – despite its easy dismissal by those with limited points of reference when it comes to this glorious form of theatre.

10. Dreamgirls

Let’s start with the song that made me think about all of this in the first place. I was grooving along with Effie and company when “Cadillac Car” started playing. There’s been so much to read online about cultural appropriation recently, but I had forgotten how directly Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen address the issue in this musical and in this song in particular. This is even more remarkable when one considers that Dreamgirls was written in 1981! The film version, from which the clip below is taken, softens the commentary a little without losing it completely, so you’ll have to track down a copy of the original Broadway cast recording if you want to absorb the full impact of Krieger and Eyen had to say – or better yet, catch a production of the show when it’s playing near you.

9. Fun Home

More than ever, the worth of open honesty about gender identity in the world that we live in is being affirmed, even though there are still many challenges to face. One moment of triumphant self-expression can be found in the contemporary Broadway hit, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s Fun Home, a song about the recognition of one’s identity: “Ring of Keys”. The performance of that song on mainstream television at the Tony Awards some years ago now, in which the musical’s protagonist Alison, recognizes her kinship with a delivery woman – ‘an old-school butch’ – in a luncheonette, was a special moment. There’s an ever-growing sense that the time for LGBTIQIA+ issues to take centre stage is now, despite the overwhelmingly and sometimes devastatingly different experiences that exist for people who identify as a part of this community internationally. It’s a great pity that this revolutionary work wasn’t awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

8. Show Boat

Show Boat was a breakthrough musical in terms of weaving serious issues into the fabric of a show. It’s no mistake that the name Oscar Hammerstein II, who created the show in collaboration with Jerome Kern, appears on three musicals in this list. The man knew what musicals could achieve and he had the vision, the courage and the tenacity to shift the form into something more malleable than the operettas, light musical comedies and revues of the day. Show Boat still told a story of enduring love, but it told its tale against a backdrop of racial inequality, miscegenation and racial prejudice, all of which shifted the potential melodrama of its through-line towards tragedy, without ever straying into the pitfalls of the operatic. “Come now,” I hear the sceptics say, “the show is set in the South. It’s impossible for a narrative set in that period not to reference slavery. Besides, it’s a musical. Like Gone With the Wind, Show Boat views the black experience in a cursory and sentimental fashion.” It’s a common misconception that Show Boat deals with slavery; the piece is set some twenty years after the abolition of slavery. What Show Boat addresses, is the dynamics of race relations that came about as a result of the abolition. And while it does not approach the full complexity of black narratives of the time, it did not sugarcoat those experiences either. The hardships faced by Joe and Queenie – characters that are written like real people, not caricatures – are not viewed with a patronizing eye. Interracial marriage was treated seriously, its destruction a biting commentary on the prejudice against black people that raged through the country both in the 1880s and in 1927, the year in which the show premiered. And on the production side, Show Boat was the first musical to feature a cast that was racially integrated from the leads through to the chorus. It was a landmark show that acknowledged the complex social and cultural situation of the time.

7. The Wild Party

There has been no other song since the dawn of the 21st century that has captured the existential crisis of the new millennium as lucidly as Michael John LaChiusa’s “People Like Us” in his version of The Wild Party, created with George C. Wolfe. This adaptation of Joseph Moncure March’s poem achieves something that Andrew Lippa’s simply does not assimilate: it manages to capture the period brilliantly as well as the reason why the poem and its characters still resonate in this day and age. And this song, this meditation on life, exposes humanity’s deepest personal fears to itself. “People Like Us”, like the musical from which it originates, is strident and glorious, a stark reminder of where we’ve come from and where we are.

6. Oklahoma!

In 1943, people were feeling the full force of World War II. It must have been devastating. Seeing your friends and family going off to war. Hearing news about Hitler. Wondering whether peace would ever return. Wondering whether people could ever rise above their differences and circumstances to make a better world. And in the midst of this, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was born – not simply a musical about a picnic, as some would have it, but a musical about the making of community, about building bridges, about contributing to something bigger than yourself. It’s little wonder, then, that Oklahoma! was a smash hit and that it has endured for more than 70 years, enjoying a landmark revival at London’s National Theatre in 1998 where Trevor Nunn reminded picnic-minded naysayers about everything that Oklahoma! has to offer.

5. District Six

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that Broadway isn’t the be-all and end-all of musical theatre. Internationally, musical theatre also looks the world around it directly in the eye, and District Six: the Musical is one such example. Broadway babies will most likely know David Kramer and Taliep Petersen by Kat and the Kings, their show which ran on Broadway in 1999. Kat and the Kings, like Kramer’s more recent adaptation of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, was also a story set in District Six, the residential area in Cape Town from which more than 60 000 residents were forcibly removed during the 1970s at the hands of the apartheid regime. Neither Kat and the Kings nor Blood Brothers captured the edginess of Kramer and Petersen’s original collaboration, which brought together, during apartheid, diverse audiences in the theatre, highlighted the trials and tribulations of those who were affected by forced removals and served as a springboard for the careers of many disadvantaged performers. Although a post-apartheid revival of the show was preserved on film, the original production captured a moment in time, reminding us that the arts are also a socio-political record of a country’s history.

4. On the Town

Another wartime musical, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town premiered in 1944. It’s story detailed the events of three sailors on shore leave at that precise moment in time in New York, its resonance clear to all who were living in that context. But there was something that pushed On the Town beyond narrative resonance. Although Show Boat had a mixed-race cast, On the Town was also noticed for its multi-racial casting, most notably perhaps for the presence of Japanese American dancer Sono Osato as Ivy. Why did this particular cast member draw such attention? Well, consider for a moment that the USA’s entry into World War II was a direct reaction to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Think about the heightened conflict between the Americans and the Japanese in the years since that attack. Weigh up what the internment of Japanese Americans meant for those who were forced to relocate their lives and who were subject to incarceration that the government of the time found ways to justify. And then look anew at the original production of On the Town. Ivy is a leading role. She is first presented as a beauty queen, “Miss Turnstiles”. She is the love interest of the US naval officer who is the protagonist of On the Town. And she turns out, like everyone else in the musical, to be just another person trying to make sense of the crazy intensity that World War II forced upon everyday life. Connect the dots, folks – it isn’t difficult.

3. Pacific Overtures

In the context of 20th-century history, the 1970s is viewed as something of a pivot point. Social progression clashed with political conservatism. Economic systems faced huge upheaval. Women’s rights and economic freedom were on the rise. It was the time of Watergate, Harvey Milk, the Camp David accords and Idi Amin. Individualism, conformity, community, decolonization, neo-liberalism – all of these were key points of this decade of change. Perhaps one of Stephen Sondheim’s most difficult shows, Pacific Overtures, with its book by John Weidman, takes a look at the effect of shifting global politics by placing the westernization of Japan under the spotlight. There’s so much going on in Pacific Overtures that it’s hard to sum up briefly: at once, Sondheim and Weidman are tracking the (d)evolution of Japanese culture, deconstructing orientalism (a topic that would become the subject of a critical study by Edward Said two years later) and exploring the interface between American and Japanese musical and theatrical expressions. The original Broadway production was filmed and broadcast on Japanese television in 1976, giving us insight into everything that was packed into two hours and twenty minutes of an unadulterated coup de théâtre. If there’s a place to begin, it’s by watching that broadcast.

2. South Pacific

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were under huge pressure to cut the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” during the tryouts of South Pacific. James Michener, who wrote the short stories upon which the musical was based, was approached by a delegation urging him to add his voice to their outrage at the song’s statement against racial bigotry and the insidious manner in which it seeped into society. One of the critics of the show’s Boston tryout, Elliot Norton, also recommended that the song be cut or, at least, softened. Hammerstein would have none of it, exclaiming that the song was what the show was about. And indeed, South Pacific is about that very issue, how learned prejudices affect our daily interactions. Exposing the lie that Americans uphold one of the ideals of equality that is so prominent in the Declaration of Independence is what earned South Pacific its Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and what makes it endure almost seven decades after its premiere.

1. Follies

There are people who think that James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is just about a party. There are people who think that “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” is about Phyllis and Sally. There are people who struggle to see why it’s Ben and not Sally who is at the centre of it all, although Sally certainly does pull one’s attention – after all that’s who she is. But these people aren’t listening to what’s going on. They aren’t watching the show or listening to the score or appreciating the book mindfully. And yet, there are those who simply get it. A song like “I’m Still Here” isn’t only a damn good songs, but also a brilliant deconstruction of American history through the lens of popular culture. Follies also has had the misfortune of suffering a number of revisions and the piece that it was intended to be, exists only in legend. One day, Follies will be restored to its original glory, finally able to resonate and be as devastating as it is in its original version.

I am sure that by now you, dear reader, have realised that this is neither a ranked nor a comprehensive list of musicals that responded to a moment in time and that managed to capture it as well as any other art form could. Musicals are, after all, a medium rather than a genre, capably of embracing any number of subjects and styles. What’s your favourite musical that challenged dismissals of the form as a relevant artistic expression? Share it in the comment box below.

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