In Conversation with Mark N. Grant
An interview with the author of The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical
Molly Sheridan: I’m curious about the evolution of this project. What motivated you to write this book?
Mark N. Grant: After I finished my previous book in 1998 for Northeastern University Press, Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America, Northeastern’s editorial director William Frohlich asked me to write a book freshly evaluating the so-called “golden age” of the Broadway songbook. Bill knew I’m a composer and sometime playwright, that I’d written theater music and am from a theater family, etc. So, with the thumbs-up of Gunther Schuller, the music advisor to Northeastern University Press, the project went ahead. And, eventually, it grew, vastly beyond the scope of the original plan to focus just on the songs.
Molly Sheridan: What sort of readership were you aiming for? What impact/outcome were you hoping for?
Mark N. Grant: Most books about Broadway musicals preach to fans of musicals and stay within their niche. Many simply rehash the hit parade of greatest musicals, or give almanac-like summaries. My book relates the 150-year development of the music of Broadway to contemporaneous developments in 150 years of popular music outside of Broadway. You’ll find Sinatra, Crosby, Presley, Robert Johnson, and Bjork in this book alongside the usual cast of Jolson, Merman, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. My book argues that the important advances weren’t only made by individual shows but occurred in the slow evolution over many decades in melody writing and vocal style and range. Show song melodies changed to suit the changing voices of Broadway, as the Irish- and African-American ballad singing traditions converged with the legitimate voice of opera, and then underwent a fateful metamorphosis with the introduction of the microphone. I also explain how the fundamental beat of American popular, and thus theater, music, changed twice in 150 years, first from the march or 2-step to the foxtrot, and then from the foxtrot to the rock groove, and how this ultimately affected Broadway musicals for better and for worse. And I’ve tried to explain these sea changes in voice and rhythm technically, but not academically, so that lay readers can understand and even be entertained.
The book also regularly invokes many out-of-the-box comparisons with opera, classical music, ballet, legitimate drama, painting, the movies, poetry, and other art forms, and discusses not just the hitherto untold historical changes in the music but also in the lyrics, the dramaturgy, the stage direction, the choreography, the set design, and the orchestration. So it is addressed not only to theater aficionados but to educated general readers interested in the arts for whom the questions “Whatever happened to musicals? How come they used to sit on the leading edge of popular culture and don’t any more?” are intriguing.
Molly Sheridan: The masterpieces in various art forms were not necessarily the most popular works in their day. I’m curious what you think are some of the musicals of the past we will most want to hold onto as a society in the decades ahead specifically for their artistic construction, not necessarily their content…
Mark N. Grant: A central organizing premise of my book is that there have been three distinct eras of the Broadway musical’s artistic development in the last century and a half: the first age (1866-1927), the second (1927-1966), and the third (1966 to the present). In the first era, scripts were chaotic and frequently changed at will from performance to performance, lyrics were inelegant and didn’t fit the tunes, songs and dances didn’t relate to the subtext of the story, and spectacle was more important than dramatic integrity. In the second era, the musical grew up artistically: the book, music, lyrics, and even dances, scenic designs, and orchestrations were much more dramatically integrated. The best musicals of the second era were superior both in content and in artistic construction. But in the third era—in a case of developmental retrogression unusual in any art form—Broadway musicals (save for a few cardinal exceptions like Sondheim and A Chorus Line) have returned in almost every way to the cruder characteristics of first-era musicals as I just described them. Worse, they now bear the cross of overdriven sound design, a once benign tool that has gotten grossly out of hand and has weakened theatricality, I argue. The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical brings out far more extensive and specific information about the history and practice of sound design in the Broadway musical than can be found anywhere else.
Molly Sheridan: Though musicals used to be the culture’s pop music, we seem to be coming up on a trend where the situation is reversed—the recasting of old pop/rock songs into shows. In your view, is that significant? Valuable?
Mark N. Grant: The creation of (so-called) new musicals by retrofitting and crowbarring in pop songs is putting the cart before the horse. We can’t have significant art in our popular musical theater until we first write meaningful scripts and THEN adapt pop idioms to the scripts using craftsmanship, dramaturgical knowhow, melody, and all the age-old verities of what works on the stage going back to Aristotelian pity and terror. The theater isn’t supposed to function as some kind of live monster iPod for pop playlists. That’s for clubs and cabaret. Sure, the pop idioms of previous eras were brought into the theater, but the songwriters subsumed them to dramatic craft. In my book I finger the foxtrot as the ur-rhythm making the golden age Broadway songbook possible, but by so saying I’m not suggesting that contemporary writers turn back the clock to write foxtrot songs. Rather I mean that newer rock/pop writers need to study how the older rhythmic idioms helped support and guide a song lyric to tell a story or deepen character. Some of these new shows—I call them jukeboxicals—are concerts with merely the thinnest of pretexts for being presented in a theater. It’s as if suddenly novel writing were undertaken by blog writers and written like blogs but still labeled “The Novel.” It’s false.
Molly Sheridan: It struck me as I worked through the sections of your book that, much as the classical and jazz industries periodically lament the impending death of their art form, the Broadway musical is going through a similar sort of questioning? Can we/will we be saved from the Age of the McMusical, as you so aptly call it? What will it take?
Mark N. Grant: I’m afraid it has become economically impossible, given the costs of production and labor wages, for Broadway ever to resume its role of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s as an incubator of artistic daring. Besides, DVDs now tend to promote the illusion that you don’t need to be there live for anything, much less the theater. But the human instinct for live theater is thousands of years old, probably genetically encoded, and will not die. We do have some writers and composers already attempting creatively challenging musicals that very occasionally are getting produced in traditional channels. But for a large-scale renaissance, there will have to be both a new economic model and better writers.