A Million Miles from Broadway

For many decades, the world has accepted the notion that the musical
theatre is basically an American art form and, therefore, that all of
the great Broadway and Hollywood musicals were the result of uniquely
American ingenuity. Like jazz, it is thought to be America’s gift
to the world, and requires good old American know-how to make it work.

Balderdash.

“Musical Comedy has often been called the only unique American
contribution to the theatre”, said Cecil Michener Smith (1906-56),
former editor of Musical America. “This claim is not merely
oversimplified; it is false… In its basic form, musical comedy is
not specifically American even now.” He wrote this almost seventy
years ago, during what some call Broadway’s Golden Age. Nowadays,
what he said is even more relevant.

British creative-life-coach Chris Grady maintains, “There is no
country in the world that doesn’t have music. It may be very
different music from what you or I might hear in the West End, but
there is a fundamental thing in the human condition which makes music.
That tends to be the starting point for getting a piece of
theatre.”

Of course, the classic Broadway and Hollywood musicals are undeniably
brilliant, and are enormously (and rightly) influential. They may
even represent musical theatre at its pinnacle, and certainly set an
example. However, it’s one thing to say that the musical is an
integral part of American culture; it’s quite another to deny the
rest of the world its birthright by claiming that America is an
indissoluble part of the musical.

In fact, since World War II, Broadway has seen hit shows from
Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain and South Africa.
There are Argentine musicals, Egyptian musicals, Greek musicals,
Korean musicals… There is scarcely anywhere on Earth that does not
claim to create musical theatre.

However, not everybody would see it that way. Peter Stone
(1930-2003), a former president of the Dramatists Guild best known as
the Tony winning book writer of 1776 and Titanic, once claimed that no
musical theatre existed outside of New York City… and he wasn’t
joking. My guess is that there are others who still think that way.

Stone was not himself a native New Yorker. He was born in Los
Angeles, the son of film writers – (his father John produced Shirley
Temple’s Baby Take a Bow in addition to several Charlie Chan and Mr.
Moto films). He even spent thirteen years living in Paris – the
musical’s actual birthplace – as a journalist and newsreader for
American broadcaster CBS.

He was a liberal-minded man, yet in 1989 Stone said, “Why doesn’t
a musical theatre exist anywhere but in New York? It doesn’t, you
know.” Bear in mind that, at that time, Broadway was dominated by
Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, with barely an
American-written musical to be seen (or heard). How could he have not
have been aware of something that to me was so obvious? Cultural
chauvinism alone doesn’t fully explain everything. Even a decade
later he still maintained, “I always thought the reason [Waiting
for] Godot was a hit everywhere except in New York was because we were the only place in the world that had musicals.”

Once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds…

This puts me in an odd position. His assertion runs entirely contrary
to the thesis I am about to put forward, yet I find myself partly
defending him. It is important for us to understand the reasons why
he believed what he did. To him, the art and the craft of the musical
was something unique, something close at hand and something worth
defending. Is it possible he was correct in his premise while at the
same time being utterly erroneous in his conclusion?

This is the part of his argument that we have to reckon with: “It
is in New York that it is passed along, the lore of it, the craft of
it, the technique of it.” Now, not everybody these days cares
about the lore, the craft, the technique, but I do. I care
passionately, and people like me will therefore do whatever it takes
to imbibe these things, regardless of where we live. And what I have
discovered about the lore of musical theatre would, I aver, surprise
even Mr. Stone.

He explains, “Musical comedy writing is something that is passed
down and around from practitioner to practitioner, so it’s not
something you can do in a room in Cincinatti. New York is the place.
You can see the shows that are working and synthesize what’s to be
gotten from them.”

It’s true that historically the craft of musical theatre was handed
down from one generation to another. Stone was himself mentored in
this way by Frank Loesser (1910-69), the composer-lyricist of Guys and
Dolls.

But what do you do if you live and breathe musicals, yet living in New
York is not, for whatever reason, an option? Is there another way to
learn the craft? You might take a tip from Jerome Kern, George and
Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Charles Strouse.

Before New York had taken its place at the head of the queue, Jerome
Kern studied privately for two years in Heidelberg, Germany, then
moved on to London, where he lived and worked in the theatre for a
further decade. Ira Gershwin also worked in London with people who
had known and collaborated with his idols Gilbert and Sullivan, while
his brother George returned from Paris – then considered to be the
world’s cultural capital – with suitcases filled with Debussy
scores. Cole Porter was similarly drawn to Paris, where he studied at
the Schola Cantorum, and a generation later Charles Strouse was
tutored in the same city by Nadia Boulanger.

Consider also the many Broadway writers, including Victor Herbert,
Frederick Loewe and Kurt Weill, who were born abroad and arrived in
New York with their studies – and sometimes even their reputations
– already a fait accompli.

Eventually, some people from New York turned their attention to
training foreigners. Broadway conductor Lehman Engel (1910-82)
declared, “Writers and composers in other countries have made
serious attempts to rival the creative spirits of the American musical
theatre. There seems to be no reason why they should not succeed.”
In addition to his workshops in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville,
he also taught in Toronto.

Nowadays, people from places like Korea come to study at the Tisch
School in New York (or Goldsmiths in London), then they go back home
to practice – and spread – what they have learned. Others just
study the works themselves (the hits and the flops), see every show
they can and read every biography they can get their hands on. They
may also have a chance to see – and learn from – the more than
eighty percent of musicals that fail.

In this sense, New York has, up until now, enjoyed an advantage, but
does that mean it is really the only place where musicals can happen?
I deeply admire Peter Stone’s work, and there is a great deal to be
learnt from him, but in denying the very existence of international
musical theatre, he was clearly mistaken. Just as there are movies
made outside of Hollywood, there are musicals written and performed
away from Broadway. However, that still leaves the question: how do
we master our craft?

At the time Stone was speaking of, many of the greats – including
even George Abbott (1887-1995) – were still with us and plying their
trade. Now, thirty years later, virtually all of those practitioners
– including Mr. Stone himself – have left us. It is no longer
possible to be directly mentored by them, no matter where you live, so
we learn from the greats by whatever means are available to us.

Make no mistake – musical theatre certainly does exist outside of
New York. I’m not talking about the many franchised versions of Les
Misérables and Hamilton that have played everywhere from Tel-Aviv to
Abu Dabi. I’m referring to indigenous musical theatre created in
places other than New York by people other than New Yorkers and
drawing on traditions other than just those of Broadway. We are now in
the world of what Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan (1911-80) called
the “global village”.

What we now call the American musical was the child of a European
parent, to which some like to apply the one-size-fits-all label
“operetta” . (These archaeic labels relate to the musical in the
same way as “Gramophone” relates to “mp3 player”. In many
cases, they eschewed operatic voice production and employed
contemporary popular music forms.)

That same parent had other offspring as well, and therefore the
Broadway musical has siblings, not just children. These siblings,
some more closely related to the parent than others, have co-existed
and borrowed from each other throughout their history (and continue to
do so) to the enrichment of all.

Although some people argue that the American musical reached its
zenith on Broadway in the 1940s and 50s, I have never believed that
this was to be the musical’s ultimate destination. “The history of
the musical theatre”, in the words of New Zealand-born historian
Kurt Gänzl (1946- ), “is no one-nation or one-center affair.”
Alan Jay Lerner (1918-86), the librettist behind My Fair Lady said,
“Broadway cannot live without the musical theatre, but the musical
theatre can live without Broadway. After all, its first home was
Paris and then Vienna and then London and then New York. So changes
of address are not uncommon.” American composer-lyricist Maury
Yeston (1945- ) adds, “Broadway is now a very long street running
from the Kartnerstrasse in Vienna through Hamburg and Amsterdam,
across to the West End, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, L. A., to the
Ginza and beyond.”


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