While the Golden Era of Broadway (1943-1960) is beyond the scope of our website, it represents a glorious period of the book musical and should be discussed as an adjunct to our area of concentration, which is pre-1943.
The Golden Era started with the 1943 production of Oklahoma! (1943.04), against the background of WWII. In order to understand the importance of Oklahoma!, keep in mind that, during WWII, almost the entire manufacturing production capacity of the country had been converted into war production. Few cars were assembled; few dishwashers were made; rations were in place; and the draft took men from all over the country. It was a time of great uncertainty and upheaval for America and its people.
The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In May 1942, the indecisive but crucial Battle of the Coral Sea was fought, when the combined American and Australian task forces turned back the Japanese Navy. In June 1942 the Battle of Midway was fought, and in August 1942, the invasion of Guadalcanal started. In 1942, the war in the Pacific was still much in doubt.
Meanwhile, in Europe, in 1940, Germany occupied France. From July 1940 to June 1941, the Battle of Britain air war beat back Germany’s attempt to invade England.
In North Africa, British troops defeated Germany in the Battle of El Alamein in August 1942, forcing the Germans to retreat into Libya, but in February 1943, Germany defeated the American forces defending the Kasserine Pass.
On March 31, 1943 the musical version of Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs came to Broadway against the backdrop of WWII. In the New Haven tryout, the show was still called Away We Go! and only later would the name be changed to Oklahoma! This show represented the first of a number of adaptations where Rodgers and Hammerstein were able to unify the action of the show with the music and lyrics written for the show. It was called a “book musical.” There was sense of sweet innocence in Oklahoma! that lifted the weary hearts of Americans and gave them a brief respite from the uncertainties of war.
As WWII in Europe was ending (Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945), Rodgers and Hammerstein were in the midst of their second collaboration as a team on Broadway. In April 1945, the adaptation of Molnar’s Liliom opened on Broadway as Carousel (1945.05).
Carousel established one of those incredibly profound moments on Broadway that seem anything but profound when first seen. We are referring to Act One, Scene Two, known as the “bench scene.”
Act One, Scene One is a scene without any dialogue, set to the music of the “Carousel Waltz,” where the actors tell us a story in pantomime; it is a story about a traveling carousel and the people who work at providing the entertainment. We also see the people who pay money to ride on the carousel; and finally we focus in on the barker, Billy Bigelow, and a young lady he is flirting with, Julie Jordan.
Act One, Scene Two opens on a park bench near the carousel. For the first time, we meet Julie and her friend Carrie Pipperidge, two workers earning minimum wages at the local cotton mill. They should leave and return to their boarding-house. The scene moves through many plot devices in quick succession:
Julie defies Mrs. Mullen (the owner of the carousel) for the right to vie for Billy’s affection;
Billy refuses to be controlled by Mrs. Mullen and pushes her to fire him;
Carrie tells Julie about her love for Mr. Snow;
Julie urges Carrie to return to the boarding-house while Julie stays behind; and
Given a second chance, Julie refuses to return to the boarding-house and her job.
Both Billy and Julie are explicitly given the chance to change their minds and preserve their lives prior to meeting one another. For different reasons, each refuses to go backward, Billy because of his pride and Julie because she has fought for and won her man (even when she is not sure why she loves him).
A great deal of the narrative in this scene is told through dialogue; however, what makes the scene unique is the way the dialogue segues to song and then back to dialogue. The first time we see this technique, Carrie uses it to describe Julie’s character and then explain Carrie’s love for Mr. Snow. The second time we see the seamless movement in and out of song is after the rush of events and the exit of all characters except for Julie and Billy. Now, the scene settles into an exploration of both personalities, their dreams and innermost thoughts. This is one of the most remarkable scenes in any musical ever written. In his book, The Secret Life of the American Musical, Jack Viertel explains it this way: “It’s arguably the most perfect scene ever written in a musical,…”
From the written words, it is difficult to tell which person is the stronger one; however, in a twelve minute recreation of this part of the scene by the two original stars, Jan Clayton and John Raitt (from a 1954 special television tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein and YouTube clip), we are given the dramatic clues that fill in the voids in the script. Julie has clearly made up her mind that she wants Billy to be her one and only man; her only fears stem from her inability to articulate her feelings and her fear of not fighting hard enough to win. Billy, whose character is weak and uncertain, is initially unwilling to make a commitment that he is not sure he can keep–to settle down with one woman and to conform to society’s rules of proper behavior. Watch as Billy keeps pacing around Julie, who remains seated on the bench, drawing our attention back to her as the center of gravity.
Julie courts Billy carefully, by telling him of her love, but couching the words in the form of what Jack Viertel calls “conditional love.” Not wanting to frighten Billy away by being too forward, she explains how she would love him, if she loved him. Billy already thinks that she is a “queer one,” someone that he can’t understand completely but someone who has definite and unconventional views about life. He clearly is struggling with his own views on life and his expectations for his future. He cannot break out of his orbit around her and finally begins to express his love, also in the conditional form. You see her serene certainty contrasted to his inarticulate uncertainty. Pay careful attention to the way Julie looks at Billy when he starts to sing “If I Loved You.” Many men wish that some woman, at some point in their lives, would look at them with that much adulation. When Billy’s fear of missing his one great opportunity for love outweighs his fear of commitment, he kisses her, a “conditional form” of a marriage proposal.
Before we move on, we feel that it is important to note that in April 1945, America still was fighting in the pacific. WWII was lingering on, inasmuch as the Japanese had vowed to fight to the death, and it was estimated that one million American lives could be lost in an invasion of the Japanese homeland. Japan did not surrender until September 1945. At that point, it was safe to celebrate.
In May 1946, Annie Get Your Gun (1946.12) opened on Broadway. Loosely based on the story of Annie Oakley, a superb shot from the West, the musical was supposed to have been a collaboration between Jerome Kern and Herb and Dorothy Fields. With Kern’s untimely death in December 1945, the producers (Rodgers and Hammerstein) turned to Irving Berlin, who rose to the occasion and wrote his one great score for a Broadway. show.
1947 saw two magnificent fantasies hit the boards on Broadway: Finian’s Rainbow (1947.03) and Brigadoon (1947.07). Finian’s Rainbow weaves together a story of the Jim Crow South with a whimsical tale of an Irishman trying to make a leprechaun’s pot of gold multiply in the rich earth around Fort Knox. It had a stunning revival on Broadway in 2009. It has a glorious score by Burton Lane, with some very wise and witty lyrics by Yip Harburg.
Brigadoon used a similar suspension of disbelief, as a small Scottish town reappears every hundred years for one day. It represented the first collaboration between Alan J. Lerner and Frederic Loewe. It remains a rare pleasure.
1948 brought Cole Porter’s magnificent musical, Kiss Me, Kate (1948.32) to Broadway. Based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, the musical centered on the backstage romance of two couples and introduced one of the funniest teams of debt collectors this side of Damon Runyan. It premiered against the uncertainty introduced by the beginning of the Cold War and the Berlin Airlift (1948-1949).
In early 1949, the third huge Rodgers and Hammerstein hit came to Broadway, an adaptation of short stories by James Michener (Tales of the South Pacific). It was called South Pacific (1949.04), and it starred Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. Pinza was an opera singer, and it has been said that Martin was unwilling to sing a duet with him. Rodgers and Hammerstein came up with the device of the twin soliloquy where the audience hears the thoughts of each one separately.
One minute, in 1949, Broadway was reminiscing in South Pacific about the courage it took to win WWII; in the blink of an eye in June 1950, we had returned to war–the Korean War. Five months after the war began, a musical based on real Runyan characters opened on Broadway, with a score by an underrated but excellent composer, Frank Loesser. It was called Guys and Dolls (1950.17), and it was rescued by the play “doctor” Abe Burroughs, who specialized in “fixing” troubled projects.
The Korean War would last into mid-1953 and would create a period of uncertain conflict resolution.
It was during this period that Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to take a look at the Kingdom of Siam around the time of the American Civil War. A biography by Margaret Landon (Anna and the King of Siam) had been written to laud the accomplishments of an English governess, named Anna Leonowens. Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted the book into the musical The King and I (1951.12), and they had their fourth smash hit.
Just after the cessation of hostilities in Korea, two newcomers to Broadway, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, teamed up to write the music and lyrics for The Pajama Game (1954.05). The book, written by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, was an adaptation of Bissell’s novel, 71/2 Cents. Its cast included Eddie Foy, Jr., Carol Haney, John Raitt and Janis Paige.
Harold Rome’s 1954 hit Fanny (1954.15) included in its cast Ezio Pinza, Walter Slezak, Florence Henderson and William Tabbert. In 1955, Porter opened Silk Stockings (1955.02), with the multi-talented screen actor, Don Ameche, in the cast.
Adler and Ross followed in 1955 with their second hit, Damn Yankees (1955.08), an adaptation by Abbott and Douglas Wallop of Wallop’s novel, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.” It solidified the star status of Gwen Verdon, who had previously played the second female lead in Porter’s hit show Can-Can (1953.07). Unfortunately, Damn Yankees also marked the last hit of Adler and Ross; Ross died at the age of 29 in 1955.
In 1956, Lerner and Loewe provided Broadway with an unlikely hit show, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. It starred an English actress who could sing (Julie Andrews) and an English actor who could not sing (Rex Harrison). Lerner and Loewe accommodated both voices, and My Fair Lady (1956.01) ran for 2,717 performances.
After My Fair Lady came Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella (1956.04), Jule Styne’s first great triumph, Bells Are Ringing (1956.14), starring Judy Holliday, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957.12), Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (1957.18), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (1958.19), Styne’s Gypsy (1959.13), Jerry Bock’s Fiorello! (1959.25), Charles Strouse’s Bye Bye Birdie (1960.06), Willson’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960.20), Loesser’s How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961.22), Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum (1962.12), Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! (1964.01), Styne’s Funny Girl (1964.11), Bock’s Fiddler on the Roof (1964.27), Strouse’s Golden Boy (1964.32), Burton Lane’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965.31), Mitch Leigh’s Man of La Mancha (1965.34), Cy Coleman’s Sweet Charity (1966.01), Herman’s Mame (1966.10), John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret (1966.24), Burt Bacharach’s Promises, Promises (1968.31) and Sherman Edwards’ 1776 (1969.06).
In our opinion, the Golden Era of Broadway ended in 1960, when both Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe were no longer forces on Broadway. Rodgers made some attempts on his own, but they had none of the towering majesty of his collaborations with Hammerstein. In our view, after Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (1959.24) and Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot (1960.21), we entered into the Indian Summer of the Golden Era, where there would be sparks of genius from Styne, Bernstein, Bock, Strouse, Willson, Loesser, Herman, Lane, Leigh, Coleman, Kander and Ebb, Bacharach and Edwards.