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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Another slice of heritage?

By Norman Lebrecht / July 20, 2005

Ted Chapin is sitting in St David's Hall, Cardiff, sampling school musicals from all over Wales, some from towns so poor that parents cannot afford the coach trip to the national finals. Three of the entrants are decent end-of-year shows. The fourth is an original work in Welsh, revealing traces of Les Miserables. The fifth is Carousel. 'This,' exclaims Chapin happily, 'is what we ought to be teaching in schools.'

Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? Chapin is president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation, which earns a few cents every time a girl washes a man right out of her hair. Carousel, it so happens, occupies prime place in the canon. It was the partners' favourite, premiered in the last weeks of the Second World War and unfurling that mighty secular hymn, You'll Never Walk Alone. Carousel is the cornerstone of a genre that speaks, on the whole, of better times ahead.

Chapin is curator of practically the entire art form. His organisation is to musicals what Nashville is to country, both source and resource. It represents, in addition to R&H, the works of Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim, song rights in Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, much of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the cream of current shows.

Musical theatre, Chapin is first to admit, is not what it was. In Houston, Texas, he watches school kids cavort in front of giant screens, voices and gestures amplified beyond reality, their acts modelled on Beauty and the Beast, synthetic Disney pap. That, to young Americans, is the modern stage musical. In Britain, it might be Mamma Mia or Our House, astute compilations that, for all their vitality, lack the social impact of the Broadway show.

Popular culture has turned divisive and pop-based musicals are unlikely to be outings that the whole family can enjoy. What gives the musical form its growing heritage status is an appeal that carries across the generations, from war vets to under-tens, and that is such a precious rarity in our fissured society that it demands conservation and participation. Poised at the midpoint of high and mass culture, musical theatre reaches the parts that more formal arts cannot begin to touch.

It is 45 years this September since The Sound of Music opened on Broadway and 40 since Julie Andrews trilled the hills alive on screen; it is also the 100th birthday of Maria von Trapp, who died in 1987. There is a must-have DVD on the way, augmenting the movie with a Julie Andrews documentary, a mass of out-takes and unique footage of Maria herself appearing on an American TV game show. And there is more than one way to watch the disc.

In two generations The Sound of Music has gone from stage show to gay cult to Salzburg tourist trap, a status matched only by the likes of Elvis and Princess Di. Yet the score makes no concession to commercial culture, strict in its multi-part harmony and unadorned orchestration, a summit for others to climb. What it achieves, in historical terms, is a span of pre and post-modern cultures, approachable both as musical entertainment and as ironic commentary. The ultimate dimensions of some of these formative musicals have yet to be fully revealed.

Chapin, 56, was in at a seminal moment, as an assistant on Stephen Sondheim's Follies in 1971. He has written an enthrallingly detailed book about his experiences and called it Everything Was Possible, because that's what musicals are: the ultimate in hopes, dreams and human collaboration.

Sondheim and his director Hal Prince were born into the form. They first met in the lobby on the opening night of South Pacific in April 1949, Prince as a guest of the Rodgers family and Sondheim with his loco parentis, Oscar Hammerstein. They teamed up in Company, the 1970 Sondheim musical that explored the state of marriage at the dawn of women's liberation and gay rights, dangerous terrain for family entertainment. Next year, in Follies, they went one further, using the backdrop of a crumbling Ziegfeld theatre as a metaphor for Vietnam-era confusions.

Follies flopped, as much for the subtexts as for its textural sophistication. It ran 522 nights on Broadway with a loss of $792,000, the only score that counts on the Cruel White Way. One rare critic who got the point reckoned it would take 15 years to find an audience. It took, in fact, 30 before Follies returned to Broadway. Another saw it as the death of musical theatre: 'the creators are in essence presenting their own funeral.' Prince still considers it 'my favourite show all about instincts and feelings' and Chapin feels himself blessed to have assisted, if only as typist, gawper and gofer, at its birth. Follies turned out to be not so much an end-point as an intellectual reopening, from which much else has since flowed.

Chapin, whose father Schuyler was head of the Metropolitan Opera, wound up running the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates, using their legacy to extend awareness of musical theatre as a whole. Where other copyright custodians demand strict adherence to composers' wishes, R&H will license your am-dram to do The Sound of Music with a karaoke audience dressed as nuns and Nazis (try that, for laughs, on the Britten Estate).

Chapin is upbeat about current musicals, extolling Adam Guettel's Light in the Piazza which swept six Tonys this year - as many as Guettel's maternal grandfather Richard Rodgers won for The Sound of Music. Just before Chapin left for London, Stephen Sondheim called. 'You've got to see Billy Elliot,' he advised. 'The first half-hour's the best I've seen since the things Hal and I did 20 years ago.'

'People judge musicals by a simple criterion,' observes Chapin. 'They say, is it taking off? Is it selling tickets? But that's wrong. The musical is a complex thing that can take decades to find an audience, and it keeps maturing all the time.' The dimensions, as I suggested, are still emerging. No art form since the great cathedrals of medieval times has been made in this way, by dozens of artists working together over six or nine months, unknowing whether the work will crash on completion, or last forever.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001