Give my regards to Broadway... . Is it possible to read those lyrics, let alone hear them, without mentally filling in: Remember me to Herald Square? Have you begun to hum or sing it to yourself, with the words and notes carrying you back in time to the Broadway of George M. Cohan and the heyday of Tin Pan Alley?
For most people who've grown up with and shared America's musical heritage, such a phrase opens the floodgates to a wealth of memories and feelings because, after all, that's what great songs do.
What a delight, then, to be able to promise you the same experience in an entire course. For in Professor Bill Messenger's Great American Music: Broadway Musicals, you get the story and the music, as well—and not only in the examples expertly played by Professor Messenger at the piano to illustrate insights, techniques, or subtleties of composition.
You'll also hear rare recordings of groundbreaking artists such as Nora Bayes, the singer selected by Cohan to record his unofficial World War I anthem, "Over There,"and Fanny Brice, the great star immortalized in Funny Girl. And you'll hear contemporary recreations that reconstruct the sound of early musical theater, as well. You'll listen in on recorded interviews that take you behind the scenes of some of Broadway's biggest hits and most memorable moments.
Beyond Nostalgia: A Complete Learning Experience
But Great American Music: Broadway Musicals is far more than just an immersion in musical nostalgia. Professor Messenger ranges across the entire culture of which music is a part, teaching you some of the intricacies of musical composition and song construction—and how they were used to create specific effects—as well as the social and historical backdrop against which musical theater needs to be considered.
You'll learn, for example, how Jerome Kern dealt with what was perhaps Broadway's first attempt to use music's technical subtleties as a way to suggest time and place when he was writing Show Boat, deliberately incorporating into his music for "Ol' Man River" a five-note pentatonic scale often used in Negro spirituals.
Professor Messenger tells how "You're a Grand Old Flag," today one of Cohan's most memorable songs, was greeted with dismay and anger when Cohan introduced it in his 1906 musical, George Washington, Jr., with its original and affectionate title and lyric, "You're a Grand Old Rag." Though Cohan quickly rewrote the song in the form we know today, sheet music for the original version—at a time when sheet music was immensely popular—had already reached stores all over New York City. Visiting one store after another, Cohan managed to retrieve almost every copy, burning them and replacing them with the new version. Today, there are only a half-dozen very valuable copies of the original in existence.
A Stage that Is Never Far from the Real World
But the harsh reception given the original version of Cohan's song is far from the only reminder this course offers that the Broadway stage, as wondrous an escape as it might be, is still an illusion, with only the flimsiest of curtains separating it from the real-world passions—and even life-and-death conflicts—from which it draws.
Consider just one moment in the life of Jerome Kern, a moment marked by the clanging of an alarm clock he did not hear.
After his heart had been broken by a flashy showgirl and vowing never again to be taken advantage of, Kern had met and married a timid 19-year-old English girl 10 years his junior and brought her back to America, an overwhelming experience for her. On the morning he was to sail to England with his producer, Charles Frohman, Kern overslept. By the time his still-timid wife had decided to awaken him, Kern had missed his voyage. The ship was the ill-fated Lusitania, and Frohman was one of 1,198 who perished on it. Kern survived to complete a fruitful career that would include, 11 years later, his remarkable score for Show Boat, with melodies, like its haunting "Ol' Man River," that are still enjoyed today.
In today's era of songs written and produced specifically for compact discs, it's easy to forget that an overwhelming number of standards that have both delighted and helped mend the broken hearts of Americans for decades—and will undoubtedly still be doing so a century from now—were, like "Ol' Man River," originally written for the stage.
"My Funny Valentine," for example, came from Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms; "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!; "Someone to Watch Over Me" from George and Ira Gershwin's Oh, Kay!; "Begin the Beguine" from Cole Porter's Jubilee; and "Almost Like Being in Love" from Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon.
We've heard these songs—and hundreds more like them—for as long as we can remember. In many ways, they're the soundtrack of America. For millions of us the music makes up the soundtrack of our own lives, as well; if you were somehow able to remove them from our collective memory, it's hard to imagine any of us as quite the same people.
But the total creative output of the extraordinary roster of artists who gave us these songs tells only part of the story, which would be incomplete even with the addition of the performers, writers, choreographers, directors, and others who also helped create the stage magic that launched these songs into immortality.
A Capsule View of Two Vibrant Centuries
That's because American musical theater, much as we often concentrate on the so-called "golden age" of the 1950s, spans the history of two vibrant centuries: the era of the minstrel show, whose contributions to American music were immense, in spite of the embarrassment we still feel at many of its images; vaudeville; ragtime; the revue; and the age of fully integrated book musicals launched by the 1927 production of Show Boat.
And that history, moreover, has an importance that goes beyond music. "Musicals, the great ones, speak to us in voices we both recognize and pay attention to," notes Professor Messenger.
"Half a century after the show Carousel premiered, Billy Bigelow still speaks to our sense of right and wrong. We don't want him to commit that robbery! We regret that he does.
"The paradox of the Broadway musical is that it's an escape from reality, while simultaneously being a confrontation with it. The betrayal that destroys Camelot is with us here and now."
It's difficult to imagine a finer teacher for this material than Professor Messenger; he is a scholar, teacher, and professional musician. His course, Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion, makes clear, even to those with no musical training, the techniques, principles, and innovations that make it possible for music to embody so much.
In bringing those skills to Great American Music: Broadway Musicals, Professor Messenger has created a complete learning experience—educational, insightful, and sublimely enjoyable—that can forever change the way you experience musical theater.