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Friday, November 21, 2014

An interview with Laurence Maslon on one of America’s “great, optimistic, ebullient, indigenous art forms”

The Library of America has just published the two-volume boxed set American Musicals, gathering sixteen of the best librettos, with their lyrics, from Broadway’s “Golden Age.” Laurence Maslon, who edited the collection, discusses the significance of the era and the joys of assembling an anthology celebrating the enduring qualities of these box-office successes.

A professor in the Graduate Acting Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Maslon is the author of several books about musical theater and popular culture; he also co-wrote (with Michael Kantor) the companion volume to the Emmy-winning documentary Broadway: The American Musical and is the host of the weekly radio program Broadway to Main Street.

What’s the aim of this collection, and what sorts of pleasures and insights do you hope readers will find?

The American musical is one of our culture’s great, optimistic, ebullient, indigenous art forms. But it’s an elusive one because like most theatrical events, it’s transient; it leaves behind a cast album, or a badly made film version, and some happy memories. This is the first attempt to memorialize the theater experience by putting all of the major books and lyrics to the seminal musicals of the medium’s Golden Age into one collection. In this way, American Musicals will be both a great reference source and a road map, as it were, for the evolution of this art form.

What makes for a great book/libretto for a musical? How do they compare with “straight” theatrical literature?

Writing the book for a musical is one of the trickiest and least appreciated jobs in the theater (or literature, for that matter). A book has to be economical, pointed, and streamlined in order to allow for songs, and yet still provide a sense of setting, structure and narrative. Not to mention the jokes! One of my favorite things about any musical is the “tipping point”: that moment when “mere” dialogue can’t handle the intensity of the moment and the character must burst into song. It takes a very skilled writer to find that transition and make it work.

What show or writer do you think readers of the collection will find most surprising?

That’s a trick question: any musical you don’t yet know will be a surprise to you. Still, the collection puts Moss Hart and Irving Berlin’s wonderful revue As Thousands Cheer in print for the first time; it makes the preoccupations of Americans during the Depression seem both fresh and timeless. Readers may also be amused at how risqué Pal Joey is and how politically provocative Finian’s Rainbow is; these may be your grandfather’s musicals, but they don’t read that way.

What was the most interesting discovery you made while putting the collection together?

The early days of musical theater writing—the 1920s through the end of World War II, actually—were not kind to later curators of posterity—editors and publishers. Since no one imagined the shows would last as important cultural artifacts, versions were prepared for performance, but no definitive final version was readied for print. In the case of the first three shows in the collection (Show Boat, As Thousands Cheer, Pal Joey), it was often a bit of puzzle to derive the authors’ intention from the manuscript alone; I had to use sheet music, programs, vocal scores—even photos to put the texts together.

What drew you to the American musical?

What wouldn’t? I saw 1776 when I was eight, and it changed me forever. As I grew up—and collected original cast albums and the like—it occurred to me that the American musical says as much about who we are as a people as does a “straight play.” Perhaps more so, as it folds in our characteristic music, dance, performance, personality and so on.

Why the focus on these particular four decades?

Show Boat (1927) is the first great narrative musical. The next four decades saw the stage musical bloom and grow in so many different venues: songs on the radio, cast recordings, film adaptations, national tours, and, of course, on Broadway itself, which was, in its day, a very potent laboratory for experimentation of a popular form. Critics refer to the well-crafted, largely narrative, and highly accessible shows from this period as exemplars of Broadway’s “Golden Age.” The musicals that have lasted and become an affectionate part of our culture come from this period. The closing parenthesis is a matter of taste; certainly by 1970 (with Sondheim’s Company), the style and tone of the musical changed. I also like the felicity of the fact that the last musical in our collection, 1776, is the most American of all.

What parallels/contrasts would you draw with Broadway musicals today?

Today, the American musical has diversified as much from its late 1960s world as the primetime television broadcast schedule has from its late 1960s format. Musicals today have developed into more atomized forms and they are constructed and produced for niche audiences: rock fans, cartoon fans, families, and so on. Once upon a time, the American musical spoke to all audiences.

Do you have a favorite scene or lyric in the collection?

My filthy mind has always been tickled by a lyric in “Den of Iniquity” from Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, sung by a couple intoxicated by their mutual erotic satisfaction:
The radio I used to hate,
But now when it is dark and late,
Ravel’s Bolero works just great—

In putting together the libretto for this collection, it was clear that this lyric was actually a change from the original 1940 song (which referred to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 “sounding” great); it was altered for the 1952 revival—by which time Lorenz Hart had died. So who made the change? Richard Rodgers? John O’Hara? We’ll never know—but the Library of American anthology, with its copious backmatter, gives us both versions.

Also of Interest

• Which musicals are the best from Broadway’s Golden Age? Laurence Maslon discusses the selection process for collection in this online article for Slate.

• For a recent episode of his radio program Broadway to Main Street, Maslon played a sampling of the hit songs from the musicals included in the collection. Listen to the broadcast on the program’s site.

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