The Broadway Musical in the 1940s
By Ethan Mordden
Oxford. 278 pp. $30
Reviewed by Wendy Smith
It's a time-honored truism that the triumphant premiere of "Oklahoma!" transformed the American musical. Producer Mike Todd's famous quip at the show's New Haven tryout, "No gags, no gals, no chance," partially sums up what people expected from a musical comedy in 1943; theater historian Ethan Mordden dubs them "the Three Essentials: good score, good jokes, good players." No one cared about a coherent plot, underlying themes or well-developed characters in a musical. Those were the province of straight plays, and even something as seemingly essential as choreography was usually a pastiche designed to show off the stars' special talents or the chorines' legs. With its unglamorous setting, dramatic story and a production that carefully integrated the contributions of each member of the creative team, "Oklahoma!" brought a new artistic seriousness and unity to the genre. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein didn't write musical comedies, they wrote musical plays, and they set a standard to which everyone else aspired.
Well, not quite. As in such previous books as Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s and The Hollywood Musical, the awesomely knowledgeable and cheerfully iconoclastic Mordden makes it his business to replace cliches with the more complex and fragmented reality of American popular culture. For starters, he reminds us, there were two varieties of reports filtering back to New York from "Oklahoma!" 's out-of-town previews. One set took Todd's dismissive view; "the other report called it the greatest musical that Broadway would ever see." In his opening chapters, which survey such routine pre-1943 junk as "Early to Bed" ("state of the art when art is out of ideas") and tentative fresh starts like "Pal Joey" in 1940, Mordden depicts a stale form increasingly unsatisfactory to its audiences and its creators. With all due respect to the creators of "Oklahoma!", he writes, "If the Rodgers and Hammerstein coupling hadn't existed, Broadway would have had to invent it."
Furthermore, as Mordden strolls through post-"Oklahoma!" shows in subsequent chapters, he points out that the musical comedy didn't vanish overnight or at all. A huge hit like "Annie Get Your Gun" in 1946 "wasn't a musical play but a musical comedy: silly and impulsive rather than rich and questing. Still, it was almost always true to itself and its characters . . . it marked musical comedy's transformation by the musical play." In other words, for a successful 1940s musical you didn't have to have a big theme, a dream ballet or a score in which the songs flowed seamlessly out of the action, though many teams tried to give their shows all three as they labored in Rodgers and Hammerstein's mighty shadow. You did have to be consistent.
Except when you were Cole Porter writing "Kiss Me Kate" (1948), "the most inconsistent of all classics in the decade that created the Consistent Classic," Mordden comments in one of his most entertaining passages, which affectionately notes the manifold absurdities and incoherencies of
"Kate" 's plot only to conclude that "the score is so good that the rest doesn't matter." What? Mordden ends an earlier chapter by telling us that the grab-bag musical of the '20s and '30s "was about to be replaced. Not revised. Not developed. Replaced." So where does "Kiss Me Kate" fit in? It doesn't have to, Mordden replies; the new rule is, there are no rules: "The Essentials don't hold anymore [not even the Rodgers and Hammerstein Essentials]; each new good musical created its Essentials from scratch."
As is often the case with Mordden, whose organizational abilities seldom equal his wit and erudition, this contention seems, if not exactly specious, then at least rather glib. Indeed, the discussion of "Kate" highlights the author's tendency to shoehorn material he wants to cover into places where it doesn't quite belong. It appears in a chapter on "The Cast Album," which also serves unsatisfactorily as the book's finale. Mordden's many excellent points about the process by which recordings of original productions helped elevate Americans' concept of the musical from "disposable money-spinner" to "cultural essential that would stay with us indefinitely" get slightly lost here in a wandering narrative that encompasses "Lute Song," an operetta called "Magdalena," "Where's Charley?" and "Kate" before arriving bumpily at "South Pacific" (superbly and lovingly described) and a two-paragraph wrap-up.
But structure isn't everything. Few people know as much about the musical as Ethan Mordden, and no one else writes about it with his opinionated panache. Beautiful Mornin' is a welcome new installment in his critical yet affectionate survey of American musical theater's evolution over the course of the 20th century.
Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."