Something Great is Coming: The American Musical

This is a course from a previous year. View the current courses

Like jazz, the American musical is one of this country’s unique art forms. And like jazz, the musical’s roots lie deep in both our European and African ancestry. We will begin by delving into the origins of American musical theatre—the early operettas, vaudevilles, burlesques, minstrel shows, and musical extravaganzas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From there, we will move to the astonishingly fertile 1920s, when the jazz sounds of songwriters like Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle began to influence the music and lyrics of people like Ira & George Gershwin and Rodgers & Hart. We will look at the 1930s, when the sophisticated but inconsequential musical comedies of tunesmiths like Cole Porter existed side by side with provocative, politically themed musicals by Kurt Weill or (again) the Gershwins. By the end of the term, we will have reached the 1940s, when the Rodgers & Hammerstein “integrated” musical revolutionized musicals, giving them weight, substance, and greater coherence. In the second term, we will study the great book musicals of the 1950s, created by, among others, Frank Loesser, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Lerner & Lowe, Irving Berlin, Adler & Ross, Bock and Harnick, and… well, the list goes on and on. And we’ll conclude with the likes of Kander & Ebb and Stephen Sondheim and his many collaborators, who began to deconstruct, deepen, and stretch the form into still new and challenging shapes and themes. We will spend some classes listening to (or, if possible, looking at) and discussing the librettos and songs of notable but lesser known musicals. At other times, we will look in depth at landmark musicals (e.g., Show Boat, Of Thee I Sing, Lady in the Dark, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, Follies, Company) that either changed or epitomized the form. This class meets twice a week.