The Broadway musical is dead. Such, at any rate, is the conventional wisdom, echoed by everyone from aging theatergoers who saw Ethel Merman in Gypsy to youthful academics who write about popular culture as if it were Finnegans Wake. Among the latter is Andrea Most, an assistant professor of English at the University of Toronto, who unequivocally states in a new book called Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical that “after a brief heyday that lasted into the 1960's, musicals quickly declined as the popular American cultural form.”1

Perhaps. And yet no other genre remains so central to American the- other exceptions are shows atrical life. Of the twenty “top Broadway shows” listed in the April 23 Wall Street Journal/Zagat Theater Survey, a weekly poll of New York theatergoers, sixteen were musicals. Among movies, Chicago (2002), the most recent film version of a Broadway musical, won six Oscars, including Best Picture. Most of the best musicals of the 20th century continue to be revived regularly, on Broadway and elsewhere, just as their songs continue to be sung and recorded.

Still, it is evident that the demand for first-rate new musicals greatly outstrips the supply. I have just completed my first year as drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, and in the course of it I reviewed fourteen Broadway musicals: Assassins, Avenue Q, Big River, The Boy from Oz, Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, Little Shop of Horrors, The Look of Love, Never Gonna Dance, Nine, Taboo, Urban Cowboy, Wicked, and Wonderful Town.2 Of these, only Avenue Q and Wicked had newly composed scores. Five others were “jukebox” shows whose scores consisted partly or wholly of older songs, while the remaining seven were revivals. To date, seven have either closed or posted closing notices.

Clearly, this is not the track record of a flourishing theatrical medium—which suggests that the conventional wisdom about the current state of the Broadway musical may well be correct. But can these shows tell us anything else about the state of American musical comedy at the beginning of its second century?


One thing these fourteen shows do bring home is that the golden age of musical comedy lasted for only about a quarter-century Except for Show Boat (1927) and Porgy and Bess (1935), no American musical written prior to 1940 has had a consistently successful life in revival.3 The oldest musical now playing on Broadway, Wonderful Town (music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green), was written in 1953, while Fiddler on the Roof (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein), the last of the indisputably “classic” musicals, opened in 1964.

The reason most pre-1940 musicals are unrevivable is that their books tend to be both slapdash in literary quality and fanciful to the point of absurdity. It was only in the late 30's that the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart began to emphasize dramatic plausibility, most notably in Pal Joey (1940). And it was not until Rodgers joined forces with Oscar Hammer-stein II in 1943 to write Oklahoma! that the “book show,” whose songs are integrated into a more or less realistic plot, became the norm.

Nearly every successful musical written between 1943 and 1964 was influenced by the example of Oklahoma! From this perspective, it is no accident that On the Town (1944), Carousel (1945), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Kiss Me, Kate (1948), Guys and Dolls (1950), The King and I (1951), My Fair Lady (1956), The Music Man (1957), West Side Story (1957), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), and Hello, Dolly! (1964), all of which have been revived one or more times on Broadway, now constitute the bulk of the musical-comedy repertory.

But these shows, and others like them, have more in common than the integration of book and score that is typical of the Oklahoma!-style musical. For one thing, their songs are written in the same idiom. The scores of these pre-rock-and-roll Broadway musicals are a melting-pot amalgam of European operetta, ragtime, and early jazz, while their lyrics are an updating of the virtuoso wordplay of W.S. Gilbert, translated into the pungent colloquialisms of what H.L. Mencken called “the American language.” Different songwriters use this language in their own distinctive ways—Irving Berlin spoke it with the no-nonsense accent of Tin Pan Alley, while Leonard Bernstein brought to it his intimate knowledge of 20th-century classical music—but in all cases it was (and is) easily recognizable as a common stylistic idiom.

Similarly held in common are the underlying assumptions on which the books of the classic Broadway musicals are based. Bernstein observed in 1956 that the musical was “an art that arises out of American roots, out of our speech, our tempo, our moral attitudes, our timing, our kind of humor.” It is, in short, a kind of cultural mirror, one in which we see a reflection of the American national character—an epitome of the way we are, the way we act and think, the things we believe about ourselves and our country. And just as most Americans are both optimistic and idealistic, so do golden-age musicals, with their romance-driven plots and happy endings, reflect those twin attitudes.

This is not to say that the classic musicals are all naive or simple-minded. From the outset of their long collaboration, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote shows in which major characters die; Fiddler on the Roof is a jarringly black “comedy” about a pogrom and a forced emigration. Still, these shows offer an essentially untragic vision of human possibility. Even West Side Story, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that concludes with a funeral, presents violent death not as an end but as a beginning, an opportunity for the members of the rival Sharks and Jets to be healed and transformed by grief.

It is noteworthy that most of these shows were written either in whole or in part by first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants, who might reasonably have been expected (especially after World War II) to take a grim view of American life. Instead, they embraced the optimism of their new land, an attitude that Andrea Most interprets as a conscious act of self-assimilation. Every classic American musical, she writes,

tells a story about difference and community. In each play, there are outsiders who need to be converted, assimilated, or accepted into the group. . . . For all sorts of outsiders, the way to become American is, in other words, a Jewish way, and those who follow that path perform—wittingly or unwittingly—a Jewish story, which is to say, an American story, indeed the American story.

One need not accept the rest of Most's ultra-politicized account of the development of the musical-comedy idiom to acknowledge the force of this interpretation, in which the optimistic idealism of the classic American musical is understood as a symbol of the American creed of liberty, equality, and opportunity for all—not excluding Jews.


Two of the three classic American musicals currently running on Broadway, Fiddler on the Roof and Wonderful Town, belong to this tradition. Not so the recently closed Gypsy (1959, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents), whose sour vision of American life is far more equivocal. Significantly, Gypsy, like West Side Story before it, features lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who in the 70's would become the emblematic figure of the “post-classic” American musical.

By then, the initiating impulse of the classic musical was more or less exhausted, in part because its major figures were old or dead, or (like Bernstein) had lost interest in the form. Younger men like Sondheim had different ideas—and different temperaments. As I have written elsewhere, Sondheim, if not entirely cynical, was no optimist. His idealism was badly bruised, and his shows, with their deep-seated ambivalence toward romantic love, reflect that fact.4

But the decline of the classic American musical cannot be blamed on the prodigiously gifted Sondheim, much less on the decrepitude of its earlier practitioners. Nor can it be ascribed to the rise of rock-and-roll, even though certain aspects of rock (most notably its lack of rhythmic variety) are to some extent incompatible with the specifically theatrical demands of musical comedy Far more important is the fact that what one might call the “ideology” of the classic American musicals reflected the attributes of a common culture that no longer exists—at least not in Manhattan, the cultural capital of Blue America and the crucible in which the musical has historically been smelted.

Consider the four post-classic musicals revived on Broadway in the past year:

  • Nine (1982, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, book by Arthur Kopit) is a watered-down stage version of Federico Fellini's 1962 film , a self-reflexive fable about a neurotic Italian film director who is incapable of finishing his current movie.
  • Little Shop of Horrors (1982, music by Alan Menken, book and lyrics by Howard Ashman) is a rock-and-roll adaptation of a low-budget horror film about a man-eating plant.
  • Big River (1985, book by William Hauptman, music and lyrics by Roger Miller) is a country-music adaptation of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Assassins (1991, music and lyrics by Sondheim, book by John Weidman) is a fantasy about nine men and women who have killed or attempted to kill American Presidents, set to a score consisting of parodies of various American popular-music idioms.

Not only do these four shows make use of musical styles that have little or nothing in common, but three of them also break with the ideological basis of the golden-age American musical. Indeed, Assassins explicitly rejects that ideology, arguing instead that the American creed is a snare and a delusion: “There's another national anthem, folks,/For those who never win,/For the suckers,/For the pikers,/For the ones who might have been.”

Whatever else they may tell us about postmodern American life, then, these shows (Big River excepted) clearly bespeak a loss of confidence in America itself. And it is no less revealing that none of them, not even Sondheim's Assassins, has a truly distinguished score. Just as postmodern American artists lost faith in the American creed, so apparently did they lose the ability to write songs capable of appealing not merely to a narrow segment of the listening public but to ordinary Americans as a whole.

The same loss of nerve was evident in the “new” Broadway musicals that opened last year. Five of them, as I mentioned earlier, are “jukebox” shows whose scores were mostly stitched together from preexisting songs. They were recycled in other ways as well. Urban Cowboy was a tawdry adaptation of a once-popular 1980 movie about Houston nightlife. The Look of Love was a plotless revue based on the insipid pop songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The Boy from Oz and Taboo were loosely biographical shows about Peter Allen and Boy George, two forgotten pop-music stars. And Never Gonna Dance was a futile attempt to create a synthetic stage musical in the style of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films. Such blatant derivativeness is a sure sign of terminal exhaustion.

Not surprisingly, all five shows were inferior in quality and received mostly negative reviews, and all are now closed save for The Boy from Oz, which has remained open solely on the strength of the charismatic performance of its star, Hugh Jackman.


That leaves us with two completely new musicals, one of which is an awkward blend of classic and post-classic elements, while the other represents a decisive shift in a new direction.

Wicked (music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holzman), the most commercially successful new Broadway musical of the last twelve months, is a big-budget stage version of Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995). Maguire's novel is itself a postmodern commentary on L. Frank Baum's “Wizard of Oz” stories, in which Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, is revealed to have been a good witch who was misunderstood by her parents, while Glinda, the Good Witch, is unmasked as a brown-nosing opportunist. Maguire's heavy-handed ironies, however, are smoothed over in the Schwartz-Holzman adaptation of Wicked, a traditionally structured book show with a soft-rock score in the quaint-sounding style of Schwartz's 70's hits, Pippin (1972) and Godspell (1976).

While Wicked is theatrically effective, it is also predictable, not least in its self-conscious inversion of the moral values of the Oz books, and Schwartz's simplistic music has aged poorly. The show's commercial success derives mainly from the outstanding performances of its stars, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, and from the elaborate and expensive production directed by Joe Mantello and designed by Eugene Lee. For all its undeniable charm, however, Wicked impresses one as a period piece written long after its period was over.

As for Avenue Q (music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty), it is something else again: one of the first Broadway musicals to reflect the post-postmodern attitudes of “Generation X,” the children of the baby boomers. A parody of Sesame Street, whose characters are played by puppets manipulated in full view of the audience, Avenue Q is set in “an outer-outer borough of New York City” where rents are low enough to be afforded by recent college graduates with low-paying, entry-level jobs. These young people tend to be cynical about nearly everything, not least higher education (“Four years of college and plenty of knowledge/Have earned me this useless degree”); in Avenue Q, they sing of their disillusion in the relentlessly upbeat tones of the children's TV shows of the 70's.

Unlike the similarly acidic Urinetown (2001), a cold-hearted musical-comedy spoof that deals exclusively in surfaces, Avenue Q has a subject of real interest—the diminished expectations of its angry young characters—and many of its satirical touches are quite sharp. The funniest number, “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist,” goes so far as to skewer Left-liberal conformity: “Everyone's a little bit racist—it's true/But everyone is just about as racist—as you!/If we all could just admit/That we are racist a little bit/And everyone stopped being so P.C.,/Maybe we could live in—harmony!”

As so often with today's musicals, the show's weak link is its score, which never rises above the level of brilliant pastiche, especially in its unconvincing ballads. Yet despite its makers' inability to express emotion except from behind the mask of irony, Avenue Q points to the possibility of promising new directions for its genre.


It is significant that Avenue Q, unlike Wicked, has the feel not of a Broadway but of an off-Broadway show. Many of Stephen Sondheim's later musicals (including Assassins) were initially produced off Broadway, as were such Sondheim-influenced shows as Urinetown, Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins (1994), and Michael John LaChiusa's Marie Christine (1999), whose unconventional subject matter and musical adventurousness scared off Broadway producers.5

Despite the commercial success of Avenue Q and Urinetown, it remains to be seen whether Broadway will prove hospitable to new musicals that seek to do more than recycle and reshuffle the clichés of yesteryear. To date, no Broadway producer has been willing to take a chance on Bounce, Sondheim's latest show, which has yet to play New York. And even though Avenue Q has regularly topped the Wall Street Journal/Zagat Theater Survey since it opened last fall, it is by no means certain that similarly adventurous musicals would be capable of appealing to a mass audience. Just as many of Sondheim's shows seem more at home in opera houses than on Broadway, so New York's off-Broadway theaters may be more logical venues for the offbeat, small-scale shows that now represent the best creative hope for the musical-comedy idiom.

On the other hand, the appeal of the classic musicals of the 40's and 50's remains undiminished. In part, this is surely due to the high quality of their scores, which have yet to be rivaled, much less surpassed, by later songwriters. But good songs alone do not make a musical revivable. If they did, such obscure shows as Jubilee (the source of Cole Porter's “Begin the Beguine” and “Just One of Those Things”) and Very Warm for May (for which Jerome Kern wrote “All the Things You Are”) would be at least as well-known as Annie Get Your Gun or The Music Man.

In addition to their songs, the classic American musicals remain popular because they embody the way most Americans still feel about themselves, and about their country. Outside of the self-doubting New Class ghettos of Blue America, the ideal of cultural assimilation and the promise of democracy have lost none of their hold on our collective consciousness. I suspect it says something about the enduring power of the American creed that even in New York City, Assassins scored a mere 76 percent in the Wall Street Journal/Zagat poll, the lowest rating of any show on Broadway.

After all is said and done—after Vietnam and Watergate, after the assassinations of the 60's, after post-modernism and radical relativism and the election of 2000—it can hardly be coincidental that a 30-year-old show like Fiddler on the Roof is still drawing crowds to the Minskoff Theatre. As the saying goes, they don't write 'em like they used to, and perhaps they never will again. But even if the mold has been broken once and for all, we will always have the great shows of musical comedy's golden age to remind us of who we are and what we believe.


1 Harvard, 253 pp., $29.95.

2 I also covered a children's musical, A Year with Frog and Toad.

3 The only other exceptions are shows like Girl Crazy (1930, revived in 1992 as Crazy for You) and Anything Goes (1934, revived in 1987), whose original books have been extensively or completely rewritten by other hands.

4 See “Sondheim's Operas” (COMMENTARY, May 2003), reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader.

5 Urinetown later had a successful Broadway run, while Marie Christine was produced at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, a noncommercial house far from the Manhattan theater district that is classified as a “Broadway theater” for the purposes of Tony Award nominations.


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