Outline the main changes and developments in American Stage Music from “Showboat” to “West Side Story”. Choose appropriate musicals to support your argument. The modern musical has been an important form of entertainment throughout the 20th century, still enjoying a good degree of popularity now. In its earlier days, a musical was often simply viewed as “something to fill the void between dinner and the call for last orders at the bar”.
There was no link between each piece of music; the shows were structured more like variety shows than actual stories. It was in the mid 1920’s that significant change in American stage music began. In a genre so great in its content, it is difficult to pinpoint which shows really changed the direction of the American musical, but in order to answer this question I will identify and examine which productions were principally responsible for altering the audiences’ perception of issues that affected them at the time, and also the shows that revolutionised musical content and appear years later, as fresh as they were when first drafted.
These will be examined later in the essay, along with other productions that changed the direction of the musical in different ways, such as “Oklahoma!” with its innovative writing technique. A good starting point for this study is “Showboat”; a production, which just about every stage music enthusiast has agreed, redefined the genre. It included issues such as drink addiction, gambling problems, and the recurring issue of racism, a theme that would feature quite prominently in later productions such as “Porgy & Bess” and “West Side Story”. As Mike Krueger put it; “The history of the American Musical, quite simply, is divided into two eras: everything before “Showboat,” and everything after “Showboat”.
The arrival of “Showboat” shattered and rebuilt almost every aspect of American Theatre Music. From the moment the curtain was raised on the show’s opening night, the audience could quite clearly see that it was no stereotypical show. The lines of chorus girls, synonymous with any work of the show’s producer Florenz Ziegfield, were absent. Instead, the audience were greeted not by smiles and long legs, but by sad-looking Negroes working on a cotton plantation. Even the orchestra weren’t as would be expected, but were now onstage with the action. So how else did the show’s creators Jerome Kern and Roger Hammerstein II change things?
Kern had spent his earlier years working as a rehearsal pianist, and would write occasional pieces for shows he was with. It was here in his fledgling years that he stumbled upon the formula for making instant hits. He realised that if he kept the songs simple enough for the audience to understand, without losing their interest, he would keep penning instant classics. Another important aspect that Kern identified was the relationships and connections between music, song and dance. In combining all that he had learnt and discovered, Kern had the tools to write songs and pieces of music that would be known as “infectious” in their appeal to audiences.
His musical abilities allowed Kern to be very dexterous with his use of musical techniques. He helped forge links between classical and popular music by using predominantly classical musical forms, such as a fugue with “Showboat”. One of the most important aspects of the “Showboat” melodies was the use of Kern’s ‘Three Note Themes’. The five pieces in which he used them with were ‘Cotton Blossom’, ‘Ol’ Man River’, ‘Captain Andy’s Theme’, ‘Queenies Ballyhoo’, and ‘The Misery Theme’. The large river ‘motives’ all appear in the main opening theme, and are all short figures which Kern would use to make a transition to a perfect 4th with by using one additional note. Examples of this are the use of ‘Cotton Blossom’ as the chorus line to ‘Ol’ Man River’. When rearranged, this becomes ‘Captain Andy’s Theme’.