Musical! A Grand Tour: The Rise, Glory and Fall of an American Institution, by Denny Martin Flynn

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Musical! A Grand TourMusical! A Grand Tour: The Rise, Glory and Fall of an American Institution, by Denny Martin Flynn. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997. xvi + 557 pp. ISBN 0-02-864610-X.

Denny Martin Flynn is a very smart guy, and his very smart book is filled with quite a few hard facts as well as pithy and well-wrought opinions about Broadway during the Golden Age, defined by him as the period from Oklahoma! (1943) to Annie (1977) ("the end began at eight o'clock on April 21, 1977 when Annie opened at the Alvin Theatre . . ." p. 445). Musical! A Grand Tour, as its exclamation point indicates, is first and foremost a tale told by an enthusiast. Flynn, with considerable professional experience and insider knowledge to his credit, passionately wants us to know what America once had and what he asserts it has lost in the last twenty-five years of theatrical decay. Although he tries hard for a happy ending and balanced reporting, an air of regret and frustration about the passing of a once-great art form is impossible to avoid. His passion for theater is what drives his argument, however, and he has assembled an impressive set of observations about dozens of musicals and their creators.

This book is pervaded by stories. Some give insight into the process of making shows; many are unflattering asides about the personal lives of the figures under discussion. Most are included simply for the joy of the telling or the gossip they spread or the vividness they impart to the narrative. Flynn does tell a good story, but for educators who might be looking for something more, it is important to state up front what Musical! A Grand Tour is not.

First, emphatically, this is not a textbook. Lacking endnotes, extensive bibliography, study questions, insets, "helps," or much variety in text presentation via subheadings, charts, graphs, or color photos, the "staging" of this book is straightforward and fairly unexceptional. Normally three or four minimally-captioned, black and white photographs illustrate each of the twenty-six chapters. The chapter frontispieces are all programs, title covers, or playbills. The interior shots show mostly posed or candid views of choral groups, stars, and dancers. More important than the bland visual aspects of the layout, however, and the crucial reason for designating this book a non-text, is the absence of a complete historical framework for American musical theater before the twentieth century. (Flynn is by no means alone among musical theater authors in this omission.)

To complain that a book so richly detailed about its main subject is lacking in one respect might seem like a nit-picking sort of quibble—after all, isn't everyone entitled to his or her own descriptive approach?—were it not for the first eighty pages. These present in summary fashion "European influences," and therefore they implicitly give the impression of a crescendo, causes and effects leading up to Major Achievements. Certainly Flynn imparts a somewhat breathtaking quality to this Plato-to-NATO overview in which everything from Aristophanes to Molière to The Beggar's Opera to Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstwerk is seen to prefigure the American Musical in all its glory. I certainly enjoyed reading the first five chapters knowing what was coming later. But let the buyer beware; there is little connective tissue to be found here.

By omitting background in the activities of the United States during the nineteenth century, Flynn has missed an opportunity to take us more deeply into yet-to-be explored roots of our theatrical past. He therefore shortchanges anyone who might be interested in the most proximate causes and sources of imagery, gesture, and motivation for American stage developments. It is not just a question of accurate attribution or priority for some landmark performance or other. In viewing our parents objectively, warts and all, we can more accurately come to understand ourselves. But if we don't even know who our parents are, what autobiographical conclusions are we justified in taking? It is as if Flynn, having shown us some (rather good) pencil sketches of our great-great grandparents long dead, has forgotten to mention the living relatives whom we have never seen sitting in the next room.

There is no getting around the fact that melodrama (plays with musical underscoring) provided an extremely popular form of middle-class theater in the nineteenth century, yet we are told that "[George M. Cohan] virtually invented the melodramatic musical [circa 1905 in Little Johnny Jones ]" (p. 125). This attribution may well be true technically, but it leaves out a great deal. Our heritage from melodrama is much more obvious in film history, but there is also something to be observed about its legacy to the live stage.

An even more glaring omission is the utter absence of discussion about the minstrel show, the first bona fide American theatrical genre (or framework), whose synthesis took place during the 1840s but remained to influence (some would say, to plague) the stage and screen until the 1950s (some would say the 1990s). There are many good and charitable reasons to avoid the thicket of controversy surrounding minstrelsy, as even a cursory survey of current literature will reveal. But a study that holds up the "serious" and "real" (p. 308) subjects of Show Boat as benchmarks of quality in good conscience ought to hint at least at the staggering volume of ethnic caricatures that dominated the previous century of American musical entertainment. This not in the interest of political correctness or mere inclusivity, but for the truth in the stories of the lives lived on the stage and the audiences who embraced them.

My complaint with Flynn lies not so much with his avoidance of social issues or the even the role of minorities on Broadway. (Chapter seventeen is devoted to shows composed of all-Black talent.) To his credit, he resists mealy-mouthed excuses for poor Black productions or overpraise for mediocrities. He frequently notes the social conscience put into action of figures such as Florenz Ziegfeld, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Yip Harburg. Nevertheless, to praise Jerome Kern for "[beginning] to incorporate jazz into Broadway scores [in 1913]" (p. 139), Irving Berlin's Watch Your Step (1914) as "the first Broadway score to use ragtime" (p. 418), or Jack Cole for having "introduced sexuality into dancing [in films of the 1940s and 50s]" (p. 301) clouds the prior accomplishments in these areas by African American musicians and dancers (Will Marion Cook, J. Rosamond Johnson, J. Leubrie Hill, Ethel Williams, Willie Covan), not to mention the activities of white producers who underwrote but also sometimes ripped off these pioneers.

Whether Flynn's many vignettes and biographical sketches are heard as remembered history, historicized anecdote, or simply spice to cover an otherwise lackluster historical moment here and there, one's reactions to this book will, I suspect, be parallel to one's feeling about how he writes history. At times, it is done very well. For example, Romberg and his operettas are generously surveyed (pp. 89-97) as is the development of the revue (pp. 99-117). The assessment of America's debt to Gilbert and Sullivan is thorough, detailed, and generally accurate. Typically for Flynn, however, there is little mention of factors outside of the purely personal put forward to explain the team's decline in popularity. All essential elements are assumed to lie within the creators, their creative products, or the performers. None are controlled by the audience or unseen social forces.

Flynn is especially strong on elucidating the interaction of ingredients that make up a theater piece: plot, lyrics, staging, sung tunes, incidental music, character development, the charisma and talent of individual actors. Not surprisingly, given his choreographic credentials, Flynn explains the relationship of dance to integrated shows as well or better than any other chronicler of the American musical theater. He admits that "one way or another the interior rhythm of the musical demands that the story's climax be musicalized" (p. 416), but he is inconsistent in developing detailed musical analyses.

He understands that formulas need to exist and that they need to be transcended. He knows what is essential to make a scene "work," and can spot the problems with shows that have not achieved canonical status, a position usually defined by the length of a Broadway run but sometimes more archly limned. (Just exactly how How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying "has stood the test of time (in theory if not in fact)" (p. 422) is interesting to contemplate.) The landmarks are well-posted—The Black Crook, Little Johnny Jones, the Princess Theatre musicals, Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, The Music Man, West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, A Chorus Line—and their virtues and weaknesses well-catalogued. Flynn knows exactly what he likes and why.

The master narrative of this book is presented in a no-nonsense fashion: stilted but well-constructed operetta and raucous vaudeville were wed around 1890 and begat musical comedy, which in the fullness of time matured and led to the Gesamtkunstwerk, a genre we nowadays denominate as "the musical." This accomplishment was realized in a variety of distinctive shows during the Golden Age, but since the mid-1970s productions have lost quality for many reasons. A dearth of appropriate stories matched with experienced creative teams, the disappearance of a training system for young Broadway aspirants, inflated ticket prices, exorbitant initial capitalization requirements, and "significant competition from film, television, radio, recordings, and the emerging digital media, none of which existed when George M. Cohan took Broadway by storm . . . " have all abetted the decline (p. 456). Modern shows that seem long on spectacle but short on plot, dancing, or dialogue are dismissed as "poperettas" (p. 484), a neat coinage.

Flynn's reasons for the "fall" of Broadway are valid enough, although once again, an extra dose of historical perspective might provide a slender reed of hope for the future. Broadway has consistently offered—at least since the turn of the last century—poor investment choices from a strictly financial point of view. Roughly three-quarters of all shows that have made it to the Great White Way have turned out to be flops. Why should we expect the situation to be otherwise nowadays? Of course, the author is right to complain that even the sold-out hits of today tend to disappoint artistically.

Flynn harbors one particular bias that may not bother many readers, but it will be noted by musicians from whatever camp they hail. He apparently does not believe that opera, regardless of language or musical style, can ever have the popular appeal of mature non-operatic musical theater. He may well be right in this opinion, although the nineteenth century again provides many examples of how carried away native-born, non-Italian-speaking Americans can become about operatic music. The prejudice is not overtly stated and, in fairness to Flynn, his discussion of the "folk opera" Porgy and Bess (pp. 187-207) strikes me as fairly evenhanded. Nevertheless, several comments made in passing seem to imply that an audience deprived of realism or the portrayal of realistic emotion (a condition inevitably exacerbated by too much music, especially recitative) is itself incapable of emotional involvement in relation to any other kind of musical theater.

But wait a minute. By what law of music or human behavior should we assume that "Tin Pan Alley [songs included in vernacular shows of the 1880s and 1890s] charged and entertained audiences better than the more classical operetta scores" (p. 94)? Why exactly should we accept the idea that high, rangy, "elaborate" singing is "unnatural" and therefore "undercuts the actor-singer's ability to portray character believably" (p. 95)? Why cannot we suspend our disbelief about a musical style's appeal just as we do about the whole convention of people acting on a stage and singing in any style? Is belting always better than bel canto?

Being presented with a theater piece that is more exotic, ritualistic or out-of-the-mundane than Oklahoma!, what is our reaction supposed to be? If public responses were easier to predict, calculate, and elicit, there would be many more hits on Broadway than there are. One of Flynn's frustrated observations about the vapidity of modern operatic studio recordings of classic shows—an observation, incidentally, with which I agree whole-heartedly—reveals how challenging the detection of taste and the art of theater criticism remain. Flynn notes, "In South Pacific's original cast recording, the chorus holds on to their notes like a sailor clinging to the mast in a high sea. That's what gives the 'Dames' song reality [sic]. The new recording features a chorus that sings more properly, but they're not supposed to be a professional men's chorus—they're Seabees" (p. 464).

Perhaps. But the audience know as they walk into the theater that Seabees do not generally go about their naval duties with a song on their lips. Yet here they are—professional men's chorus or not—doing just that. This is not an either/or question about job description or the "reality" of military life during World War II. How polished a vocal performance is a typical sailor capable of? Please. It is all theater, it is all illusion. It all has the potential to be emotionally gripping once placed "upon the wicked stage." And of course, it can all fall flat for any number of reasons.

A certain amount of confusion about the values and objects associated with reality, romanticism, fantasy, ritual, and spectacle seems to leave Flynn chasing different ideals at different times in his chronicle of shows. But since I like the flavor of this inconsistency, let's chalk it up to the author's willingness to follow his taste wherever it takes him. He fearlessly—and at every step of the way—declares for or against specific actors, directors, composers, lyricists, dancers, choreographers, producers, and shows. Bravo.

Musical! A Grand Tour is a book with an attitude, but the attitude is informed by its author's lifelong involvement with one of our greatest national art forms. Many will find it entertaining and informative. Some will find it irritating. Both reactions are completely understandable.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 17/10/2018

Thomas L. Riis

Thomas L. Riis was named Joseph Negler Professor of Musicology in 2002 and has served as Director of the American Music Research Center at the College of Music, the University of Colorado Boulder, since 1992. Dr. Riis is a specialist in musical theatre and writes and lectures frequently on many topics in 19th and 20th-century African American  music. His book Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915 was awarded an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award in 1995. As a Fulbright Senior Scholar, Riis taught at the University of Lueneburg, Germany [now Leuphana University] in 2005-2006 and during the summers of 2011 and 2012.  His latest book, Frank Loesser (2008), is the fifth volume in the Yale University Press Broadway Masters series. He has edited the AMRC Journal since 1993, published reviews in the New York Times, College Music Forum, and the Journal of the American Musicological Society, and served as president of the Society for American Music from 2009 to 2011. His other interests include medieval song and historical performance practice. Riis remains active as a choral singer, viol player, and cellist. He is currently at work on a book about the early career of Paul Robeson.

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