Musical Theatre in America: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the Musical Theatre in America

By Glenn Loney | Go to book overview

KEYNOTE ADDRESS

Lehman Engel


THE CONDITION OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL TODAY

There's so much to be said--so much I'd like to say--that I'll try to put this in capsule form. One of the things that strikes me about musical theatre today is that one doesn't hear much talk about the use of the spoken word. In a musical, the spoken word has a tremendous amount to do with what is going on at any given time. I'll elucidate: for example, from the early 1900s on--and I'm not going to be giving exact dates--when we had the great big revues, the major features of those revues were comedy sketches by the most important writers of the time. Music was as incidental as it could possibly have been, even though much of it was written by people of the stature of George Gershwin.

The reason for that, I finally concluded, was to close the curtain and have a young man come out in front of it and sing a ballad. That was the time when people ran to the rest rooms, or started talking, or looked at their programs to be sure Fanny Brice was coming on again--that sort of thing. I know; I saw some of those shows. The songs were not set up. Here was a young man in a tuxedo, and he simply sang a verse and a chorus of a song, while it was obvious to all that the scenery and costumes were being changed.

Now, in a musical show of course, that is not so. That same ballad might become very interesting, because we know the character who is singing it. We know about the character and the situation, and the character and the situation really provide the circumstances for the song. When we know all of that, then we become interested--sometimes more than merely interested.

Those writers who wrote for the revues seemed to fade away. I hope they've gone to green pastures somewhere. But

-13-

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