Giving Over to Golden Age

Max Bahneman

  • OnStage Missouri Columnist

As a millennial, I have had a love/hate relationship with Golden Age musicals.  I always assumed that Golden Age was for a more distant generation; a generation who attended theatre for entertainment rather than enlightenment.  My argument was that these musicals were becoming increasingly irrelevant; they were no longer pushing the medium forward.  It didn’t help that my naïve ears found the quality of my Dad’s too-large collection of old Broadway vinyl particularly grating, but I was simply better acquainted with the contemporary pop sound filling radio stations.

I received a rude awakening when I went off to college.  On one of the first days of class, we were asked to listen to a playlist of exposition songs from a variety of musicals.  While I knew some of the songs well, many were from musicals I deliberately avoided.  During one of the first songs on that playlist, “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof, I could feel my guard coming down a bit.  I was taken aback by how intelligent this exposition was.  It established who these people were, what was important to them, and that something was about to shake that sense of tradition in a perfectly concise way.  I began to slowly open myself to the world of Golden Age musicals, though I still remained a bit tentative.

However, years of ridiculing my Dad’s taste in musicals quickly came crashing down in April of last year when I saw Carousel at the Lyric Opera of Chicago starring Laura Osnes and Steven Pasquale. While I must admit it was the stars who brought me in, the whole evening proved to be simply magical.  From the moment the full orchestra began the overture, I could feel my heart swell and my smile grow.  From “If I Loved You” all the way to the “Finale”, I was enamored.  Not only was I completely in awe of the production value, but I was struck by how fully fleshed out the characters were and how complete the story was.  As I sat in the theatre digesting what I had seen, I realized that musicals weren’t written that way anymore.  Carousel provided such great insight into life, love, and the human condition that many contemporary musicals could only dream of.

My love affair with Carousel sprouted a newfound fondness of classic musicals.  After enjoying Carousel, I began to seek out more Golden Age musicals to watch live.  Over the course of this past year I have enjoyed Cinderella, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, and YouTube videos from Gypsy.  Each of these musicals seemed to provide that same magical feeling as Carousel. However, the penultimate moment of my young theatre-going career came when I saw the Lincoln Center revival of The King and I with Kelli O’Hara.  Ms. O’Hara’s strong connection to the material transported me completely to Siam.  Even in the subtlest moments, I found myself in tears from her incredibly nuanced performance.  I experienced this phenomenon again when I saw Kate Baldwin perform the same role in Chicago a few months later.

Many of these musicals, especially those of Rodgers and Hammerstein, present ideas of patriotism as well as displaying differences in culture and how those cultures interact with each other.  These musicals are about communication and what happens when separate parties don’t necessarily know how to do that.  In our world, where miscommunication and judgement happens behind a computer screen, these musicals prove themselves more relevant than ever. 

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg