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Topic: Has Broadway Come Full Circle?

  1. #1

    Has Broadway Come Full Circle?

    When Broadway first became, well, Broadway its style was the popular music of the day. This continued through the thirties, forties, and into the fifties, when pit orchestras differed little from popular "big bands". As rock and roll gained in popularity, show tunes remained much the same. With few notable exceptions, efforts to marry rock music with the musical theater were disappointing. Things really didn't change much until the eighties and nineties. And when they did, Broadway began to take off again.

    So, what was this change? I think each style gave a little to the other. Pit rhythm sections grew (both in the number of musicians and their importance to the score). Hit records became more elaborately scored (borrowing elements from classical music, as well as jazz and the big band era).

    Listening to shows composed in the last twenty years or so, I feel like a new Broadway style is emerging. And, to my ears (which are admittedly aging and perhaps not as well versed as they used to be) it sounds most like pop music. Pop, as opposed to rock, or rap, or heavy lead (er, I mean, metal). A lot of show tunes these days remind me of soaring pop ballads. And the production numbers sound a lot like the tracks my nieces are listening to on their iPods (or iTunes).

    I'm just wondering if others, who have had more exposure to pop music and Broadway than I do, feel the same and what that means. Generally, I feel it's a good thing. It means that musical theater is thriving (taking and giving back to pop culture) in the way that at one time it seemed to have forgotten. On the downside, I find that a lot of numbers I've heard from more recent scores seem a little too similar (almost interchangeable, in some cases). Maybe it's just me, but I seem to remember a time not so long ago when there was more variety. I hope we are not sacrificing that. (I wouldn't want the next MAN OF LA MANCHA to sound like the next RENT or the next SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.)

    Allegro Data Solutions

  2. #2

    Re: Has Broadway Come Full Circle?

    I think you're right but beside trends and marketing, there's an additional disruptive factor: composers.

    When a genius is active, he can polarize the trends around his very personal interpretation of the age style, and influence trends himself... no boundaries between personality and common style, merging in good unforgettable music.

    When just professional composers are at work, they just make music... but as you say... indistinguishable from the rest of the stream.

    Broadway had some genious, and ...lot of good "professional composers"

  3. #3
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2006
    Suburban NYC

    Re: Has Broadway Come Full Circle?

    Hi EJR,

    Another of your interesting musical theater threads! Let me take a stab.

    I think there's many reasons why shows have changed throughout the relatively short history of musical theater. For starters, I don't really agree that shows have generally represented the pop music of the day ... well, I guess they may have if the definition of "pop" music has a span of 20-30 years. IOW, pop music is generational. Using today as an example, if you ask people our age what do YOU think of when you hear the term pop music, I'm still thinking Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, songs written by Cy Coleman, Burt Bacharach ... of course this is the music of my teens, not today. My pop music isn't Kanwe West, The Bieber, Miley, etc. ... but to the teens, it is, along with rap and some heavy metal holdouts. So what is pop music?

    In the twenties, pop music to me was the sounds of jazz in the roarin' twenties ... yet musical theater sounded like the operettas that it evolved from, much more light classical than jazzy. It wasn't until the 30's when orchestrators like Don Walker came on the scene that some of the shows took on a jazzier more 'pop' sound. I say some shows, because the more classical pits continued in parallel right up to today. And although Walker and company added saxes and more jazzy writing, it really wasn't until the likes of Sid Ramin, Irv Kostal, Red Ginzler, and the legendary Ralph Burns hit Broadway in the late 50's that shows started sounding like ... well, the big band sound from essentially 20 years earlier, albeit with more modern harmonies.

    Why did these guys change the sound of Broadway? A large part of it was because they were all big arrangers in the commercial music industry ... pop music! ... and also wrote for live TV variety shows with tons of good arrangements and orchestrations cranked-out every week, and weren't writing for 'classical pit' instrumentation, rather, more jazzy instrumentation.

    When you think of the enormous amount of Rock n Roll from the 50's on, there really were/are surprisingly few shows that had a true rock pit/vibe to them. So I think Broadway always danced to it's own drum ... there have always been 'current' shows, not really the norm, along with tons of shows that have not embraced the current musical styles at all.

    Another influence was in "Who Rules" ... the early shows were shaped by iconic composers like Kern, Porter, Gershwin(s), Berlin, Rodgers, etc. ... these guys had all the power and did what they wanted. Then the era of the choreographer came in and suddenly, the composers had 'partners' in the power. About the same time, you had the rise of iron fisted producers and directors who wielded the power ... IOW, the composer had less and less influence on the shape of a musical.

    Which brings us to today and economics ... probably the biggest influence in not only how a show should sound (that's easy ... it should sound pretty much exactly like the hit running across the street!), but also in the size of the company and pit. And lets face it, rock, non-jazz, non-epic classical pits are easy to fund ... 6-10 pieces, tops? So what we have in 2014 are revivals of the old chestnuts, albeit with scaled-down pits (but sometimes full blown ... we saw the 30-pc South Pacific and 25 pc Gypsy and the original pit for West Side Story), juke-box musicals with juke-box pits (small rock combos with a horn or three), and the occasional new, original show with something to say and not afraid to say it in a unique way.

    If Broadway echos pop music, why have there been so few Latin-based shows? Hispanics make up a huge percentage of the music-buying public, even have their own Grammy's! ... yet, "In The Heights" (an amazingly original and well written show) is the only really true Hispanic show I can think of in recent times (the Spanish lyrics for the Hispanics in the West Side Story revival notwithstanding). Even black-themed shows ... just not many of them.

    But I think that is the best thing about musical theater ... you can do a show about crack whores and use a string quartet for the pit, or a jazzy score to a show about AIDS ... you can use the music of today or tomorrow or yesteryear to tell any story in any fashion ... and if it's a good story and the music is good, the show can work.

    So I guess I feel musical theater will survive, evolve, continue despite current musical trends and atrocities, just as it always has, picking up a new trick or two along the way, but never afraid to dig into the past ... that is part of its magic.


    Frank D'Erasmo
    FABD Music - Arrangements-Orchestrations
    All Styles ... Specializing in Jazz, Theater, Latin & Pop

    Garritan JaBB, GPO, CoMB, World, GAS, Stradivari Violin & GigaStudio. Sonar X2 Producer, Pro Tools, Performer & Finale.

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