Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Between The Lines: Musicals 1900-1939


We left January’s post at the height of the Gaiety musical comedies of the 1890s. Unlike the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Gaiety shows are rarely revived these days; however, they were hugely popular forms of entertainment in their time. By the 1900s, though, things were on the move. This was partly due to the craze for all things Viennese, which eclipsed the local scene, but it was also connected to a shift from what was often a more revue-style show to musicals with better plots and more character- and action-driven books. So, now let us fast forward to the 1920s, and shift our focus from Europe to the US.

The first big American hit of the time (still revived on occasion) was No, No, Nanette. Based on a play, it had charming songs, including the well-known ‘Tea for Two’, and was soon being toured around the world. Its recipe was to set the standard for years to come: a light-hearted, romantic plot, with plenty of song and dance, the music often flavoured by current styles, making its songs hits independent of the show.

It is at this point that we start to encounter some of the big names of early musical theatre such as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin.

As the twenties kicked over into the thirties, some new names emerged on the scene. The team of Rodgers and Hart turned out show after show, including the hit-studded Babes in Arms and On Your Toes. Then there was Cole Porter. As with Rodgers and Hart, Porter’s individual songs tend to be better remembered today than the shows in their entirety, with a few exceptions such as Anything Goes. The same is true, for the most part, of Gershwin musicals, whose songs have been recycled over and over in new productions.

Throughout this period, shows were often written with a star (most likely a dancer) in mind and were tailored to show that person’s skills in the best light, with plot sometimes taking second stage.

However, that was all about to change, as you’ll see in May when we head into the middle years of the 20th century.

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