Thursday, July 30, 2015

Wrapping it up with Rent

Songwriter-librettist Jonathan Larson produced Rent following seven years of revisions. Hoping to finally achieve a break-through in his career, Larson never witnessed the sensation that Rent came to be because he died from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35 on the day public previews were to begin in New York. This tragic event sparked director Michael Greif to do everything he could to make the show succeed. Rent ended up a major Broadway hit and even won Larson the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Known as a “Hair of the 90s”, Rent updates Puccini’s La Boheme, revolving around alternative artists in Manhattan’s East Village at the end of the 20th century rather than bohemians in 19th-century Paris. Rent includes characters who are homeless, transvestite, gay, drug-addicted, and more, however it’s overall celebratory rather than tragic like La Boheme. Written for a cast of 15 characters and a 5-piece band, Rent contains around 35 songs ranging from humorous to sobering in style. Rent likely achieved success due to its contemporary subject and aim to celebrate life through the midst of the darkness found in death and disease.

Below you can view the popular “Seasons of Love” from Rent.

Now that we’ve spent the last month looking at a variety of musicals I’m curious…do you have a favorite era or style of musical? There are certainly many musicals that I did not have the time to mention in my blog. Feel free to share your favorite!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Musical Theater Today

As we move into the present day in our examination of the musical, we see an increase in the reliance on visual spectacle. Like we saw last time in our discussion of Hair’s use of rock, many productions incorporate a variety of musical genres including hip hop and opera. Many theatrical productions during this modern era rely on old forms of entertainment such as recordings, films, etc. You may have noticed the abundance of Disney films re-produced on Broadway during the last few decades. One of my favorites just traveled to Cincinnati this past year, The Lion King:

As in previous generations, theater still often draws from literary sources such as Wicked, originally a book by Gregory Maguire that tells an alternative story about the witches of Oz. Some productions tell new tales such as Avenue Q, a story created by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx that addresses the stresses that many young adults encounter as they grow up and gain responsibility. The show is known for its use of puppets controlled by unconcealed puppeteers alongside human performers.

What is your favorite modern musical? Next time we’ll take a look at one of this period’s most famous productions: Rent.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Violating the Norm in Hair

This month Clef Notes is taking a look at the history of musical theater. This week, we’ve reached the post Golden-Age musicals, those musicals created roughly between 1967 and 1990. Today, I’d like to focus in on one famous and innovative musical from this period: Hair.

Hair emerged from a workshop approach to theater that depended on collective input and group improvisation rather than a fixed idea to create a production. Workshop productions explore nonverbal communication and break down the barrier between the stage and the audience. Hair began in the Open Theater’s Workshop with Gerome Ragni and James Rado—two actors who aimed to explore the baby-boomer generation of the 1960s. Hair revolved around the energetic, hippy-youth movement who were anti-war and promoters of civil rights.

Hair eventually moved to Broadway after being reworked by director Tom O’Horgan, who aimed to violate as many norms as he could by including nudity, allowing actors to mingle with audience members, using hand-held mics, and incorporating a rock idiom. You can view a scene from Hair below. Can you see why this musical was considered shocking by some?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Evita, Cats, and Company!

Following the era of the Golden-Age musical, the theater aimed to become more innovative, breaking away from what many considered the “old-fashioned” musicals of their parents’ generation. The term “show tunes” began to be used in reference to musical songs and British shows began appearing on Broadway. British team Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s collaboration brought about rock operas. Their Evita contained universal subjects rather than standard American themes.

Many musicals focused more on choreography than they had in the past. Lloyd Webber’s Cats contains ample dance scenes and is considered to be a megamusical for its ambitious scores, constant singing, and emphasis on staging.

Stephen Sondheim is another name from this era. He began his career learning from Oscar Hammerstein, who taught him to be a musical playwright. Early on in his career he acted as lyricist for West Side Story, Gypsy, and Do I Hear a Waltz? His eleven-year collaboration with producer and director Hal Prince resulted in hits like Company, Follies, and Sweeney Todd. Company provides an excellent example of a work from this era that broke with all expectations, having no plot but rather using an over-arching theme to connect each act.

Do you have a favorite musical from this era? Join me next time as we delve into one of my favorites: Hair.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

What's your favorite musical from the Golden Age?

This month we are looking at American musical theater and how it’s developed over time. As promised, today I’m including a playlist with some of my favorite Golden Age (1940–1966) musical hits!

Oklahoma! “Oh What a Beautiful Morning”

Cinderella “Impossible”

Carousel “If I Loved You”

South Pacific “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair”

State Fair “It Might as Well Be Spring”

The King and I “Getting to Know You”

The Sound of Music “Do Re Mi”

My Fair Lady “The Rain in Spain”

West Side Story “Tonight”

Do you have a favorite? 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Golden Age

Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in a sense marks the start of what we can term the Golden Age of musical theater (approximately 1940–1966). It was during the Golden Age that the musical became what we know it as today: a book or script with songs and dances inserted between dialogue. The goal with Oklahoma was to move between dialogue and song seamlessly, the audience unaware of the transition. The songs acted as an add-on to speech rather than a segment broken away from the story. Rodgers and Hammerstein partnered for 18 years, moving from musical comedies to musical theater over the course of their career. With this change came more serious subject matter. Some of their hits include State Fair, Cinderella, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Many of their works were later turned into major films, helping to preserve them for generations.

You may be familiar with other teams from this era including Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, known for My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, and Camelot. Composers Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein sought to create musical plays with operatic proportions using more technical virtuosity, weighty themes, and popular American subjects. You can read about Bernstein’s work on West Side Story here

Are you a fan of the Golden Age musical? If so, join me next time as I present a playlist with some of my favorite Golden Age musical hits!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Big Names in Early 20th-Century Theater

This month we are hitting the highlights of American musical theater as it developed over the years and last time, we entered into the 20th century with the rise of the American idiom and Tin Pan Alley. Today, let’s look at a few major names from this period.

I’m sure you’ve heard the name Irving Berlin? Born Israel Baline, the infamous composer renamed himself after his name mistakenly appeared as I. Berlin on the front of “Marie from Sunny Italy” for which he wrote the lyrics. He decided to go with the new name, hoping its American sound would help his popularity. Berlin is most prominently known for works such as “God Bless America” and “White Christmas, but he first gained international fame with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which quotes Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.” Before gaining fame, Berlin worked as a street singer and song plugger, performing his own works on Tin Pan Alley. He began his own publishing company in 1919 and then built the Music Box Theatre in 1921 where he staged four revues with some of his most popular songs. During the 1920s, Berlin began writing for Hollywood film musicals, collaborating with stars such as Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rodgers. Over the course of his long life, Berlin wrote over one thousand songs, having never learned to read music!

Irving Berlin-Courtesy of

What about the name George Cohan? Known for “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” Cohan Americanized the musical comedy. A jack of all trades in the theatrical world, Cohan was a successful actor, singer, dancer, playwright, songwriter, director, producer, and theater owner! He grew up in a vaudeville-family act and eventually expanded his own skits into full-length plays with songs. His Little Johnny Jones, Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, and George Washington, Jr. are a few hits that all deal with American ideals.

George Cohan-Courtesy of

Did you have a chance to read my post on Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat? Or what about George Gershwin? These names will go down in history for their influence on American musical theater. 

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart partnered together for 24 years during this era, producing many hit songs and stage productions including “My Funny Valentine” and Babes in Arms. When the prospect of creating Oklahoma! arose, Hart refused, saying it lacked wit and urbanity. Rodgers ended up going ahead with the project, collaborating with Hammerstein II and thus beginning the era of musical theater many people have come to know and love.

Rodgers and Hart-Courtesy of 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Early Musical Theater and Tin Pan Alley

Moving into the 20th century, composers, librettists, lyricists, producers, and actors increasingly sought to incorporate an American identity in their work. This led to the use of popular American forms including ragtime, cakewalk, and jazz. Many shows contained plots about life in America. A new form of vernacular entertainment even developed known as musical comedy. The musical comedy contained musical numbers inserted into a play and tended to deal with popular, modern subjects. It had a lighter feel than opera. Though the musical comedy originated in Britain, Americans made it their own after 1900 with the rise of big names you may be familiar with such as George Cohan, Al Jolson, Jerome Kern, Ira and George Gershwin, Fred and Adele Astaire, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. We will talk more about some of these names next time.

Today, let’s focus in on one aspect of the music industry during the early 20th century that played a large role in the development of musical theater and American popular music: Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley: Courtesy of 

Tin Pan Alley was located at 28th and Broadway in New York City and became known as the home for major sheet music publishing companies. It was given its name because the pianos inside the company offices sounded like banging tin pans from outside on the street. Tin Pan Alley cornered the American song publishing market and the name eventually became a way to reference the style of popular music during the early 20th century time period. One great example of a famous American tune that came out of this period is “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”!

Do you have a favorite American popular tune from this time period? Join me next time as we take a closer look a few famous names from the Tin Pan Alley era!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Black Crook

This month we are looking at the development of American musical theater over the last 150 years. Last time we looked at a few types of early theater. Today, let’s look closer at one famous work, The Black Crook (1866), which started as two separate works that, when combined, found success.

The Black Crook originated as a melodrama by Charles M. Barras. Considered old-fashioned, it was a supernatural tale similar to Weber’s Der Freischutz. Despite the lack of intrigue, the New York theatre Niblo’s Garden booked the show. For more about Niblo’s Garden, check out the video below!

Around the same time, a European dance troupe that was scheduled to perform at the Academy of Music found themselves without work when the Academy burnt down. Thus, they combined their ballet with the melodrama to produce a show known for its scenic effects and scantily dressed dancers. The show ended up taking in over a million dollars and running 475 consecutive shows at Niblos’s, exceeding any production prior to it in New York! In order to keep the show fresh, new ballets were periodically added. Following its Broadway run, The Black Crook toured the country.

Join me next week as we move into the early 20th century!