Not every performer has the vocal equipment or musical talent required to become an opera singer. Yet each and every opera singer must become a skilled performer who can learn from and, when the occasion demands it, adopt a wide variety of musical styles. Many years ago, soprano Eileen Farrell was perfectly justified in telling Rudolf Bing that she had a right to sing the blues. That's because it doesn't matter whether one's vocal technique is applied to Mozart, Motown, bel canto, or Broadway. Each genre requires a performing artist to use his or her voice as a means of punctuating a specific dramatic moment and communicating it in musical terms.
In recent years, the question of whether to define a work as a full-blown opera or a piece of musical theater has become a moot point. During the 1960s, while several German opera companies began performing West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and Fiddler On The Roof, people like Sheldon Bock and Jerry Harnick (who wrote Tenderloin, Fiorello! and She Loves Me!), Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (The Fantasticks, Celebration, and 110 In The Shade) and Mitch Leigh (Man of La Mancha) were crafting musicals with increasingly operatic tendencies.
Since 1970, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim has been extremely successful at bridging the gap between operatic and Broadway performance venues (Pacific Overtures, Follies, Sweeney Todd, and A Little Night Music have all entered the operatic repertoire), while Broadway audiences have embraced "pop operas" like Evita, Les Miserables, and The Phantom of the Opera with an enthusiasm that won't let go. This season, American opera companies will be performing West Side Story, Kismet, A Little Night Music, Follies, The Threepenny Opera, Show Boat, The Pajama Game, Candide, Porgy and Bess, Man of La Mancha, and My Fair Lady on stages across the nation. The Houston Grand Opera will even perform Show Boat in Cairo this month!
Americans invented the Broadway musical, and theatergoers now recognize this style of entertainment as a legitimate art form with a history and repertoire all its own. The time has come for us to celebrate Broadway's contributions to the global culture with the same level of enthusiasm and support that is routinely bestowed upon Beethoven, Mozart, Shaw, and Shakespeare festivals. Why? Because the seeds planted 25 years ago by a handful of daring pioneers have taken root and sparked a renewed interest in the history of the Broadway musical.
A quarter-century ago, under the guidance of Jean Dalrymple, New York's City Center of Music and Drama began producing revivals of such popular Broadway shows as Wonderful Town, Brigadoon, Carnival, Ohlahomal, My Fair Lady, and Kiss Me, Kate. When Lincoln Center's New York State Theater opened in 1964, its first few summers were devoted to productions of Kismet, Carousel, Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, and The King and I.
In addition to Broadway's independent, commercially-produced revivals of On The Town, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Gypsy, Cabaret, and Ain't Misbehavin', the Houston Grand Opera has produced national tours of Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, and Hello, Dolly! The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has produced important revivals of On Your Toes, Oh, Kay!, and West Side Story. In recent years, the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, has brought its productions of Take Me Along, Whoopee!, and Very Good Eddie back to Broadway. Meanwhile, Philadelphia's American Music Theater Festival and Pasadena's California Music Theater have revived classics like Strike Up The Band, Pal Joey, Call Me Madam, and She Loves Me!
Popular interest in the choreographic content of previous Broadway shows has led to groundbreaking dance documentation by the American Dance Machine Company and the success of the recently-opened Jerome Robbins' Broadway.
Although the recent push to legitimize the scores of many Broadway musicals by including such music in the operatic repertoire is a welcome phenomenon, what we really need to bring about involves a great deal more than an occasional restaging of hit dance numbers by one choreographer, a series of crossover recordings, or digital re-releases of original cast albums in compact disc format. The time has come for Americans to institutionalize the Broadway musical by creating some sort of performance archive which will keep the art form alive and vital for future generations. At some point before the dawn of the 21st century, we need to develop a theatrical company devoted to performing the literature of the American musical theater, a producing entity which can act as a partner with the nation's opera companies in consortium efforts that will bring the Broadway musical, on a regular basis, to a wide range of new audiences.
Whether such a project's artistic leadership comes from ANTA, the National Institute For Music Theater, OPERA America or Harold Prince, Americans deserve to have a national repertory company devoted to the literature of their native art form. Whether the seed money for such an institution comes from the League of Broadway Producers, the National Endowment for the Arts, or Donald Trump, a living museum dedicated to showcasing the art and history of the Broadway musical could and should become the cornerstone of New York City's efforts to rehabilitate its Times Square theater district.
Lord knows, we've got enough good material in the repertoire of the Broadway musical. Our audiences are hungry for quality entertainment. To top things off, we now have a whole string of potential co-producers throughout the opera community who could make a significant contribution to nurturing such an institution. Meanwhile, there are several historic theaters which sit in silence on 42nd Street, just begging to be renovated, and any new skyscrapers erected as part of the Times Square rehabilitation project could easily include new theaters.
The ingredients for such an institution are all there. As Ethel Merman used to say: "Who could ask for anything more?"
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This article originally appeared in the March 1989 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.