CAPÍTULO 18 -- UMA SINOPSE DO TEATRO MUSICAL AMERICANO
Although there seems to be quite a bit of surface similarity between opera and the art form called American Musical Theatre, they're really quite different in origin. Opera has influenced the musical theatre medium somewhat and a few works in the literature cross over into the realm of opera (Porgy and Bess by Gershwin is an example), but they originated distinctly and for the most part, remain separate art forms.
A brief history of opera: the first opera was composed shortly after 1600 in an attempt to reconstruct ancient Greek drama. A group of Italian gentlemen who called themselves "La Camerata" came to the conclusion that Classical Greek drama was not spoken, it was sung. We're not sure if they were correct, but their idea caught on and evolved into a sophisticated art form that reached its lavish peak in the late Romantic era. New operas are still being written, but the gigantic operatic standards from the 1800's are the most commonly heard in the repertoire.
More than in American Musical Theatre, the emphasis in opera is on the music. While some operatic plots are quite involved, many early ones lean toward very simple action, often being overdramatic. A large percentage of past and present opera performers were cast for their vocal qualities over their appearance or acting ability, although this practice has changed somewhat. The staging and set will often be less complicated than in its popular theatre counterpart. In addition to these, much of the time an opera will be sung in its original language. The reason? Much care has been taken to set the original libretto to a musical line with its accents and meters. Too much of this craft will be sacrificed for the sake of a literal translation, and many paraphrased translations sound rather silly. Finally, the style of singing used in opera requires great volume, power and musical clarity, often at the sacrifice of diction.
If this sounds as if the author is picking on opera, he is not. I have great respect for the medium and the power of its communication. Regardless of the staging, the acting involved, etc. it is usually a difficult medium for a beginner to understand and appreciate due to the many "conventions" involved. (More on this below.)
Two terms used to describe various musical elements in an opera are aria and recitative. An aria is where the composer will take much care with the vocal lines. It will be very musically developed, and the singer will often repeat a few simple phrases of text over and over.
A recitative is the opposite. It is very similar to the function of dialogue. It is musically simple and allows the singers to deliver lines that will further the plot (it comes from the same root as the word recite). Most operas will have virtually continuous music from start to finish, so a little plot assistance is necessary here and there.
A list of notable opera composers must include Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Donizetti, Bizet, Wagner, Puccini.
Musicologists agree that musical theatre evolved from a background of popular, loosely strung together entertainment. Starting with pre-civil war minstrel shows, these traveling shows were performed by white actors in blackface, usually mocking plantation life. They consisted of a wide variety of musical numbers, dances, and banter with no attempt at any kind of plot or continuity. The music of Stephen Collins Foster became widely exposed during these touring shows. Songs such as "Oh, Susanna", "Swanee River", "Camptown Races" became very well known, rising almost to folk music status because of these shows. Greater leisure time afforded by the inventions of the late 1800's caused high demands for variety entertainment of this type. Many of these shows took place in barns, boats (giving rise to the musical milestone "Showboat" a few decades later), and about anywhere you could think of--except churches. The rowdiness of the audiences as well as the nature of the humor and the subject matter kept this type of entertainment out of these halls.
The demand for these entertainments grew and grew in size until the logical happened--halls and theatres began to be built to house it. In the late 1800's a certain street in New York came to be the focal point of these theatres--the street known as "Broadway".
Many groups toured the saloon hall circuit making use of off-color humor and a much more lowbrow type of humor. This variety format included various kinds of acts, song, comedy, etc. and was called Vaudeville. Many of the early 20th century's important entertainers came up through the Vaudeville circuit. A few of these entertainers are still around. An important contribution of vaudeville was that black performers began to be used instead of white performers in makeup. The contribution of the black performer was finally being acknowledged.
In the late 1800's, Musical Theatre was influenced by a wave of Operettas (lighter, less dramatic operas) by the team of Gilbert and Sullivan. These included "The Pirates of Penzance", "Trial By Jury", "The Mikado", "HMS Pinafore", and many others. Although the plots are lacking in dramatic substance, they served to give a smoother, streamlined effect to the general atmosphere along with a more refined approach.
After 1900 musical theatre took off in two different directions simultaneously. The first path was in the more sophisticated direction of the light Viennese-style operetta, reveling in its European (German) influence. This was paralleled in the classical music medium as well. American composers had only just begun to find their own unique voices. Composers of this style included Victor Herbert and Rudolph Friml.
The other direction found a few innovators beginning a brand new style, dealing with distinctly American subjects. George M. Cohan's musicals took on a distinctly patriotic twist. Some of his memorable songs include "You're A Grand Old Flag" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy". Irving Berlin (composer of "White Christmas" and "God Bless America" among others) was another very popular composer of the time. On his 100th birthday, Berlin and his music were celebrated all over the world.
Remember that musical theatre has descended from a variety show format and at this point still betrayed its plotless origins. A common criticism of the shows of the first few decades of the 1900's is that their plots are nearly meaningless. The music is great--there are some of the finest examples of popular show music written during this time, but the dialog between the songs did little more than connect a string of beautiful songs. (Recall the parallel difference between aria and recitative.)
Two events which caused a profound change in the entertainment of the early 20th century were--World War I which brought with it anti-German sentiment. This sounded the end of the Viennese style operetta and gave the American branch of this a new boost in popularity. Vaudeville heard its death-knell sounded by a new invention that made use of brand new technology, namely the "talking picture".
After WW I and before WW II, musical theatre found itself again branching out in two stylistic directions; one of them a more lyrical refined approach filling the vacuum left by the Viennese-style and the other taking advantage of a new style of music that was making its mark--jazz. In this particular era, the big names in the musical theatre are the same ones whose work either laid the foundation for modern theatre or whose work IS modern theatre. George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, George Kaufman, Maury Ryskind, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (but not working together quite yet) were producing outstanding music, if not altogether outstanding plots. Most of these composers and writers produced material for motion pictures as well.
"Showboat" (music by Kern, lyrics by Hammerstein) broke with the loose-knit light comedy tradition. It was a musical with a much more serious bent, focusing on growing racial issues that were becoming a concern of much of society. A few years later "Of Thee I Sing" by Gershwin and Kaufman was the first musical to be awarded the Pulitzer prize. The show dealt with the topic of Washington politics. American Musical Theatre had finally become a serious art form.
The 1940's found the trend towards less fluff and more content continuing. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein teamed up to write "Oklahoma!" This show with its distinctly American theme gave dance a new importance in the musical. The plot dealt with the settling of the territory of Oklahoma and revolved around 'cowboy' themes. While initially it sounds ludicrous, an important segment of the story was told using classical ballet. Ballet in the American West in a story about farmers and ranch hands? It worked beautifully and changed the theatrical medium.
The team of Rodgers and Hammerstein is inseparable with the modern development of musical theatre and they gave it some of its finest works. Collaborating until Hammerstein's death in 1960, they also produced "South Pacific", "The King and I", "The Sound of Music" and many others. Lerner and Lowe gave us "Brigadoon" and "My Fair Lady", based on George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalian".
Dance continued gaining in importance, reaching a new high point in "West Side Story", music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. This modern reworking of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" was conceived by choreographer Jerome Robbins, and told much of the plot and revealed much of the characterization and the plot through dance. The heroes were street thugs who danced ballet to help tell their story. For as crazy as the concept sounds, the impact was devastating.
Like many other types of modern entertainment, musical theatre has seen a splintering of its direction and styles--although many would call the splintering a rich diversity. Broadway has experimented with many different styles and sources. "Jesus Christ Superstar" simultaneously dabbled with rock and operatic elements. "Oh! Calcutta!", a musical performed with an almost entirely nude cast raised quite a few eyebrows. "Cats" by A. L. Webber has been one of Broadway's biggest hits. "A Chorus Line" is the longest running musical in Broadway history. Its plot revolves around an audition for a theatrical production. Dance is a very strong element in the telling of its story.
In the last few years, soaring financial costs have become a limiting factor both in the creative element and in the area of production in all types of theatre. A large percentage of the shows that make it to professional theatre are often scaled down to a very small cast (to adapt to limited finances) or are at the other extreme, being bankrolled by corporations of the likes of Disney. Regardless, the medium still remains a very diverse and rich one and should provide a lot of new ideas in the future, reflecting its humble origins and its serious development.
As mentioned in the above material on musical theatre and opera, there are certain things in a dramatic production that create problems for many audiences--the conventions necessary to become involved in the drama.
There are certain items and practices an audience has to accept--or overlook--in any dramatic form to be able to be entertained or simply touched by what he or she is perceiving. There's a joke about a man who'd never seen television and was watching it for the first time. The program was a movie featuring a boxing match. One of the boxers was knocked out of the ring, out of the range of the camera and the first-time viewer jumped up and looked behind the TV to see where the boxer had landed. He obviously was able to overlook the fact that the television screen only gave a two dimensional view, that the people involved in the boxing match were in black and white, and were only inches high. Those are conventions that we must accept when watching something. We accept the image as being real and not the product of electronic fakery, special effects, or even clever acting.
Much of the time, an action series will have a powerful impact on us because it throws the main character into life-threatening situations. We have to disregard the fact that if the hero is killed--there will be no series next week!
Cinema has a powerful impact on us, regardless of the fact that it also is an image in two dimensions, contains a shifting perspective, and instead of its characters being inches tall, are often yards tall.
Live drama has conventions and problems all its own. A nonmusical play will require the audience to accept that they are the "fourth wall" looking in on an unfolding situation. We must accept the fact that conversations will not take place with such rapid-fire and often witty dialogue, with stage movement that has been carefully blocked. We must also accept that action and conversation normally takes place on more than the limited space of a stage. Et cetera, ad infinitum.
This leads us to what probably represents the ultimate in acceptance of conventions--musical theatre and opera.
Add to the conventions of costuming, lighting, staging, perspective, script--the element of music taking place in a story or even being the focus of the situation. Not many of us can recall a situation on the street where someone broke into song, or was accompanied by a hidden orchestra, a situation often mercilessly parodied by Mel Brooks or Monty Python.
All of these contribute to some of the difficulties that many audiences have had with the operatic medium. In spite of this, the medium of opera remains very much alive and much changed in its first three and a half centuries of existence. Recently, there has been a wave of opera-movies, that is, operas that have been adapted to the cinematic medium and filmed while keeping the music intact. Almost all of them include subtitles that allow the viewer to understand what is being sung. Live opera performances will often have the translated text projected above the stage.
A few examples have even been written specifically for a modern communication medium bypassing the stage. One of these is a Christmas opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors" by Gian Carlo Menotti, written for the medium of television.