UCLA musicology professor sings praises of America's musical theater

Who knew that "Singin' in the Rain," widely considered the classic film musical, was conceived as a way for MGM to avoid paying royalty fees by reusing music and lyrics it already owned?

Or that the opening theme from "Camelot" borrows from a convention employed by such 19th-century Russian composers as Tchaikovsky to evoke a primitive world of magic possibilities?

Or that audience reaction to "The Wizard of Oz" helped pave the way for the interactive theatrics that became associated with "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which then gave rise today's sing-along-musicals?

Raymond Knapp, the chair of UCLA's cutting-edge department of musicology, knows. With the second and final volume of his award-winning survey of the American musical rolling off the presses, he can cite chapter and verse when it comes to the often trivialized art form. And Knapp believes we'd understand ourselves better if we followed in his footsteps.

"We recognize jazz as a truly American art form, but the truth is that most jazz standards are show tunes, and another quintessentially American art form -- the film -- launched into musicals as soon as synchronized sound was developed," Knapp said. "It's time that we appreciate just how uniquely American the musical is, and what a hugely influential role musicals have played in helping us figure out who we want to be both as a nation and as individuals."

Knapp makes his case across 831 pages of analysis and through 937 snippets of music on an accompanying Web site designed to support his "The American Musical" survey (Princeton University Press). Built with assistance from UCLA's Libraries and UCLA's Center for Digital Humanities, http://epub.library.ucla.edu/knapp/americanmusical/ is believed to be the first book Web site to use extensive audio examples to illustrate and support its arguments. Knapp features 55 musicals and their musical inspirations.

The total project, which was born of a UCLA undergraduate general education course, traces the evolution of the American musical from such historical antecedents as the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and 19th- and early 20th-century American burlesque and vaudeville acts. But it spends the most time dissecting the "integrated musical" -- or productions with songs imbedded in the story.

Starting with "Showboat," the art form reached its height in the U.S. between the early 1940s and the early 1970s, a rich body of work that continues to this day to shape young minds via high school and community productions, Knapp contends.

Knapp's first volume, "The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity," explores how musicals such as "Fiddler on the Roof," "West Side Story," "Show Boat" and "Oklahoma!" express broader issues like assimilation, ethnic conflict, racism and manifest destiny.

"To some extent musicals have served to reinforce the way people feel about America, but they have also helped to challenge aspects of our culture that have needed to be changed," Knapp said.

In the second book, Knapp explores themes more commonly associated with musical theater. "The American Musical and Performance of Personal Identity" looks at expressions of idealism, romance and sexuality. Musicals discussed range from "Annie Get Your Gun" and "My Fair Lady" to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and, yes, even "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer."

"When you sing songs from these and other musicals, they do something for you," maintains Knapp, who has also written about Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mahler. "You to some extent are acting out a part of yourself, or you are trying out a possibility for yourself. When you sing a song, you merge in that moment with the character and situation."

Throughout the survey, Knapp explores the socio-cultural fabric underlying such beloved chestnuts as "Man of La Mancha" (the Vietnam War), "Mary Poppins" (television as a babysitter) and "Sweet Charity" (the women's movement).

"Musicals take a concept with cultural currency and put it in a form that you can hold onto because you know how the songs go," Knapp says. "You can recite 'to be or not to be,' but it's not the same as singing a song. Songs stay with you in a way that dialogue doesn't always do."

But Knapp doesn't just show how the plots of musicals grapple with the challenges and changes facing the country. He shows just how their songs work to move and persuade the audience. For example, in seeking to elevate the drama of an African American love story to a level that would resonate with U.S. whites before desegregation, the composer of "Porgy and Bess" looked to no loftier inspiration than Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," Knapp shows.

To drive home the profundity of the father's ethnic pride in "Fiddler on the Roof," the composer alludes to the Israeli national anthem, Knapp also shows.

"What distinguishes my survey from other looks at musicals is I really tried to show what people get from musicals, what musicals do for people, and how they do it," he said.

The approach appears to work. The first volume of "The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity," which was published in 2004, has been praised for putting the American musical theater on a par with contemporary art forms of jazz and film. In addition, the book received the 2004-05 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, one of the most distinguished in the American theater.

Knapp's story ends with the rise of what he calls "the mega-musical" in the 1980s, which continues to this day. Typified by such Andrew Lloyd Weber productions as "Phantom of the Opera," some of these musicals are products of a foreign shore -- principally the London stage. Their popularity coincides with the gentrification of New York City's Time Square under pressure from Disney, which shifted Broadway's demographics as well to be more tourist-friendly with productions such as "The Lion King."

But that's a topic for another study. And Holley Replogle, a graduate student who helped design the Web site for Knapp's American musicals survey, has now turned to her dissertation. Its topic: the mega-musical and the operetta.

After all, the show must go on!

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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