Musical as Vehicle for Social Change, Part I

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com

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We all know the old adage: art imitates life. Of course, sometimes it’s the other way around. Were any of us surprised when sales of George Orwell’s “1984” went up over 6,000% after Edward Snowden snitched on the NSA?  Probably not.

The book, which tells the story of a low-ranking Party member constantly under surveillance by a character literally named Big Brother, is hitting pretty close to home these days.  In many ways, the society Orwell imagined when writing “1984” after World War II is now here.

Beyond imitating life, art has the power to reflect the human experience in a way that can change people’s minds.  A recent article published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity & The Arts entitled “Do You Hear The People Sing?: Musical Theatre and Attitude Change” suggests just that (read the abstract here).  The study finds that “audience members’ reports of emotional engagement and insight were significantly related to attitude change.”

Now, any (good) musical is about people in conflict, however thinly veiled – guy meets girl, girl loses girl, guy gets girl back – but some musicals hold a mirror to our society and ask the audience to ponder their own beliefs.  These types of shows can speak to us like prophets, giving us a glimpse of a time passed, our current society, what it could become or all three at once.

Below is a list of musicals I believe fall into this category.  I’ve included links for each show to Wikipedia, not because I think it’s a resource for scholarly reflection, but because it does tend to have enough information to quench one’s thirst.

1776 (Sherman Edwards)
Assassins (Stephen Sondheim)
Cabaret (John Kander & Fred Ebb)
Caroline, Or Change (Jeanine Tesori & Tony Kusher)
Chicago (John Kander & Fred Ebb)
Cradle Will Rock (Marc Blitzstein)
Finian’s Rainbow (Burton Lane & E.Y. Harburg)
Floyd Collins (Adam Guettel)
Hair (Galt MacDemot & James Rado/Gerom Ragni)
I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road (Gretchen Cryer & Nancy Ford)
Johnny Johnson (Kurt Weill & Paul Green)
Lost in the Stars (Kurt Weill & Maxwell Anderson)
Mother Courage and Her Children (Jeanine Tesori & Tony Kushner)
Pacific Overtures (Stephen Sondheim)
Parade (Jason Robert Brown)
RENT (Jonathan Larson)
Ragtime (Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens)
The Scottsboro Boys (John Kander & Fred Ebb)
Show Boat (Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein/P.G. Wodehouse)
South Pacific (Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein)
Street Scene (Kurt Weill & Langston Hughes)
Three Penny Opera (Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht)
Urinetown (Mark Hollmann & Greg Kotis)
Violet (Jeanine Tesori & Brian Crawley)
Weird Romance (Alan Menken & David Spencer)
West Side Story (Leonard Berstein & Stephen Sondheim)

Thanks to my collaborator, Tom Gualtieri, for helping me round out what I know is still an incomplete list.  Feel free to make comments on this blog with similar shows.

Librettist-lyricist and all-around knowledgeable mensch Ed Weissman further added that even musical revues had social and/or political purposes:

Pins and Needles – which ran for 1108 performances between 1937-1940 – was produced and performed by members of the ILGWU (Garment Workers) and made the broadway career of Harold Rome.  The score included songs like ‘Sing Me A Song of Social Significance,’ ‘It’s Better With a Union Man’ and ‘Three Little Angels of Peace’ (Hitler, Mussolini and Chamberlain.) Though we think of Irving Berlin as either non-political or a flag waver, his song ‘Supper Time’ from As Thousands Cheer (1933) featured Ethel Waters (the first black performer to appear with white performers above the title) singing that ‘…that man o mine ain’t comin’ home no more’ because he was lynched.”

Now, let’s be clear; we’re not talking about docu-musicals or revues – no one would ever suggest Cabaret isn’t toe-tapping fun at moments – but these shows in particular have important messages for the society for which they were written.

Three musicals on the above list are part of a new series at City Center entitled ENCORES!: Off-Center, spearheaded by Broadway composer Jeanine Tesori. The objective of the new series – much like the beloved, long-standing ENCORES! series – is to give forgotten or rarely performed musicals superior staged readings so contemporary audiences can experience them.  The focus of this particular series is on shows that were originally produced off-Broadway, this year including: The Cradle Will Rock, Violet and I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road.

As member of the Artistic Board for the Off-Center Series, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know these three musicals.  I’d like to reflect on each one, considering what the show had to say to its original audience and how it might be relevant to us today.

The Cradle Will Rock

Book, Lyrics & Music: Marc Blitzstein
 

An almost entirely sung-through musical, The Cradle Will Rock is set in “Steeltown, USA,” and follows the protagonist Larry Foreman as he attempts to unionize the town’s workers in the face of the malevolent Mr. Mister.  The piece was conceived in January 1936, when Blitzstein played a musical scene about a prostitute for playwright Bertolt Brecht, who suggested he write a piece about all different kinds of prostitution. Blitzstein wrote the musical in five weeks the following summer and dedicated it to Brecht.

The story behind the premiere of The Cradle Will Rock on June 16, 1937 is a nail-biting epic in keeping with the themes of the musical itself. At the time of the show’s premiere, over 18 million were without work in the United States.  There was rising conflict between management and newly organized labor and violent fights were breaking out around the country. Authorities of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) realized the show’s premiere would come at a volatile time and demanded the musical be shut down before it could open.

Despite considerable odds, Houseman, Welles, Blitzstein and most the entire cast went on to premiere the musical, as scheduled. Listen here to the first-hand account of Cradle’s premiere, as told by John Houseman, founder of WPA Project 891 and co-producer of the musical (along with a young Orson Welles, the show’s director).

Sinces then, the show has lived in relative obscurity, despite some notable productions (including the Acting Company’s production, directed by Houseman in 1983).

The Cradle Will Rock was an anomaly in American musical theatre at the time, which was generally populated with revues and lighthearted entertainment.  Still, Blitzstein’s desire to create a modern morality play was fully realized in perhaps the most dramatic way possible.  The show ran for 18 sold-out performances at the Venice Theatre and later ran for 108 performances at the Windsor Theatre in 1938.

In his article on The Cradle Will Rock, director Scott Miller states:

“…[Cradle’s] underlying subject matter is very serious and yet it lives in a world of cheap laughs, cartoon characters and melodrama. It’s one of the funniest musicals of the 1930s… but even though the audience laughs at the characters, Blitzstein somehow manages to create an emotional investment that pays off in the show’s very passionate, very dramatic ending. [Cradle’s] politics are proto-communist and unionist, yet it is unmistakably an American musical comedy and it still today holds a place of honor in musical theatre history. It’s the kind of theatre for which the term “agitprop” was invented (condensed from “agitational propaganda”) and yet, even though it is heavy-handed and didactic, and even though its motives are altogether transparent, it is still a funny, thoroughly entertaining musical, appealing precisely because of the honesty about its intentions.”

All this is interesting, but does a show that premiered 76 years ago have any relevance in today’s society?  Let’s review some of the plot points of the show:

    • A policeman abuses his power when a prostitute won’t offer her services.
    • The local newspaper is paid off to run a false story against a union organizer in order to put pressure on him.
    • A bomb is planted in a dissenter’s vehicle. An innocent man dies in an effort to protect those in harm’s way.
    • The protagonist is unjustly arrested and beaten.
    • A doctor is told he will lose his chairmanship if he doesn’t lie and suggest a patient was drunk at the time of an accident.

To me, these sound like headlines ripped from last week’s New York Post.  The amount of corruption in The Cradle Will Rock is astounding, but is it really that far from our contemporary experience?

Violet

Book & Lyrics: Brian Crawley
Music: Jeanine Tesori
 

Set the rural South in 1964, Violet tells the story of a twenty-five-year old woman who leaves home in search of a televangelist to heal a horrible scar on her face, left by her now-deceased father from a wood-chopping accident when she was thirteen. In her travels Violet meets two soldiers – the womanizing Monty and Flick, an African American. The three travel together, their relationships entangled when Violet and Monty become involved with each other. After parting ways, Violet finds the televangelist she believes can heal her.  He explains he doesn’t have the power to help her – that people who come on his show are so caught up in the excitement of his program they end up healing themselves. After mocking him with his own routine, Violet leaves betrayed.  In effort to find healing for herself, she goes into a trance, calling upon her late father to confront his handiwork. He explains he did his best in raising her and assures her he never meant her harm. Overwhelmed with emotion, Violet comes to herself, believing she is healed. She excitedly travels to where Monty and Flick are stationed.  Flick comforts her when she realizes she still has the scar.  Monty leaves for Vietnam while Violet and Flick begin a new life together.

The musical is based on a novel entitled “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts.  Jeanine Tesori was so taken by Betts’ story, she made her own journey to Betts’ doorstep to share her vision of making the novel a musical.

Given the time in which the story is set, the musical explores issues of race and beauty, juxtaposing them in a powerful way that underscores how society attempts to define one’s self-worth.  In an 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Tesori noted:

“We walk around with scars, some seen, others unseen, and that affects our lives. Some remain unhealed, others we can heal. From [a women’s perspective] it’s always been fascinating to me to consider the issue of beauty, the expectations of how you should feel and look.”

Violet ran at Playwright’s Horizons from March 11 to April 6, 1997 before having a healthy life in regional theaters.  The show won an Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama Critic’s Award and special citation from the Obie Awards.

Certainly, the issues of race, definitions of beauty and religious fanaticism are still incredibly potent topics. These notwithstanding, Violet is, above all, a redemption story and, therefore, a necessary voice in a broken world.

I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road

Book & Lyrics: Gretchen Cryer
Music: Nancy Ford
 

Contrary to popular thought, Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford’s I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On The Road was not their first show.  The writing team, the only female composer-lyricist team on and off-Broadway at the time, had previously produced three shows in New York, including: Now is the Time for All Good Men (1967), The Last Sweet Days of Isaac (1970 Obie, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle Awards) and Shelter (1973).  However, the seasoned writing team’s biggest success came with I’m Getting My Act Together… in 1978.

I had the opportunity to interview Gretchen Cryer about how the show was initially received.  She beautifully set the scene onto which their musical literally burst forth:

“The show appeared at a time when the issue of what it was to be a woman or man was very electric.  In the late 70’s, women who were coming of age were coming out of a sensibility that was forged in the 50’s.

During World War II, women went out and worked in factories (Rosie the Riveter). After the war, however, it was considered patriotic to retreat to the kitchen and the bedroom in order to not take jobs away from returning veterans.  You did not want to be accused of undermining the men’s ability to get jobs – it was expected women would let them reestablish themselves on the home front.

Any of us who graduated from college in the 50’s knew our work options were to be a teacher, nurse or secretary.  There wasn’t a single woman in our entire college (DePauw University) who was thinking of becoming a CEO, doctor or lawyer – all the men were going to take those positions.  The idea was that you were going to hold a little job while your husband, who you had just found at college, was going to go to graduate school.  As soon as he finished, it was expected you would return home, start having babies and be the deferential wife.  That was the pattern of the 50’s and we all followed that.  We got pinned our junior year, engaged our senior year and married stepping out of graduation at 22 years old.

By the time these women reached the 1970’s, the definitions of what a women could do were suddenly changing through consciousness-raising groups, which brought great turmoil. Everybody was confused and inflamed by the issues. Men felt threatened by what women were doing and women didn’t know what to expect from men at that point.  It was throwing everything up in the air.

When we wrote the show, I was writing the book and lyrics from a very personal perspective – I had never even been to a consciousness-raising group. I was not considering myself as part of the movement at all. I had gone through a personal odyssey that happened to reflect the times: I had gone through a divorce, I was raising kids by myself and everything had changed from what my expectations had been when I got married at the end of the 50’s.  So, it was written out of a personal experience, but because it reflected the larger issue going on with women around the country, it became a hot-issue show, even though it was never meant to be a feminist statement.”

I asked her if she and Nancy were surprised by the response.

“We were not prepared for how inflammatory the show would be or for the kind of hostile reviews it got because it was treated as though ‘we women’ were making a very hostile statement.  It was a funny show, laughing at male chauvinism, but that was intolerable at that time.

Because it was such an inflammatory subject, the talk-backs we had at the Public Theatre on Wednesday nights after the show were outrageous.  People in the audience were arguing with each other back and forth across the theatre.  People walked out on each other.  Women were bringing potential dates or mates to see the show as a Rohrshach test to see how their men would react to it.

Because the show is all about redefining yourself no matter what personal relationship you might be in, for many years I got letters from both men and women (mostly women), saying they had decided to make some drastic changes in their lives.  In other words, a lot of women wrote to tell me they were getting a divorce.  I thought, “Oh my God, we’re responsible for the rising divorce rate in this country!”  But, it had to do with the fact that people didn’t want to be locked into old expectations of themselves.

Men were in an incredibly confusing time as well because they didn’t know what they were supposed to do in this new paradigm. Was a woman going to get offended if they opened a door for them? Would it be considered condescending or thoughtful?  Nobody knew what the manners were supposed to be anymore.  Some women did see it as condescending, but there were others who still considered it to be nice.  So men didn’t know what the hell to do when it came to women and how to treat them.  In a way, our show does deal with that. The character of Joe is so confused by his wife, who’s claiming she wants to become an artist, yet his money is paying for the male model that she is painting (and screwing).  He’s totally been had by this woman.  We wanted to show that side of it too.

So, the show just dug into all these issues, which is why it kept running in spite of bad reviews.

When the show later opened in Chicago and Los Angeles it received rave reviews, because the times had just changed enough that people could see the show was funny.  Also, by the time it opened outside New York, it was considered a hit and the audiences hadn’t necessarily read the Times review.”

In 2011, The York Theatre mounted I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER… and a  version of the sequel (STILL GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER, which has since been rewritten).  I asked Gretchen how reactions to the piece differed from its premiere.

“Nancy and I really thought the old show might seem passé.  We thought everyone was going to say, ‘Oh, we’ve heard this before – been there, done that.’  It turned out that the show really resonated with women in their 30’s and 40’s on an emotional level.  Yes, circumstances are different now – women can be CEOs, lawyers and doctors – but the underlying emotional subtext of male-female relationships still has a lot of that old stuff in it.  This surfaced during the talk-backs at the York.

As I mentioned, in the 70’s it was written as a personal statement but became a feminist statement.  Now it may very well be back to being a personal statement that resonates with people.  They’re looking at it as a period piece, but it still emotionally strikes a chord.”

When I asked about further plans for their show, she said:

“Our sequel – which is a combination of the old show as the first act and the sequel as the second act, re-conceived since the York production – is currently under option and we’re hoping for a production in the coming year.  It’s about the same characters thirty years later.”

*****

If you’d like to do more research on how musicals have represented and shaped social thought, I highly recommend “Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theatre” by John Bush Jones.  It’s a wonderfully detailed and insightful look

If recent experience tells us anything, these musicals will continue to be performed, not only because they’re well-crafted pieces of theatre, but because they have the capacity hold us to the mirror as a society and help us reflect on who we are and who we could be.

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If you live in the Tri-State area, you would be well-served to attend at least one performance of the Off-Center Series, which is preceded each night by The Lobby Project – a rich tapestry of talks, interactive art, spoken word and musical performances that provide context for each show.  Violet is already sold out.  For more information, click here.

Next week, in Part II of this blog, we’ll highlight a couple shows by our Directory writers that similarly seek to share an important message with our society.

I leave you with these words by Marc Blitzstein:

“Music must have a social as well as artistic base. It should broaden its scope 

and reach not only the select few, but the masses.”

 

 

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