Women Composers and the American Musical: The Early Years

Article excerpt

NAME ONE WOMAN COMPOSER on Broadway. If the answer does not readily come, then now is the time to discover and explore some new, fresh, dramatic literature for the voice studio.

Since the turn of the twentieth century nearly 200 American women have composed works for the stage. Women composing scores for full length musicals, many of these reaching the Broadway or Off-Broadway theaters, have numbered well over fifty. In recent decades women composers have achieved international artistic recognition in music theater, with major awards, long runs on Broadway, and world tours. Over the years these women have made innovative and significant contributions to stylistic development in American music theater. Clearly, this literature provides a hidden wealth of opportunity for use in the voice studio. This article is an overview of major Broadway women composers of the early years, followed by an annotated list of recommended selections. The list is by no means exhaustive, but gives a representative view of this dramatic lyric repertoire.

Early composers Liza Lehman (ten songs for Sergeant Brue, 1905) and Nora Bayes (Little Miss Fix-it, 191 1, and "Shine On Harvest Moon") paved the way for Kay Swift (1897-1993). Swift was a pianist, author, and composer who, with her husband James Paul Warburg as lyricist (pen name, Paul James), composed the music for the 1930 Broadway musical comedy hit, Fine and Dandy. According to the composer's website, this was the first Broadway musical score entirely composed by a female. The Yale University music library holds the Kay Swift papers in its archives, and notes that Fine and Dandy ran on Broadway for a strong 255 performances, longer than Gershwin's Strike up the Band of the same year.

Swift studied at the Juilliard School (then called the Institute of Musical Arts) and at the New England Conservatory. Her career spanned a variety of theater- related positions, including work as accompanist to touring artists and staff composer at Radio City Music Hall, as composer of incidental music for the stage and one ballet, and as a contributing song writer for seven theater productions. Swift was an intimate friend, colleague, and admirer of composer George Gershwin. Following his untimely death of a brain tumor in 1937, Swift devoted herself to promoting Gershwin's music.

Fine and Dandys title song, "one of the first public pronouncements of facile optimism that became so prevalent during the depression years,"1 also mirrors the jazz influence of the times in its use of syncopation. The song remains a standard amidst the thirties repertoire, and was so popular that it has been included in several community songbooks. In 2004 the score of Fine and Dandy was restored, produced, and newly recorded on the PS Classics Inc. label. Barbra Streisand recorded the song on her People album (1964).

After World War II women began to make an increasing impact on the American music theater scene as they did in other professions and workplaces.

Mary Rodgers (b. 1931) became a role model for the female composers who followed her. Daughter of composer Richard Rodgers, she was educated at Wellesley College and Mannes College of Music. Her son, Adam Guettel, continues the Rodgers legacy and is the award-winning composer of the 2005 Broadway hit musical, The Light in the Piazza, and also Floyd Collins (Off-Broadway, 1996). While Mary Rodgers is best known for Once Upon a Mattress, on Broadway she was also the composer for The Hot Spot (starring Judy Holiday, Broadway, 1963), and contributed music to the 1978 musical revue Working, which received a Tony nomination for Best Original Score. Off-Broadway she is represented with several shows, including a takeoff on Mad magazine, The Mad Show (with JoAnne Worley), which has been called one of the best revues of all time.2 Mary Rodgers also wrote the book for the original Disney movie, Freaky Friday (1976) and for a 1995 Disney musical version for television. …