By Michael Kape (a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy®)
The picnics have been packed up and put away.
The fireworks have exploded, noisily.
The flags have been furled.
The Boston Pops has sounded the last cannon of the 1812 Overture (which has nothing to do with Independence Day).
So maybe it’s time to look at the impact of some notable musicals and how they celebrate many aspects of American history—both good and not-so-good.
Independence Day and the American Revolution
Any discussion of musicals, the American experience, and Independence Day has to start with the obvious one—1776. It’s a great (but a tad long and highly fictionalized) retelling of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. All those historical figures we read about in American history class bush off the dust and become flesh and blood people once again. It’s catty. It’s chatty. It exposes all the blemishes (i.e. slavery) and all the brilliance of three men, Ben Franklin (more about him shortly), John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It even won the Tony (deservedly) for Best Musical. Sadly, it was the only musical Sherman Edwards had in him.
What about first POTUS George Washington? He’s offstage in 1776. The closest he ever came to having his own musical was George M. Cohan’s George Washington Jr., and it is completely forgotten today (for good reason, and it’s not about George Washington). Washington does play a minor role in one other now-obscure three-act musical, Dearest Enemy by Rodgers and Hart. It’s based on a true story about a patriotic woman doing Washington’s bidding and delaying a British general in 1776.
Washington almost comes into his own in Act II of the extraordinary Hamilton. But he’s not the focus; Aaron Burr and the Schuyler sisters are (and yeah, well, Alexander Hamilton, too). I don’t think I need to tell everyone the impact of this musical; others have already done it for me—and better than I ever could.
What about founding father Benjamin Franklin (a/k/a America’s first Dirty Old Man)? He took center stage in the highly fictional Ben Franklin in Paris. Franklin was much more of a rogue than he’s portrayed in the musical, which has been largely forgotten today. Still, it does convey the foreign intrigues occurring as America was engaged in its revolution—with King George III a notable—but offstage—presence.
The American Experience—Good and Bad
Hundreds of musicals have been written about the American experience (or experiment in some cases), and it’s impossible to catalogue them all. Instead, let’s look at some notable ones, in alphabetical order:
· Allegro—The cheery disposition of Oscar Hammerstein II was sullied considerably in what is probably his most honest (and cynical and autobiographical) look at American life. Think of it as a musical version of what would happen if the citizens of Our Town’s Grover’s Corners all became money-grubbing and greedy doctors out to flatter hypochondriacs. Yes, it’s a big show with some good songs, but it really doesn’t speak well of what the country had become at that point.
· Annie—Despite the sunny outlook of “Tomorrow”, a streak of cynicism and reality run through this musical. Songs like “I’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover” (set in a shantytown) and “We’re Getting a New Deal for Christmas” (not really, gang) paint a picture of desperate times. Even the orphanage is no place for kids.
· Annie Get Your Gun—Irving Berlin IS American Music, according to Jerome Kern, and this optimistic musical, filled with too many gems to count, is a rose-colored look at show business in the Old West. Of course, looking at it through a contemporary lens, we might want to decry some of the overt sexism (“You can’t get a man with a gun”), but it is Irving Berlin, after all. Yet that’s not always a guarantee (see below).
· Assassins—Despite its subject matter, this might be the most American musical ever written, at least from a musical perspective. Sondheim incorporates so many ingrained musical styles into this piece it becomes a statement about the country, in almost a positive way. But then the assassins urge on Lee Harvey Oswald and all bets are off.
· Avenue Q—It’s so damn funny and so damn true for anyone just starting out in our great American experiment. “It Sucks to Be Me” isn’t just a song, it’s an anthem. And for many people, the internet is for porn. Oh, just chill.
· Bandstand—WWII is over, and the vets are suffering. Say it with music and it’s a great (but yes ever-so-cynical) musical.
· Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson—The emo retelling of the story of a populist, xenophobic POTUS who hated immigrants, Native Americans (and killed thousands of them), and the Washington establishment. Change a couple of names around and it’s a look at the current state of affairs (and I don’t mean that in a good way). It’s actually a great show but it might have been above the audiences’ heads.
· Bye, Bye Birdie—It’s songwriting. It’s small town America. It’s Elvis going into the army. Just put on a happy face and call me in the morning.
· Call Me Madam—Irving Berlin could be a big-time cynic when the depressive side of his bipolar disorder kicked in. This snide look at President Truman and his diplomatic appointment of Merle Mesta feels sadly quaint today, especially since it has some terrific musical numbers in it.
· Finian's Rainbow—It’s whimsical but it’s deadly serious when it handles (deftly) the topic of racism in the South.
· Follies—It was the years between the wars, and Sondheim serves up a brilliant panoply of pastiche numbers. ‘Nuff said.
· Flower Drum Song—Truly unwatchable now, a (somewhat-racist) look at the Asian-American experience in 1950’s San Francisco as seen through a very non-Asian Rodgers and Hammerstein.
· Hello, Dolly!—An idealized look at the early 20th century, which glosses over the underlying cynicism of Thornton Wilder’s The Merchant of Venice (i.e. American capitalism runs amok).
· I Remember Mama—Forget the fact this anecdotal story completely eluded musicalizing (twice) and consider it as a rosy look at the Swedish immigrant experience in turn of the century San Francisco.
· I'd Rather Be Right—Kaufman and (Moss) Hart. Rodgers and (Lorenz) Hart. George M. Cohan singing and dancing (huh? FDR was in a wheelchair). It’s all about Washington political games (and corruption) but everything comes out all right. It’s satire, and as Kaufman himself said, satire closes Saturday night. Basically, not something you’d want to run out and see, and 90% of the references in it are very dated.
· Little Johnny Jones—George M. Cohan was the master of jingoistic American musicals in his day, and this was his first (from which we get ”Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway”). The plot is ridiculous, even for its time. It was meant to showcase Cohan as a performer, along with the rest of his family. Is it good? Actually, it’s kind of snide in the midst of its unabashed patriotism.
· Miss Liberty—A true Irving Berlin clunker musical (with a book by noted playwright Robert Sherwood), it purported to tell the story behind the sculpting of the Statue of Liberty. But it was a complete fiction (though it’s the first time Joseph Pulitzer shows up as a major character in a musical; he’d show up again decades later in Newsies). Berlin was convinced this was going to be his biggest hit with the title song becoming another national treasure (like “God Bless America”). It wasn’t. The critics and audiences weren’t buying it.
· Miss Saigon—Talk about cynical storytelling. This retelling of the Madame Butterfly story just reeks of venal soldiers and corruption in the last days of the Vietnam War. Not America’s finest hour, and this musical drives that point home (again and again and again).
· Of Thee I Sing—The first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, it’s largely forgotten today. A satirical look at Presidential politics, it’s just silly but not in a fun way, even with a score by the Gershwin Brothers. It spawned a terrible sequel (Let ‘Em Eat Cake), which is far better left forgotten. (Sequels to musicals NEVER work.)
· Oklahoma!—This musical brought Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II together, and it was a landmark moment in musical theatre history. It has a tiny plot (who is Laurie going to take to the box social?), but it’s also an insightful (though highly inaccurate) look at folks in Indian Territory (as that part of Oklahoma was then known). Hammerstein stripped all the tough realities found in Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs (its source). And let’s not forget the show ends with a murder onstage (Curly kills Jud and gets away with it). But everyone is singing and dancing about the brand-new state. It looks like the epitome of innocence but scratch the surface and some of Riggs’ darker values still come through.
· Pacific Overtures—The United States decides to get on the imperialist bandwagon (along with Britain, France, The Netherlands, and Russia) and open up Japan to the world. Throw in some of the most beautiful melodies (and inventive pastiche) Sondheim ever wrote, along with John Weidman’s decidedly negative view of the proceedings. The result is a deeply-disturbing look at American imperialism and its impact on an unsuspecting nation.
· Rags—Another look at the immigrant experience, this time set in the rag trade in New York. It has a terrific title number but then the rest falls apart. It should have been better and done better. It’s not a pretty story to tell, and others would come along and tell it better (see below).
· Ragtime—It was a runaway bestselling novel incorporating a fictional family along with real persons of the early 20th century. Then it became a blockbuster movie (and sadly, James Cagney’s last screen appearance). So, of course it became a musical, and a nearly perfect one at that. Immigrant struggles. Racism and murder. Vaudeville. The trial of the century. Blowing up the Morgan Library (almost). This sprawling musical encapsulates the growth of the American experiment into something more mature. Horrible things happen, but so do some wonderful things. And it has that delicious score by Ahrens and Flaherty.
· Showboat—The grandfather of the modern American musical, it dealt with some tough topics (both when it debuted and still today). Hammerstein broke away from his operetta roots to retell Edna Ferber’s story of love, gambling, and racism in the early 20th century. While some moments in it feel a little twee by today’s standards, it’s still an enduring piece of musical theatre, with so many standards in its score it’s hard to keep track of them all. Unlike its contemporaries, Showboat continues to be produced today, although it has migrated to the opera world.
· South Pacific—To some people, this is a highly romantic story of Americans abroad during WWII. To some people, it’s the story of two racists, Nellie and Joe, who find love, respectively, with a French murderer on the lam and a 14-year-old girl. Throw in a mother who prostitutes her daughter, a conniving Seabee who almost destroys a naval operation, facile liberalism, and rampant sexism and you have South Pacific. This is NOT everyone’s cup of tea.
· The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N—Classify this largely-forgotten musical under a great loss. It had the misfortune to open during a crippling newspaper strike (there was no internet or ATB back then), so no one even knew it existed. A crying shame, too. It’s a charming musical about an ESL teacher and his most memorable student, Hyman Kaplan (they both find love by the end of Act II). It is a period piece (1920s) and has a lovely score. Maybe someday some enterprising producer can resurrect it.
· The Music Man—We round out this list with a musical with a second act taking place on July Fourth. Of course, it’s an idealized and nostalgic (but slightly cynical) look at America in 1912. Sure, the lead character is a con man. Sure, the townspeople are Iowa stubborn. But Meredith Willson clearly had such fond memories (distilled through rose-colored glasses) of that moment in time it’s infectious. And that score. Wow. It has worked its way into the Great American Songbook, and deservedly so, too.
Other entrants include: Skyscraper (build, build, build no matter what), Mame (the stock market crashes but Auntie Mame marries well), Saturday Night (stock manipulation), Legally Blonde (our juris prudence system at work), Lil Abner (hopelessly outdated now, but once a topical and snide look at American politics at work—or maybe not), West Side Story (gang violence in 1950s NYC), Porgy and Bess (the stark realities of the African American experience and it’s friggin’ Gershwin), and Paint Your Wagon (a hopelessly inane musical look at the Old West).
As this list was being compiled, one interesting thought began to emerge. Musicals about the country’s origins as well as the American experience seem to be infused with a healthy dose of cynicism and not idealism. Why is that? Probably because the underlying cynicism of so many of these musicals provides the engine for the conflict. Without conflict, you don’t have a show. These musicals represent a need to present a troubled reality onstage, defying the mistaken notion of musicals being all sweetness and froth from overture to finale. And seen through that prism, perhaps they are more reflective of reality than we thought.
Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a good musical. He’s also steeped in politics and American history when he’s not telling young whippersnappers to get off his lawn.