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Professor Places Musical Theatre in Historical Context


Larry Stempel, Ph.D., points to Rodgers and Hammerstein as the creators of the modern Broadway musical.
Photo by Gina Vergel

When Larry Stempel, Ph.D., came to Fordham some 30 years ago, the chair of the art history and music department suggested he teach a course on musical theatre, since he loved the subject.

“You’ve got to be kidding; there are so few materials available,” said Stempel, an associate professor of music.

As a budding songwriter at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in the late 1970s, Stempel had started drafting a book that might have proved invaluable to the course, but the volume was barely begun.

Still, he obliged the department chair and began teaching.

Three decades of leading students to the pinnacles and through the valleys of American musical theatre can yield a lot of material, and so it has for Stempel. He recently published Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater (W.W. Norton, 2010), the same volume he began at BMI. His labor of love has been billed as “the definitive history of the Broadway musical: the shows, the stars, the movers and the shakers.”

“It dawned on me that [those of us at BMI]were all working in a historical vacuum,” he said. “We critiqued each other’s work, sometimes astutely, but always on the basis of personal taste and current trends. Few of us had any sense of how contemporary musical theatre fit into a historical trajectory or reflected larger patterns of American culture.”

As Lloyd Rose, former head drama critic for The Washington Post, wrote in his review, “[Stempel] seems delighted with everything he finds; you can almost hear him murmuring, ‘I didn’t know that,’ as he unearths some new discovery.”

So extensive was Stempel’s research that the word “unearths” is an apt description.

“Except for some operettas, little —if anything—of a Broadway show was published before the Second World War,” he said. “As a commercial venture through and through, the musical has always been practically oriented. In the early days, a producer would build a show around star performers. When those performers left the show, it closed.”

At that point, the scripted and physical materials that held it together had no intrinsic value to speak of and aroused little in the way of cultural interest for their preservation—not the typescript of the spoken dialogue, the musical numbers in the handwritten orchestral score, the sets or the costumes.

“All these items were irretrievably lost or wound up scattered in different places,” he said.

To gather information on any show before the 1940s, Stempel performed an enormous amount of detective work. He read memoirs and opening night reviews. He scoured archives and private collections for original typescripts. He tracked down photos, which were rarely of a given production, but rather studio shots of its stars.

Occasionally he came across 78 rpm records of hit songs from Broadway shows sung by their stage casts, but only if the show made it to London, where such recordings of American musicals were made years before the practice took hold in America.

Like the current and controversial Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, what is arguably the first Broadway musical, The Black Crook, was billed as the most expensive production of its day and opened to scathing reviews.

Describing that show, which opened in 1866, Charles Dickens wrote, “This is the most preposterous peg to hang ballets on that was ever seen.” But just like Spiderman, the production sold tickets.

“The reason it is generally known as the ‘first’ musical is because it was the first blockbuster show,” Stempel said. “It ran for over a year, which was unheard of. Productions almost never ran for more than a few months at that time.”

Set in 17th-century Germany, The Black Crook involved cutting-edge technology that was very expensive to mount. Unfortunately, very little is known about the production’s music.

“The idea of original music uniquely suited to a Broadway production is, by and large, a more recent development. In the past, theatres often had house composers. They were contracted to the theatre and would write new music for any production that came in,” he said. “The Black Crook was revived year in and year out for at least a generation, each time with new music. Almost all of the music we now associate with The Black Crook comes from later productions.”

Things began to change in the second half of the 19th century, Stempel said, as audiences became more specialized.

“Different constituencies supported different types of entertainment,” he said. “The concert saloon—a euphemism if there ever was one—attracted working-class males, while the Metropolitan Opera surely would not have attracted that clientele. By the late 19th century, certain types of entertainment took place in only certain types of theatres. This is where the musical theatre as we know it began to specialize. It brought together certain elements in a particular way.”

Oklahoma!, the first collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, emblematically ended the heyday of shows that depended on stars for success. Basing their show on the play Green Grow the Lilacs, to which they adhered with fidelity unusual for a musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein deliberately went with a star-free cast.

“The Theatre Guild, which produced the show, proposed casting Groucho Marx as the comedian. Rodgers and Hammerstein refused, as they felt that would have turned Oklahoma! into a conventional, star-based musical comedy.”

“They succeeded enormously and followed up with other productions that similarly emphasized the cogency of scripted material. When those shows ran longer than the contract lengths of their original performers, the shows continued to run even though the original performers were no longer in them.”


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