What I've Learned in the First Half of 366 Days/366 Musicals
Back in June of this year, I set off on a musical theatre blogging adventure. Actually, I set off on it a few months earlier, to insure that what I started in June would not end in June. The goal: to put up a post about a different musical every day for a year, a year that happens to include Leap Day. I wanted to mostly concentrate on new or obscure musicals, not the ones that have been written about extensively, though those have been sprinkled in. This was for my own thrill of discovery and because I wanted to give what little boost I could to under-appreciated musicals. Most importantly, I wanted to see if I could keep pace with a daily blog, whatever the circumstances of that day, and sometimes I cut it close, as when a seven-hour train ride took ten hours. Hence the months of preparation before starting. Nearing the end of November, though, I’m almost half done, I’ve kept up with myself, and December is ready to go. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned so far while writing 366 Days/366 Musicals .
As Broadway has been experiencing its diversity moment that will hopefully be more than just a moment, I have been learning about the efforts to put casts full of minorities on Broadway throughout its history. They haven’t been many, but they have been meaningful. I’m not talking about the Harlem Renaissance musical Shuffle Along, which will be the subject of a musical this season, or the grand opera Porgy and Bess, which, being an opera, I decided not to include, even though I love it. There were musicals about black people in the sixties and seventies, often political in nature, that are not widely known (or getting a live production on NBC this holiday season) these days. Chief among these was Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, about daily life and struggle in black communities in the seventies. It used musical styles that were precursors to rap and hip-hop, and even depicted a police shooting. I was at once surprised and not surprised that the musical has not been given any kind of revival in the wake of recent discussion of police violence and civil rights.
Another musical with a mostly black cast, this one from 1961, was Kwamina, which also helped answer a question I’ve had since my early days of learning about musicals: why are there only two, Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game, with scores by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross? The answer is that Jerry Ross died when he was twenty-nine, which means he had written the afore mentioned hits before he was twenty-nine, of a lung disease. Richard Adler went on to write a few more musicals, including Kwamina, about an African doctor who, after completing his medical training in London, returns to his village and his dying father to find that his modern medical knowledge is suspect. One reason the musical failed to catch on in 1961 was that his love interest was white, and that was not something audiences wanted to see back then. The musical featured Brock Peters, who would go on to play Tom Robinson in the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, in a supporting role. I haven’t found as many lesser-known musicals with Asian or Hispanic themes or casts, although when Chita Rivera was cast in Bye Bye Birdie, her character’s last name was changed to Alvarez and she was given the song “Spanish Rose” to sing. I also read that the team behind Flower Drum Song had a tough time filling its cast with Asian actors because that season was a particularly busy one for Asian actors, of which there were few.
It has been fun to frequently change my line up as new musicals come to my attention and I would rather write about them than others. When I stood in line to see Shakespeare in the Park with a woman whose son was in a musical adaptation of The Prince and the Pauper, I resolved to write that entry as soon as possible. When my friend was stage managing a new musical called Indian Joe, I looked it up, thought it was interesting, and gave it a plug. When Amazon.com thought I might be interested in the Joan of Arc musical Jeanne, I found that I was, and the composer/lyricist of that musical started following me on twitter after expressing to her own followers how excited she was that I had written about it. That’s validation, right there. That’s what I want, for people whose musicals are not The King and I or Sweeney Todd to see that there are people who find them interesting and worthy of exploration. I just wish I had a theatre company with which to put them on.
Speaking of Sweeney, though, another delight of writing this blog has been decorating for the holidays. I lined the week of July 4th with American history themed musicals, the days around election day with musicals about elections, and October with the creepiest ones I could think of, or at least monster-themed, like the hilarious I’m Sorry, The Bridge is Out, You’ll Have to Spend the Night. That’s an actual musical by the guy who wrote “Monster Mash.” So is Island of the Lost Coeds, and that one is by the same team that wrote Grease. See? Isn’t this fun? Sometimes, it is hard to believe what musicals are out there, and the joy of writing this blog has been sharing my geeking out with my twitter and tumblr followers and facebook friends.
Part of this was to see if I could actually get followers with a project like this, and it started out slowly, but the pace has increased and I’m getting closer to seventy on tumblr. I’ve also got people on twitter who started following me specifically because of this blog. And it’s not always the more famous posts that get the attention, often it’s the obscure ones (like Jeanne), which manage to reach across the internet and find the few other people who care about such gems. That’s what the internet is for, after all, isn’t it? Learning to navigate social media has been a big part of this experience. And since I fortunately decided to include videos with the entries, when I could, early on, it also serves as an easily searchable database of all of my favorite musical theatre clips, so I won’t have to search the whole, huge internet when the mood strikes for one of them.
There are so many ways that musicals make it to Broadway or fail to make it to Broadway, and so many ways they succeed or fail once there. Some never leave their little town in Canada. Some ultimately land in Las Vegas. Some are greeted rapturously after waiting fifteen years from their original productions, some are just grateful to have arrived and bow out earlier than they would have liked after waiting so long. Some were considered cutting edge in their day and are considered racist or sexist now. Some are truly revolutionary, some are just solid shows, some deserve recognition merely for bringing forward the idea without regard to execution. I haven’t been this immersed in musical theatre history in years, and I love it. http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com If you want your musical represented, I make no promises, but nor can you be sure I’ll find and/or consider it if you don’t e-mail me at the address listed on the blog. There’s still more than six months, and I’ve got the list ready to go, but at the rate at which I switch musicals in and out, you don’t want to miss your shot. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to put up today’s entry.