by Alan Chapman
It was in the mid-19th century that a theatre district of international importance began to grow around the midtown Manhattan screech of a street called Broadway. In the 1890s, its brilliant lights earned it the name "The Great White Way." (A French visitor described it in 1903 as a "bouquet of luminous advertising." A 1910 observer called it "an immense blaze of legends and pictures, most of them in motion ... the finest free show on Earth.") Luminous also were the talents who literally created American musical theatre there.
Full-length musical productions of various types were first given after the Civil War. An important milestone was The Black Crook of 1866, the first musical to run over a year in New York. By the end of the century a number of well-trained immigrant composers were raising the artistic level of Broadway. Foremost among these was the Irishman Victor Herbert, a celebrated ‘cellist, conductor and "serious" composer, who gave us over forty beautifully orchestrated operettas. In 1903, after serving three years as conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Herbert returned to Broadway with Babes in Toyland, a show commissioned by the producers as a successor co their production of The Wizard of Oz. Herbert's Naughty Marietta (1910), recognized as the American masterwork of its era, was commissioned by impresario Oscar Hammerscein (grandfather of the lyricist) as a showcase for the fine singers of his opera company and Herbert cook full advantage of their capabilities. The show's finale, "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life," was an immediate hit.
Sigmund Romberg, Hungarian-born and Vienna-trained (as an engineer as well as a composer) came to New York in 1909. While conducting the orchestra at a fashionable restaurant, he introduced the new practice of playing music for dancing. Entering the employ of impresario Jacob Shubert, Romberg turned his energies to the musical stage. As a key figure during the 1920s heyday of Viennese-American operetta, Romberg's shows included The Student Prince, The Desert Song, and his lase great hit, The New Moon (1928), which featured "Stouthearted Men" (or, as the program had it, "Shoulder to Shoulder").
As European-inspired operetta became passé, a new strain of American musical comedy arose. One of the leaders in this evolution (and that of American popular song as well) was Russian-born Israel Baline, son of a cantor who brought the family to New York when Israel was five. The boy became a singing waiter on the Lower East Side, then a lyricist. When his first song was published, a printer's error turned his name into Irving Berlin. Soon Berlin was writing music as well as lyrics.
Berlin's song "Say It With Music" was written for the first Music Box Revue and became a theme for the entire series. These productions (named for their venue, the intimate Music Box Theatre, which opened in 1921) were lavish: the first one cost $187,000. As Thousands Cheer, a Music Box offering of 1933, had sketches by Moss Hart and songs by Berlin, including "Easter Parade." Berlin had actually written the song some fifteen years earlier, with a lyric which began "Smile and show your dimple." Berlin's contrapuntal masterpiece "You're Just In Love" comes from Call Me Madam (1950), in which Ethel Merman played a character based on Washington hostess Perle Mesca. Librettists Lindsay and Crouse announced in the program chat the show was "laid in two mythical countries. One is Lichtenburg, the other is the United States of America."
In the early 1920s, in response to a request from his musical secretary's current girlfriend, Berlin wrote ‘I’ll Be Loving You, Mona." In 1925, Berlin changed "Mona" to "Always," intending to include it in his score for Coconuts (starring the Marx Brothers). Dropped from that show, the song became a popular hit on its own. When Berlin married Ellin Mackay in 1926, he not only dedicated the song to her; he also assigned the copyright and its considerable royalties co her.
No, No, Nanette (1925), a story of "typical 1920s frippery" with music by Vincent Youmans and lyrics mostly by Irving Caesar, was the biggest musical success of its era. In a pre-New York road tour, the show premiered in Detroit to bad reviews. The producer recast the show and turned to his writers for new songs, two of which happened to be "I Want To Be Happy" and "Tea For Two." Youmans' 1927 show Hit The Deck! included "Hallelujah" (with music he had actually composed during World War I while in the navy).
The outstanding commercial and artistic success of the 1927-28 season was Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Edna Ferber, author of the original novel, thought it unsuitable for musical adaptation and reluctantly gave her consent. (The 1927-28 season, incidentally, set a record, with 280 new productions opening on Broadway!)
Meanwhile, back in 1925 ... two nights after the opening of No, No, Nanette came the opening of Dearest Enemy, an early success by the magical partnership of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hare, whose magnificent catalog of songs includes "My Romance" from Jumbo (1935). Jumbo included a number of circus aces. In fact, Actors' Equity considered the show a circus rather than a musical. Tonight's program also includes two classics from the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II: "The Sound of Music" and "Some Enchanted Evening."
In October of 1935, a month before Jumbo appeared, Cole Porter's Jubilee opened. A show about a royal family fed up with the constraints of royal life (sound familiar?), the show yielded two of Porter's biggest hits, "Begin the Beguine" and "Just One Of Those Things." Interestingly neither of these songs was among the selections originally published. Porter had also written the biggest hit of previous season, Anything Goes, whose stellar score included "Blow, Gabriel, Blow."
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, which opened in New York in 1988 and is still going strong after some 2,900 performances (not to mention 4 1/2 years in Los Angeles), is but one installment in the contemporary invasion of Broadway by shows originating in London's West End. A similar situation existed in the 1890s. During the 1895-96 season alone, six West End musicals came to Broadway. There is, however, no record of a crashing chandelier in any of the English productions of that era.
"This Is The Moment" is from the score of Jekyll & Hyde (music by Frank Wildhorn and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse), a show which is currently wending its way toward Broadway.
"Silent" pictures were not really silent. Music may have been provided (initially to cover the sound of the projector) by a lone pianist or, in the great movie palaces, by a full orchestra. The music, for the most part, was compiled from the 19th-century repertoire. Occasionally a composer would write original music for performance with a silent film. (In 1916 Victor Herbert wrote music for The Fall of a Nation, possibly the first original score composed for a feature film.)
Since the advent of sound, Hollywood has spawned several generations of film composers. One of the most prolific and beloved of them was Henry Mancini. He began writing music for films and television in 1952 and within six years had scored over 100 films. Mancini's many honors include two consecutive Oscars for Best Song: "Moon River" (1961) and "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962), both with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.