Essay: Comparative study of musical theatre genre between 1910 to 1943 and 1943 to 1957.

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  • Comparative study of musical theatre genre between 1910 to 1943 and 1943 to 1957.
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It has often been stated that 1943 was a watershed in the evolving world of musical theatre. Discuss this statement and compare the repertoire and genre of pre- 1943 with post- 1943 musical theatre.

It has been claimed by many that 1943 was a watershed in the evolving world of musical theatre. There is a prevalence of evidence to suggest that this is true that will be discussed within this essay. One of the main ways this change can be seen is through the changing ways in which women were represented and their role within the musical theatre world. In fact, feminism and the changing views on women’s role in theatre was both an influential factor of this turning point and a consequence of the progress made. It could be argued that 1943 was a turning point for musical theatre because of the representation of women as educated, working members of society, the opportunities given to women of colour, and the platform it provided for women in the industry, such as directors and choreographers (Van Aken, 2006, p.18).

Before 1943, the musical theatre world was rife with oppressive attitudes towards women which can be seen in popular shows of the time, such as in Follies, Sally (1920), and The Gingham Girl (1922), (Barnes, 2015, P.14). One of the biggest sources of opportunity women had in the early 20th century came along in the form of Ziegfeld’s Follies. However, the criteria to be employed as a performer in the Follies was quite strict, in a quote from Ziegfeld he lists the specific ways the girls should look in order to be hired, finishing his statement with ‘The eyes should be large and expressive. A regular profile is a decided asset…The legs must be shapely… the proportions of the figure must be perfect.’ (Kantor and Andrews, 2004, n/a). This quote shows the unattainably high expectations men had for women in the 20s and the objectification of them in the roles of chorus girls. This is important because it shows that women weren’t highly respected before the 1940s. It could very well be argued that the system of Ziegfeld’s hiring process and the glorification of those chosen to perform ‘set the stage for modern sexual objectification’ (Norman, 2018, para.1).

This can be further exemplified in descriptions of the Follies performances. The women are described as ‘glaringly indecent’, (Mates, 1987, p.129), showing the extent of the attention on their bodies. In fact, Ziegfeld’s shows only proved to get more provocative each year, ‘He went from the suggestive to the explicit over time however never quite crossing the line to full nudity.’ (, 2018, para.7). This adds additional evidence to show the contrast of how women were represented before 1943.

On the other hand, it could be argued that Follies gave women a sense of self confidence that they held onto for the rest of their lives, (Norman, 2018, para.3). That’s fair for those women, but what kind of message did this send to the girls not chosen to be in the shows? It gave the simple implication that without having a ‘perfect’ body, they were not worthy of the attention given otherwise. This helps to show the contrast between the way women were treated in the early 20th century compared to after the 40s backing up the idea that 1943 was a turning point.

This idea continued for many years and is still around today in certain areas of performance, such as Moulin Rouge performers. Today, the females are required to be a minimum height of 5’9 and have ‘A slim graceful figure’ (Moulin Rouge (Site Officiel), 2019, n/a). This does bear similarities to Follies, which is understandable as it is difficult to completely eradicate this kind of objectification. However, it is less popular now, as musical theatre is less focused on presenting sexuality.

Another one of Ziegfeld’s shows was Sally (1920), a musical about a dishwasher who becomes a Follies star. This storyline was not uncommon however, as this kind of ‘rags to riches’ story, also known as ‘Cinderella musicals’, became very popular during the 20s. The typical plotline of these stories would consist of a young, usually poor, working girl, who gains the affection of a handsome millionaire. Although in many cases she also gains a successful career (The New York Public Library, 2018, para.19). This made the implication that women at the time needed a more successful man to make their lives better and to get any kind of career. Therefore, this shows that men were considered the more dominant sex.

An additional problem presented by these storylines becoming so popular is highlighted in this quote, ‘these early and mid-twentieth-century Broadway musicals portrayed heroines torn between feminine domesticity and professional autonomy’ (Cantu, 2015, p.3). It suggests that there is a cost for not conforming to the social constructs of feminine behaviour at the time. Perhaps, this was the beginning of musicals making strong social and political statements in the form of questioning whether women should have more independence.

However, one reason why ‘Cinderella musicals’ were so appreciated at the time may have been that female audiences were able to see the beginnings of the concept of women achieving successful careers and working in the 20s. During the second industrial revolution more jobs became available for women (Burnette, 2011, p.56). The increased visibility of women in the workplace was being reflected in these musicals. Such as Mary Thompson in The Gingham Girl (1922) ‘who follows her boyfriend to Manhattan, only to out-succeed him in business’ (The New York Public Library, 2018, para.20).

The second world war, 1939-1945, brought about a lot of change as well as providing ‘extraordinary job opportunities for women’ (Colman, P. 1995, n/a). To elaborate, due to men going away to war, women had to become more active in the labour force and the idea of woman became more frequently synonymous with working people, bringing the concept of the working woman. Since musical theatre always strived to reflect real life, it made sense that this change offered a whole new side to women which was used in musical theatre as new interesting roles to represent the everchanging roles in society.

This can be seen in the Rodgers and Hammerstein show Oklahoma (1943), when instead of seeing a group of chorus girls opening the show, which was more common in the revue where ‘as many as 280 chorus girls might be used;’ (Mates, 1987, p.148), the curtains rose to reveal the simple scene of a woman churning butter, something that at this time would be considered a normal task. As theatre has always strived to represent real life, as previously mentioned, this shows how women were becoming less seen as objectified entertainment and more as hardworking people.

This idea of the working woman was additionally exemplified by real women working in the show business industry. Once again using Oklahoma as an example, we can look at the work of Agnes de Mille who was said to have revolutionised the way dance was utilised in musical theatre. This was done with her dream ballet scene in which dance was integrated into the storyline of the musical for the first time. It was said in the book ‘America’s Musical Stage’ by Julian Mates, ‘Agnes de Mille’s dream-sequence dances moved the story forward, so much so that no musical with serious pretensions could do without a dream ballet for years to come.’ (Mates, 1987, p.190). This shows the strength of the impact de Milles work had on later shows and the way dance was used in musical theatre. Others saw the magnitude of success achieved by this new style of choreography and how it aided the progression of the storyline of the musical itself, and through this realised that it was something that could and should be replicated through other works of musical theatre.

This is evident in the work of other choreographers. However, de Mille’s work set the evolution of musical theatre dance in motion in that dance started being used in a diegetic manner rather than within a dream. ’Jerome Robbins makes use of diegetic dance numbers’, (Symonds and Taylor, 2013, p.86). This means that the characters know they are dancing, allowing for a more pure integration of dance into the musical, it also gives the characters opportunity to comment and observe (Symonds and Taylor, 2013, p.88). These famous dance numbers from musicals, such as West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959), were danced within the circumstances of the performance. It could be argued that this shows how the work of Agnes de Mille changed how dance was used in the musical theatre world after 1943.

Another point of interest to be discussed, in regard to the effect the war had on women’s role in the musical theatre world, would be that it opened up many opportunities for women of colour at the time which was important in this time leading up to the civil rights era. It was said in Post-WWII African-American Musicals by Laurence Maslon: ‘the number of black performers in plays and musicals on Broadway in 1946 was more than five times the number before World War II began.’ To paraphrase another quote from this source, the increased opportunities was a reflection of the social changes during and after the 2nd world war (Maslon, 2018, para.3).

This could be because so many black people, including women, joined the army in world war 2 and helped in the war effort. It was said that they ‘made valuable contributions to the war effort, and earned high praises and commendations for their struggles and sacrifices’, (, 2018, n/a), effectively changing many people’s attitudes, and changing the face of musical theatre in the 40s.

This can be seen in the multiple shows that came out at the time consisting of an all black cast or an integrated cast, such as the shows Carmen Jones (1943) which was ‘a spectacular hit’. This show lead the way for ‘new prominence to black performers, sometimes in all-black shows,’ (Maslon, 2018, para.3). This is exemplified by musicals such as The Wiz (1974), it ‘opted for racial pride… creating socially significant art’ (Wolf, 2011, n/a). This quote tells us the importance of black people being giving a platform during this time.

An important point to be considered is how the representation of relationships changed in musical theatre before and after 1943. To briefly refer back to my previous point on ‘Cinderella stories’, before 1943 there was a certain way that men and women were written to interact with each other in these storylines. That being that the women would meet the man and her life would become improved in various ways dependent on his presence, (The New York Public Library, 2018, para.19). Ultimately the relationships shown were lighthearted and what was considered romantic at the time.

However, after the war, storylines in musicals changed in that darker subjects were able to be broached more openly. For example, in Carousel (1945) which reaffirmed the success of the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership. This musical brought about a different representation of relationships in that it showed a doomed love consisting of toxicity and domestic violence, “it is possible, dear, for someone to hit you — hit you hard — and not hurt at all,”. This quote from the musical shows how the violence is represented as a normality in this particular storyline. This is a prime example of how relationships were now being shown in different ways. It could be argued that this was a good thing because it allowed the audiences to be exposed to these darker themes that no doubt reflected real life experiences.

Another side to the domestic violence theme in Carousel is the indication to how many women were treated by society in these situations, ‘one of the most realistic things about CAROUSEL is the way that society treats Julie and Louise… Both are treated as social outcasts and held responsible for the way that Billy conducted himself,’ (Peterson and Nicolette, 2017, para.8). During this time domestic violence was still a taboo topic, explaining why the external treatment of the two characters is realistic, up until laws were enforced after the feminist movement of the 60s. This shows just how important it was that musical theatre had changed after the 40s as the increase of exposure to this violence through the media was one of the significant factors in the laws being enforced, (Cabot Police Department, n.d., para.4).

However, Carousel also allowed strength between female relationships to be shown as a consequence of the negative circumstances within the show, ‘The way that the women of this show build each other up and take care of it each other is fundamentally one of the most beautiful aspects of the show’, (Peterson and Nicolette, 2017, para.7).

Additionally, the song Soliloquy, sung by Billy Bigelow, provides a new outlook of females in this musical in particular. To analyse the lyrics, in the beginning of the song he assumes Julie’s unborn child is going to be a boy. He imagines a life of fun and adventure and the child liking all the things he did, not really looking too far into the scenario to see the real responsibilities of having a child (Donovan, 2012, p.23). He then considers the possibility that the child might be a girl. This changes everything, and he realises that he must make something of himself to care for the child (, n.d., para.10). The point here is that the idea of a girl changes his mindset entirely, this presents a powerful image to audiences that while once baby girls may have been seen as a problem, ‘-you bear offspring, if it is a male, let it live; if it is a female, expose it.’ (Maehler et al., 2010, n/a), this was instead a good thing, an event strong enough to change someone’s entire morality.

To expand on the topic of relationships in musical theatre we should consider the representation in On The Town (1944). One form of freedom women achieved in the 40s was the sense of sexual liberation giving a new dynamic to work with in relationships within musicals. In the number ‘Come Up to My Place’ where the character Hildy uses suggestive lyrics, this shows a woman being outspoken about sex which wouldn’t be typical for female characters before the 40s, (Wolf, 2011, n/a). When we look at this quote ‘The only power women have (we are told) is the sexual power of their body’, (Taylor and Symonds, 2014, p.140) it makes sense why sexual power is one of the first forms of power shown from female characters after 1943. However, it is dubious whether this was really a show of power or simply a way of reducing women to sexualised characters? It is most likely that this was in fact a form of progression, perhaps just in the only way they knew how to present women at the time.

Finally, it may be concluded that 1943 was a turning point for musical theatre regarding the representation of women, the opportunities and the platform provided for women working within the industry. The second world war was a big factor in this as it kickstarted the way for women, being represented as working members of society and opening doors for women of colour. Musicals such as Oklahoma and Carousel, both combined with the revolutionary work of Agnes de Mille, imparted many new concepts which changed musical theatre from then onwards. The final reason for 1943 being a watershed for musical theatre is the exposure granted to audiences with the darker storylines and themes interlaced into the media, changing the way women were seen and treated, and how they treated each other.

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