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50 Years of Broadway: from Hair to Hamilton

50 Years of Broadway: from Hair to Hamilton-A Cultural History

Kip Tabb

Art is a reflection of who we are and who we are creates the art of the day. That concept, that we are defined by and define the music and theater of any given period was at the heart of] Dr. Christopher Palestrant’s fascinating trip through the history of Broadway Musicals at the RC Movies on Sunday evening.

The Chair of the Music and Visual Arts Department at Elizabeth City State University, Palestrant did more than simply recite the history of the Great White Way. Interspersing original cast recordings of songs with rarely scene videos of performances, he made the cultural history of the times and the music that it reflected it come alive.

Most of 50 Years of Broadway: from Hair to Hamilton looked at the period from 1968 when Hair opened to the present. He did not, however, simply begin in 1968, as though nothing existed before that.

Rather he took the audience all the way back to the days George M. Cohan, generally considered the first of the great Broadway impresarios. His plays may no longer be remembered, but the songs are still a part of our culture.

“Have you heard of Little Johnny Jones?” he asked. “But I bet you know some of the songs from that play. Have you ever heard of Yankee Doodle Dandy? Or how about Give My Regards to Broadway? Those were from that show.”

He then talked about George Washington Jr. Certainly not a part of anyone’s repertoire today, but that is the play that gave us Grand Old Flag.

“These are show tunes,” Palestrant explained. “And they became really important to the American culture outside of Broadway.”

To demonstrate how integrated into our society many of of the songs of Broadway have become, he led a singalong of Old Man River from the 1927 Jerome Kern play Old Man River.

He followed with a number of songs that came from Broadway shows of the 1930s—I’ve Got Rhythm, The Lady Is a Tramp, were two.

The Lady Is a Tramp from Rogers and Hart’s 1937 play Babes in Arms is particularly significant, Palestrant noted, pointing out that the song ridicules the high society women of the time, with their emphasis on being seen the the right places and doing the right things.

The Lady is a Tramp is …mocking the upper class, and Broadway throughout history is going to champion the disenfranchised,” he said.

Social commentary was not the only change that was coming to Broadway. Suddenly the big show tunes of the 1920s and 1930s with showgirls singing and dancing as part of a huge cast were gone and instead Oklahoma opened in 1943 with a woman churning butter and a man singing Oh, What a Beautiful Morning—which created a wonderful moment for an audience singalong.

Broadway is in a constant state of evolution. Oklahoma was significant for more than the simplicity of its staging. Unlike the earlier productions where the plot was told through dialogue and then a song would be interjected, now, “The songs are leading the story,” Palestrant observed.

What was happening on Broadway was changing cultural expectations of movies as well. In the 1937 Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the dwarves are going off to work, and the song Heigh-Ho is injected into the narrative. Thirteen years later when Cinderella comes to movie theaters, the songs are part of the plot.

All of those elements are important to understanding how a play like Hair, debuting in 1968, could be produced and why it was such a hit even though it was unlike anything before it.

Hair changed everything,” Palestrant said. “This show had profanity, it had nudity, it had draft card burning. It ran for five year. And it really captured the American counter culture.”

It was not just Hair that was radically changing what a Broadway play could be. In 1966 Caberet had Joel Grey interacting with the audience, removing the fourth wall, the imaginary barrier between stage and audience.

As these plays became more popular, Hollywood came calling and the plays were produced as movies. That led to a whole new round of cultural interchange where plays have become movies and movies have become plays.

Perhaps nothing illustrates that process as well a The Producers.

In 1967 the Mel Brooks movie hit the silver screen. In 2001 Mel Brooks produced the Broadway play which in turn was made into a movie—this time based on the play.

Chicago is another example of Broadway to Hollywood. And with its stress on the disenfranchised and misunderstood; with its sexual innuendo and content, it is very much in the tradition of Hair and Cabaret.

With its ready made plots and built in audience, Disney has probably been the most successful at moving movies to the stage.

Some plays have become immensely popular as movies. Chicago is an excellent example of that.

But not every transfer of movie to stage or stage to movie is successful.

Sweeney Todd the play is dark, but there is humor in it. Palestrant illustrated that with a video presentation of Angela Lansbury singing “Have a Little Priest.” For those who may not be familiar with the play, the priest is being baked into Mrs. Lovett’s pies.

As marvelous as it was on Broadway, as a movie it was an abysmal failure. The humor was stripped from the film, creating an entertainment experience that was anything but entertaining.

Not every screen to Broadway production works either. Witness Steven King’s Carrie, a 1988 play that may have been lucky to run for five nights.

“It is ill-begotten from the start…It was a colossal failure,” Palestrant said.

As Hollywood and Broadway cooperation has grown, the plays themselves have also evolved.

One trend in particular that Palestrant talked about was a turn to an increasing use of music to tell the story—Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables. Both musicals almost become operas with their heavy emphasis on song to tell the story.

Which brings us to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

Almost all of the elements of the Broadway evolution are here.

The play could not exist without the music. And the music itself is based on the rhythms, patterns and language of rap. Alexander Hamilton is the bastard son of a woman of questionable virtue who rises to the top of his society—the very epitome of the aspirations of the disenfranchised of any period of time.

Hamilton is, as Palestrant observed at the beginning of his presentation the culmination of so much that Broadway has come to mean to American society.

“To study is to look at popular music in America. Broadway most imitates and leads our cultural tastes,” he said.