When Broadway Became Broadway

By Terry Teachout Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his 2011 play about Armstrong, has been produced off Broadway and throughout America.

In the 2017–18 theater season, 63 percent of the 13.8 million tickets sold to performances of Broadway shows were bought by tourists who live outside New York City and its suburbs. No other American city can make a comparable claim. Despite the high quality of theater elsewhere in the U.S., New York remains America’s only “destination city” for live theater, as has been the case since the 1920s, when Times Square became its theater district. Of the shows that out-of-towners go to see, musicals make up 83 percent. Indeed, Broadway and musical comedy are for most people one and the same thing. Yet despite the diminished place of the stage play in Broadway’s latter-day economy, it is also true that an American play must sooner or later be produced there for it to be generally acknowledged as significant.

When and how did America discover Broadway? Laurence Maslon, a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, tells part of the story in Broadway to Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America, a fully sourced, engagingly written study that is a model of its kind.1 It is as fine a book as could possibly be written about the way in which the Broadway musicals of the 20th century have come to be woven into our cultural fabric.

The story begins in 1891, when Charles Hoyt and Percy Gaunt wrote a musical comedy called A Trip to Chinatown that ran in New York for two years, a record that would not be broken until 1919. Freely based on an 1842 farce by the Viennese playwright Johann Nestroy, it was so successful that several road companies performed the show throughout America simultaneous with its New York run.2

A year after A Trip to Chinatown opened, T.B. Harms, one of the first companies to publish musical-comedy scores, brought out a folio of songs from the show. Around the same time, a singer in one of the road companies interpolated into the production a sentimental waltz by Charles K. Harris called “After the Ball.” This song soon became even more popular than the show in which it was performed, ultimately selling 5 million sheet-music copies. Each one bore on its cover a prominent note identifying the song as having been sung “in Hoyt’s ‘A Trip to Chinatown,’” a form of advertising that became standard practice for sheet-music editions of songs drawn from the scores of hit shows. It was from ads like these that ordinary Americans first learned that New York was the center of theatrical activity in the U.S.

The mass production of phonograph records had only just begun in 1892, and amateur music-making was still a routine part of middle-class life. Even though “After the Ball” was recorded for the first time a year later, most turn-of-the-century Americans became familiar with the song by buying a copy of the sheet music and gathering around their parlor pianos to sing it themselves. And long after the phonograph and radio had definitively supplanted amateur music-making, it scarcely ever occurred to record companies to bring Broadway stars into the studio to document their personal interpretations of the songs that they sang on stage, much less to release original-cast albums that would make it possible for listeners outside New York to become acquainted with the dramatic contexts of those songs. The individual songs themselves were all that they knew.

Once sound came along in 1927, Hollywood fully embraced the musical form—up to a point. The first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, featured Broadway’s biggest star, Al Jolson, warbling a song by Irving Berlin. The second Best Picture Oscar was awarded to The Broadway Melody. Like 42nd Street after it, The Broadway Melody was a backstage drama with musical numbers ostensibly performed on the stages of actual theaters in front of live audiences. But as a rule, Hollywood did not adapt existing Broadway shows, instead producing original musicals and creating their own singing and dancing stars (although they did sometimes employ established stage performers like Fred Astaire). There was good reason for this: Most of the stage musicals of the ’20s and ’30s were either purely frivolous confections whose books were devoid of dramatic conflict or plotless revues that were ill-suited to translation into cinematic terms. On the rare occasions when a Broadway show was filmed, it was usually altered to the point of unrecognizability, with songs by lesser composers often replacing the ones that had been heard on stage. This was the case with Cole Porter’s Anything Goes when Lewis Milestone directed it for the screen in 1936.

Just as important, such noted theatrical songwriters as Porter, Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, and Jerome Kern wrote the scores for some of the best-remembered films of the period, and received prominent billing for having done so. Indeed, George Gershwin’s name became so well known that he hosted a 1934 radio series called Music by Gershwin that aired on NBC and, later, CBS. And while their shows were never heard on the radio airwaves, the songs they wrote for those shows were broadcast regularly. According to Maslon, six of the 10 songs that aired most often in the 1927–28 season, including Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” Gershwin’s “’S Wonderful,” and Kern’s “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” were show tunes.

Nonmusical theater, by contrast, was treated with more respect by Hollywood. Many noteworthy American and English plays, among them The Little Foxes, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Our Town, Private Lives, and Strange Interlude, were turned into more or less faithful film versions whose stage origins were deemed to be prestigious and so were prominently advertised by studio publicists (“Now on the Screen! Robert E. Sherwood’s Sensationally Successful Pulitzer Prize Play ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS”). In addition, road-show companies of these plays toured the U.S., and they were also made available for amateur and summer-stock production and were broadcast in abridged form on radio programs like Theatre Guild of the Air.

The combined effect of these undertakings was to heighten public awareness of Broadway’s status as a center of stage entertainment and, on occasion, of high art. Yet further innovations were needed before New York could become a full-fledged theatrical destination city. The most consequential was the 1943 release by Decca Records of 12 songs from Oklahoma! that were performed by the original Broadway cast. This album, the first of its kind to be widely distributed, made it possible for out-of-towners to hear the most popular musical of the ’40s without going to New York. Within months of its release, all the other major labels were putting out original-cast albums of their own. Their cultural impact is suggested in a 1946 Saturday Evening Post ad for Decca’s first five original-cast albums that is reproduced in Broadway to Main Street:

Big Broadway shows were only for the fortunate few. Tradition had always said so. But Decca said No! Believing that the best is none too good for all Americans, Decca put Broadway’s best on records. Much of the magic of these plays came from the players’ personalities. So Decca smashed tradition to record the original casts!3

Five years later came Ed Sullivan’s weekly TV variety show, which was broadcast from Times Square and regularly presented scenes and songs from the original Broadway productions of popular musicals and stage plays. Sullivan’s competitors followed suit, and by the mid-’50s it was common for the major TV networks to air Broadway-related fare. The most successful such program, NBC’s 1955 telecast of Jerome Robbins’s Peter Pan, was viewed by more than 65 million people, one out of every three Americans. Jack Gould, the New York Times’ TV critic, wrote that it was “no rare treat just for those with the ability to pay a box-office price or for those in the right geographical location. Thanks to television, the proscenium arch of Broadway was moved to wherever there was a home screen.”

In the same year, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II decided to assume an active role in the production of big-budget widescreen film versions of their musicals that would be faithful in spirit to the way in which the shows had been presented on stage. The popular success of the first of these films, Fred Zinnemann’s Oklahoma! (1955), persuaded Hollywood executives that it was indeed possible to turn stage musicals into commercially viable movies. It also showed Americans who lived outside New York exactly what they were missing. From then on, Broadway was solidly established as a bona fide national institution, one of whose existence and significance all Americans were aware.

The centrality of the Broadway musical to postwar American popular culture cannot be exaggerated. Consider this statistic cited by Maslon: “Between 1945 and 1969—25 of the most fertile and febrile years in popular music—13 different original-cast albums hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts.…If one factors in the soundtrack albums directly derived from Broadway scores during those same decades (Oklahoma, West Side Story, etc.), the number of weeks at No. 1 for albums of Broadway-originated material surpasses all the weeks at No. 1 of albums by the Beatles, [Frank] Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and the Monkees combined.”

Maslon puts it well when he observes elsewhere in Broadway to Main Street that “for decades practically every family had at least one cast album in the record cabinet or a cassette of show music in the glove compartment of the car.” By the same token, even those Americans who had never set foot in a Broadway theater were more than likely to have seen the screen versions of such well-known plays as (say) The Odd Couple, Picnic, A Raisin in the Sun, and A Streetcar Named Desire. In one way or another, Broadway had by midcentury left a mark on American culture that was grossly disproportionate to the limited number of Americans who actually saw shows there in person.

Those days are long gone. In 1964, Louis Armstrong’s record of the title song from Hello, Dolly! briefly became the bestselling pop single in the U.S. Since then, though, no recording of a traditional show tune has topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The baby boomers, the oldest of whom turned 18 that year, preferred the music of their peers to the show tunes that their parents and grandparents loved, and none of their peers was interested in writing for the stage. The original-cast album of Hair, the first rock musical, was the only such record to crack Billboard’s top-10 album chart between 1969 and 2016, the year of Hamilton. Similarly, Neil Simon was the last American playwright whose Broadway shows were turned into successful movies. Not since 1989, when Driving Miss Daisy was released, has a screen version of a straight play been a hit.

In retrospect, it is striking how completely most contemporary observers failed to foresee what would happen once the Broadway musical became disconnected from the mainstream of American pop music. In his otherwise prescient The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (1969), a study of the 1967–68 Broadway season, the late William Goldman argued that the rise of rock had nothing to do with the fact that Hair was the only musical to succeed at the box office that season: “Musical comedy is under no more obligation to reflect the music of its time than [George] Balanchine is to put the New York City Ballet through an evening of the Frug. There is no reason under this or any other sun why an audience of teen- and pre-teen-age children, the popular record audience, should force the middle-aged men and women who make up the Broadway audience to listen to its sound.”

What Goldman did not realize was that those same teenagers would be no more interested in traditional show tunes when they graduated from college than they had been in 1969. Like most of us, they would spend the rest of their lives listening to the music that was popular when they were young—and it was rock, not Stephen Sondheim or Fiddler on the Roof. Only after the turn of the 21st century did Broadway scores finally start to reflect the musical language of postmodern pop with any consistency, and it took even longer for shows to be written that were (as I wrote in my review of the original 2015 production of Hamilton) “plugged straight into the wall socket of contemporary music.” 

A half-century is a long time to be out of touch with the zeitgeist. It may well be that the success of shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen will trigger an outpouring of new musicals that make idiomatic and creative use of contemporary pop music. But if the other hit shows of recent seasons, most of which have been uncreative “commodity musicals” based on hit movies of the past, are any indication, then it is more likely that musical comedy has entered a period of stasis that will not end anytime soon.

This does not mean that musicals will become extinct, or that New York will cease to be America’s theatrical destination city. The need for light entertainment is a permanent aspect of popular taste, and the big-budget Broadway musical, even in its present state of decline, satisfies that need with awesome efficiency. But I cannot imagine that musicals will ever again regain the cultural currency that they had between 1943 and 1964, the years when Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma!, and all the other classic shows of that golden age of musical comedy were known to and beloved by Americans of all ages and backgrounds. Like the common culture of which they were one of the most glorious manifestations, such shows are now—as is Broadway itself—period pieces whose day has passed.

1 Oxford, 252 pages

2 Thornton Wilder used the same farce as the basis for The Merchant of Yonkers (1938, rev. 1955 as The Matchmaker), which Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart later turned into Hello, Dolly!

3 For a detailed discussion of these albums and their history, see my “The Rise and Fall of the Original-Cast Album” (Commentary, September 2011).