Friday, August 08, 2008

Looking for trouble

Okay, I'm game for controversy: Geoffrey Wheatcroft of The Guardian argues (here) that the best musical of the 1957 Broadway season was Meredith Willson's The Music Man rather than West Side Story. I'm about as far from a Broadway musical fan as anyone, but I have to agree with Wheatcroft on this. Willson, a graduate of Damrosch's Institute of Musical Art (later The Juilliard School), was a flute player in both Sousa's band and the New York Philharmonic under Toscanini, was a composer capable of some real subtlety that gets overlooked, perhaps as the corn in his subject matter is perpetually less fashionable than the kitsch in the work of his competitors.


DJA said...

the simple diatonic melodies in West Side Story put him a long way below the true masters of the Broadway ballad


Daniel Wolf said...

dja --

There are indeed several howlers in there, and some commonplace but meaningless staements like this: "George Gershwin, the greatest American composer of the 20th century", but he's right that Bernstein's melodies are neither strong nor subtle in WSS. Instead, Berstein tends grab a single technical hook and let it carry whole pieces -- a rising M7 here, alternating metres there. The most interesting musical material in WSS is in the incidental and dance music and, to be fair, the absence of tunes that are readymade as standards is a design feature of the score and not a mistake.

Willson's score, on the other hand, has its own handful of technical tricks, and he goes in for a heavy handed repetition of motives just as much as Bernstein, but has real strengths in terms of text and text-setting, the development within a song, the use of counterpoint, and orchestration. TMM has suffered in official Broadway circles because it uses all the musical genres and topics -- parlor songs, marching band music, barbershop -- that were considered the least forward looking at that particular moment on Broadway and he did the whole thing by himself, an independent from Iowa on a street ruled by local gangs, if you will.

That said, I think the time may be ripe for TMM revival in which the contradictory aspects of small town life are made more articulate. The social pressures, the gossip, the boredom of the small town in which the adventures in library books or a game of pool are welcome alternatives. The martial aspects of band music should be allowed some criticism (after all, in selling the town a band, Hill is basically offering quasi-military training to kids who'd rather be playing a nice game of pool) and the Greek chorus of the barbershop quartet might very usefully become a more critical voice in the story, for example through reflecting the fact that barbershop -- and certainly during the period in which TMM was set -- was an African-American genre. (It's no great leap to guess that the four black barbers in the River City shop had some interesting commentary on local affairs).

So I'm defending the case for TMM vis a vis WSS by suggesting an update. But that says something about the musical materials in both pieces. WSS is a finished product, in terms of book, look and score. The music is not pliable enough in substance or in style to be much modified; on the one hand, this means the absence of standard tunes for use in other contexts, but more than that, the style and settings of the music forbid one from challenging, among other things, the nature of the racial conflict in the story. TMM, as I indicated above, has its own problems -- including a racial issue -- but the musical materials and the framing devices Willson places around cited genres are well suited to further development.