Happy Endings in Narrative Forms:
Hope and the Golden Age of the American Musical Theatre

The following essay was originally published in the NewOp10 reader. NewOp10 was held October 6-9, 2001 in Oslo, Norway. The beginning of the essay served as a convenient device for me at the meeting - every time anyone asked me what had happened to me on September 11, I just referred them to the reader, so that I wouldn't have to relive the experience over and over. The second half concentrates on a branch of American Music Theatre that I, myself, do not write for: the musical. It may leave some of my contemporary classical colleagues confused about my own music.

Here is a narrative:

I was working on the 24th Floor of 2 Broadway at the southernmost tip of Manhattan when a co-worker ran through the halls shouting that the entire top of one of the World Trade Center towers had been blown off. All we could see out of the window was a huge plume of black smoke mixed with white confetti-like paper. Because it was a government building, we decided to immediately evacuate and get as far away from our building as possible.

I ran across Bowling Green to Battery Park, where I had a clear view of the towers. Although it was difficult to see, it became clear that the top of the building was still intact. A rumor on the street was that a small plane had collided with the tower. It looked possible, but it could have been a bomb, or even a gas explosion of some sort. That was when a huge Boeing 767 flew low over my left shoulder and slipped into the second tower. I fled away, not conscious of the explosion or the fireball that resulted. I ran to the water, in shock, just as a ferry from the Statue of Liberty was pulling in. My cell phone kept getting busy signals.

When I got a small amount of wits together, I decided to rush home to gather my family, staying close to the water, even though the most direct route took me past the World Financial Center. As I fled north, I passed hundreds of people staring up, shouting into cell phones, waiting on-line to talk on pay phones, milling around. As I ran past the World Financial Center and up the bike path next to the West Side Highway, there was not a huge crowd fleeing north with me. In fact, I remember a jogger out for her morning run heading south amongst the crowd of curious tower watchers. When I reached my apartment in the West Village, many of my neighbors were out in the street watching the smoke. It was then that there arose a gasp in the crowd, mixed with screams, as one of the towers collapsed, spewing a huge cloud of dust, debris and ash over all of the thousands of people I had passed on my journey north.

We know some of the aftermath. Thousands missing in the rubble, including firefighters who had rushed to the scene. Downtown residents evacuated, homeless, returning later to apartments with no water, no electricity, no telephone. Many businesses and schools permanently displaced. Every lamppost and wall plastered with photographs of the missing. A quarter of a million people confused by sleeplessness, nightmares, loss of appetite, unable to decide what to have for breakfast, where they'll be in an hour, what they want. And a nation declaring war against a loose network of angry fanatics fully capable of doing even greater damage in retaliation.

This will not be a narrative with a happy ending. Many of you work in forms where there is no narrative, no plot or even characters per se, and I respect that work. Some play with the unities, but the work is still essentially narrative. In America, and especially in New York, we are still playing with forms of narrative, refracting it, layering it, stripping it bare, looking at it. Now that we live in a changed cultural landscape, what will emerge in our work?

Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at NYU, has already predicted an end to reflexive irony as we know it. "Hipness unto death becomes offensive when you're in the trenches. That ironic posture just won't work any longer in a world where one's very survival is at risk. It's going to seem dangerously inadequate and immature."

We'll know if he's right soon enough. How long will "The Producers" run now? Will "Urinetown," which makes fun of Weill-Brecht musicals, last a month? Will the tremendously cynical "Sweet Smell of Success," the much-awaited new Marvin Hamlisch musical, even open? How will audiences respond to "To Have and Have Not," with its steamy adultery plot? Movie premieres are being postponed, their plots eerily reflective of the tragedy, their tone altered.

By coincidence, I was preparing for a class on the history of the American Musical Theater when this tragedy occurred. Preparing tapes for the class became a welcome escape. However, I discovered I had no material in my personal collection from "Oklahoma!" the landmark 1943 musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein that ushered in the Golden Age of the American musical, an age that would last until the Kennedy assassination less than twenty years later. I went to a store to purchase a videotape of the movie made in 1955, assuming I'd show them the Agnes de Mille ballet, but willing to consider playing other scenes if I thought they were instructive.

From the perspective of the 60's and 70's that most of us grew up in, the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein is misremembered as innocent and sentimental, defining conventions that would haunt the musical for decades to come. Rodgers, undoubtedly the greatest melodist of the twentieth century, would work separately from Hammerstein, churning out generic tunes for each new work. Then Hammerstein would see if anything fit the book and lyrics he was independently producing. Someone else would orchestrate, and arrange dance sequences. Many of the songs were generic enough that they could also be played on the radio, sung at weddings and in schools, becoming instant artifacts of American culture. For many of my generation, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are an embarrassment; we were thrilled by Kander & Ebb, by Sondheim & Prince, by the anti-musical. I can't watch "Oklahoma!" and be moved by it.

But I can be amazed by it, and understand what this work did to its New York audience, and to the future of the American musical. I'm not talking about the famous off-stage opening solo, a gimmick stolen a year later by Leonard Bernstein in his first musical, "On the Town." I'm not talking about the use of vernacular speech, which Ira Gershwin provided in "Porgy and Bess" eight years prior, or the pretensions to seriousness provided by the Agnes de Mille story ballet that ended the first act. After all, Rodgers had written "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," with choreography by Balanchine, for "On Your Toes" seven years before. And the tonal simplicity and Americana of Copland's "Billy the Kid" and "Rodeo" predates "Oklahoma!" and influenced a generation of American contemporary classical composers.

Watching "Oklahoma!" today, you can see all of the influences, conventions and techniques that pre-date it, if you are aware of them. Even tap dance, anachronistic for its 1900 setting, and in a musical famous for its ballet, remains in "Everything's Up To Date in Kansas City." After all, if you were going to pay those hoofers to be on stage, you might as well use them.

What strikes me is not so much what is new in "Oklahoma!" as to what is different. By 1943 the world was highly industrialized, and the New York audience highly sophisticated. Rodgers' previous collaborator, Lorenz Hart, and Hammerstein's previous collaborator, Jerome Kern, could not have pulled off the delicate balancing act that is "Oklahoma!" Both were far too clever, far too cynical, far too sophisticated. Not that "Oklahoma!" is not, in its way, clever, cynical and sophisticated. For all of our memories of the Wild West preciousness and setting, the two romantic triangles are very sexually aware, if sometimes sublimated.

But Hammerstein, in his seamless book and lyrics, plays to an undercurrent of anxiety and worry that his New York audience, fresh from the horror of Pearl Harbor and thrust into a second world war (after the first, supposedly the "war to end all wars"), is struggling to face. The urban/rural divide of America is addressed in "The Farmer and the Cowman," which includes the summary line, "I don't say I'm no better than anybody else,/But I'll be damned if I ain't jist as good!" Judd and Ali Hakem, the psychotic and exotic, are contrasted to a vision of a new American prototype, the wholesome cowboy settling down in order to help form a new state.

The delicate balance that Hammerstein maintains is evident in the continuous self-mocking of the script and lyrics. Does Curly have a "Surrey on the Fringe On Top" or doesn't he? "People Will Say We're In Love" is full of denial. In the ballet that ends Act One, dream Judd kills dream Curly and carries dream Laurie off, presumably to rape her. Isn't this how the world works?

The strong vein of hope that runs through "Oklahoma!" is half-supplied by Rodgers and Hammerstein, half wished upon it by its audience. It is this sense of hope that infected the American musical until it was shattered by the Kennedy assassination, the sexual revolution, the liberation movements which made America realize that it wasn't such a fair playing field after all. Before "Oklahoma!", opera was tragic or sarcastic, and the happy endings of musical comedy and cabaret were tongue-in-cheek. "Chicago," "Cabaret," "A Chorus Line," :"Sweeney Todd" cannot be said to have happy endings, either.

Is hope escapist? Or is it merely the American dream, the American spirit? I don't know that old musical theater voices will be able to provide the irrational optimism that is a key component of hope; new voices will probably emerge, instead. Or rather, they will be embraced, encouraged, wondered at. Meditative new age peacefulness will seem indulgent. Urban cynicism will be ignored. Sex-obsessed consumer culture will not cohabit well with a climate of real fear. These will all continue to exist, but something not seen in forty years may arise like a phoenix from the ashes of the twin towers. It will be the only antidote to despair.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea,
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

- Emily Dickinson, 1861

On October 28, weeks after this essay was written and published, Frank Rich made similar observations about "Oklahoma!" in the New York Times.

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Last Updated: September 12, 2007