Between the Lines

When Broadway Musicals Were Dark And Subversive

The most intriguing subplot in the original book for Finian’s Rainbow concerns a racist Southern senator who is “too busy defendin’ the Constitution” to read it.

The Golden Age of the Broadway musical stretches from 1927—with the advent of the groundbreaking Show Boat—all the way until the mid-1960s; it may have been a golden age in terms of craftsmanship and popular appeal, but it was anything but an age of innocence.

For many people, their apprehension (in both senses of the word) about mid-20th-century musical theater comes from a jangled jamboree of brassy Cinemascope film adaptations, relentlessly cheery high-school productions, and the occasional strident cast album blaring from the hi-fi of a theatrically inclined college roommate. Yet, to judge the American musical by those criteria is to ignore the purity of intention and range of imagination yielded by a great generation of American composers and writers, working in a collaborative medium in a forum that, once upon a time, commanded the attention of the nation, and, occasionally, the world.

The mythical universe of Broadway—which still exists, geographically, within only 14 square blocks of midtown Manhattan—was created around 1904, a confluence of the opening of the Times Square subway stop and the glorification of the burgeoning Theater District in George M. Cohan’s anthem “Give My Regards to Broadway,” written the same year. But, for roughly four decades—from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s—Broadway maintained a pre-eminence for interesting experiments, provocative productions, and topical inquiries into the American psyche. We think of O’Neill, Odets, Williams, Miller, and Albee as the standard bearers of this kind of groundbreaking work, but the masters (and occasional mistresses) of the American musical were doing much the same thing in their own milieu—only with a song in their hearts.

The cultural weather was particularly clement for musical theater writers during this period. The national press constantly celebrated musical theater writers with lengthy features that splashed their faces across the covers of newsweeklies; the great Broadway songbook was broadcast nightly, in some form on another, on a multitude of radio shows and several songwriters even hosted their own radio programs. There was no competition from any other genre of music, at least until the late 1950s: The music of Broadway was the popular music of America and vice versa.

Broadway was only censored by the boundaries of good taste; it had none of the proscriptions self-imposed upon Hollywood after 1934. Even the popular film musicals churned out by the Dream Factory after 1928 posed no real threat to the aspirations of Broadway; film musicals ran only about 90 minutes, they were in black-and-white, and even those based on successful Broadway shows were deracinated, rewritten, and/or retrofitted for specific performers. The more sophisticated musicals of the time—Of Thee I Sing, Porgy and Bess, The Cradle Will Rock, Pal Joey—were completely shunned by Hollywood in their day. This was part of an ongoing annoyance perpetrated upon those who toiled in the Theatre District: Their songs and their dialogue were routinely bowdlerized by radio sponsors, movie producers, and the A&R men at various record companies. Only on Broadway could they write what they wanted and adventurously as they wished.

Not surprisingly, the two main areas where Broadway craftsmen could be most adventurous were race and sex—the two most verboten topics in Hollywood and on the radio. Ill-informed cynics tend to think of Oscar Hammerstein II as a sentimental softie, but in the arena of racial progressiveness and tolerance, he was a fierce tiger. His book for Show Boat not only put black and white characters on stage with equal integrity, it dealt directly with miscegenation and its tragic after-effects in the 19th-century South. In tandem, his lyrics for “Ol’ Man River” conferred an unprecedented dignity to a black character and had Show Boat’s producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, not been quite so squeamish (and concerned about the show’s running time), further sequences dealing with the black characters, as well as other subplots implying prostitution and alcoholism, would have been center stage (several of these excisions can be found in the back matter of American Musicals: The Complete Book and Lyrics of Sixteen Broadway Classics (1927-1969)).

Hammerstein continued his subtle quest for racial equanimity in Oklahoma!, where a dancing cowpoke refers to learning some “rag-time” steps “from a couple of colored fellers” in Kansas City (a line cut from the licensed version, but added back to the Library of America anthology), but his passion for tolerance culminates in South Pacific, where both the plot and the subplot hinge on racial prejudice, which, as Lt. Cable reminds us, has to be carefully taught: “It happens after you’re born.” Lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg was as provocative as Hammerstein, though with a much less earnest, more whimsical sensibility. His original book for Finian’s Rainbow made fun of the rapacious consumerism of America in the atomic age, but its most intriguing subplot concerns a racist Southern senator (modeled on several real-life reactionary figures) who is “too busy defendin’ the Constitution” to read it. Through a bit of Celtic magic, the senator is turned into a black man so that he can experience firsthand the real prejudice in his district. This “gimmick” is central to Harburg’s perceptions about our culture; unfortunately, it has forced captious producers to keep this thoroughly charming show off the stage for decades (and it prefigures the central joke of Melvin Van Peebles’ film Watermelon Man by nearly a quarter-century).

Coded references to risqué and sexual matters were catnip to the lyricists Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter. In the case of Pal Joey, Hart found a soulmate (and drinking buddy) in the book’s writer, the equally louche John O’Hara. Within the first 15 lines of the show, during which an aspiring nightclub singer is quizzed by a prospective manager, there are references to cocaine, alcohol, pederasty, and one-night stands. In this show, which Richard Rodgers wrote was the first musical “to deal with the facts of life,” the eponymous nightclub singer becomes the kept man of a wealthy socialite, while cheating on his more innocent girlfriend. The singer and the socialite rhapsodize about their affair in a song called “Den of Iniquity,” where they brag about the power of a radio broadcast of Tschaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” to heighten their sexual activity.

When Porter came to Kiss Me, Kate in 1948, the newer brand of musical, with its stricter narrative form, gave fewer opportunities for the naughty one-off numbers that made his reputation in the late 1920s, but with songs such as “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” he gets away with murder (or “murther,” if you are Shakespearean purist): “When your baby is pleading for pleasure/Let her sample your Measure for Measure” and “If she says your behavior is heinous/Kick her right in the Coriolanus.” (Shockingly, this last couplet made it into the 1953 film version; someone was napping over at MGM.)

The American-set musicals of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s always made mild jests about contemporary political situations: As Thousands Cheer spoofed the Roosevelts and the House of Windsor in equal measure; The Pajama Game pokes fun at McCarthesque paranoia. And although, in our post-Colbertian era, these satirical sideswipes seem somewhat tame by comparison, it’s important to remember that one would never find such barbs in the films, television programs, or radio broadcasts of the time. As the 1950s progressed, and as My Fair Lady ushered in an age of adaptations and musicals set in such far-flung locales as Edwardian England or Tsarist Russia or Weimar Germany, it became more difficult to comment directly on American politics and America culture. The more popular shows of the late 1960s evolved into metaphors for cultural issues: the generation gap (Fiddler on the Roof); racism and civil rights (Cabaret); patriotism in a time of war (1776). Germane and relevant in their way, but wielding a different methodology.

Of course, the most taboo subject in a musical is death. Hammerstein was always keen to kill off a character before the final curtain (in Oklahoma! and South Pacific they are, thankfully, merely supporting characters), but those “grand exits” were usually the result of organic plot exigencies. Surprisingly, one of the most mature shows of the Golden Age was On the Town, whose candy-colored revival currently at the Lyric Theater gives little context for the material’s true sophisticated and poignancy, set at the height of the Second World War. Viewers who only remember the much-redacted 1949 film version (in which “New York” was no longer a “helluva town,” but now a “wonderful town,” thanks to the censors) are denied a thoughtful vision of life on the home front during wartime. The three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York City avail themselves of as much female company and pulchritude as was permissible on-stage back in 1944 (the lyrics by Comden and Green refer explicitly to waking up and getting to see your girlfriend without her makeup on), but more importantly, they avail themselves of life. When those three charming boys went back to their ship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as the curtain came down, everyone in the audience knew where they were going: They were sailing off to an uncertain future. And, in what may be the most ingenious stroke in a very ingenious evening, our three leading actors are immediately replaced by three unnamed sailors—“all buddies” says the script—who bound off the ship to undergo their one brief day of joy in New York City and, eventually perhaps, a similar fate.

Laughing and singing and dancing under the shadow of an uncertain fate: Isn’t that glorious tension what the American musical has always been about?

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Laurence Maslon is the editor of American Musicals (published by Library of America), an arts professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the host of the radio program Broadway to Main Street.