Great American Music: Broadway Musicals

Course No. 7318
Professor Bill Messenger, M.A.
The Peabody Institute
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Course No. 7318
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Course Overview

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.

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16 lectures
 |  Average 44 minutes each
  • 1
    The Essence of the Musical
    This lecture previews the topics of the course, then introduces the essentials of musical theater: the songs, the libretto, song placement within the show, the opening, dance, and special effects. x
  • 2
    The Minstrel Era (1828 to c. 1900)
    Although its existence is embarrassing to us today, the minstrel show is also the ultimate source of all truly American music. This lecture looks at the structure of the minstrel show, its features, and some of its greatest performers, songwriters, and promoters, as well as the business side of minstrel shows and the legacy of minstrelry. x
  • 3
    Evolution of the Verse/Chorus Song
    This lecture examines types of songs, their construction, and the evolution of song structure in American musical theater, culminating in today's verse/chorus structure. x
  • 4
    The Ragtime Years (c. 1890–1917)
    Ragtime's popularity began around the turn of the 20th century as a youthful rebellion against the moribund music of an older generation. It also opened doors for black performers and gave America a rhythmic vocabulary that became a permanent part of the Broadway musical. x
  • 5
    The Vaudeville Era (1881 to c. 1935)
    Before moving pictures learned to talk, vaudeville was America's most important form of entertainment. Fifty-week circuits of entertainment constantly filled 2,000 theaters across the country and served as a never-to-be-seen-again training ground for musicians, dancers, singers, and comedians. x
  • 6
    Tin Pan Alley
    For more than a century, the music publishing industry and the New York theatrical industry worked in tandem to create the hit songs of the day. During the heyday of this collaboration, the music publishing business in New York City, referred to as Tin Pan Alley, produced song after song of sheet music to be marketed to the millions of middle- and upper-class households that owned pianos. x
  • 7
    Broadway in Its Infancy
    This lecture examines forms of musical theater in the decades before the advent of the "book musical," beginning with America's first blockbuster, The Black Crook, a show as far from the concept of a book musical as one could get, and concluding with our first look at an American original, George M. Cohan. x
  • 8
    The Revue versus the Book Musical
    We take an interlude to examine the idea of the revue, a form that makes no pretense at integrating a show's songs with its plot—though it might be built around a theme—and that continues to be a vital part of American musical theater. x
  • 9
    Superstars on the Horizon
    These years produced songwriters who would eventually become giants of the musical theater. We examine several remarkable shows, along with the early careers of some of its best-known performers and songwriters, including Al Jolson, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern. x
  • 10
    Transition into the Jazz Age (1916–20)
    The end of World War I gave an excuse to kick up heels and rebel against the past. From 1916 to 1920, society went through a dramatic breakaway—not only in clothing styles, acceptable public behavior, language, and visual arts, but also in the kind of music Americans created and listened to. x
  • 11
    Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern—Contrasts
    In this lecture, we learn more about the lives and music of two towering icons. Although their lives and careers make an interesting contrast, they also have one thing in common: They made a lasting impression on American popular music. x
  • 12
    George Gershwin’s Legacy (1919 to c. 1935)
    George Gershwin, by incorporating the musical ideas of blues and jazz into his concert and stage works, became a living symbol of the Jazz Age. With the exception of Jerome Kern, no other theater composer of the 1920s equals Gershwin in importance. This lecture examines his singular contributions, including his most important stage work, Porgy and Bess, a show that was politically incorrect even in its own time, but remains, nonetheless, a masterpiece. x
  • 13
    Rodgers and Hammerstein Era (1940s)
    If 1927's Show Boat represented the beginnings of modern musical theater, the 1940s saw this art form, the book musical, firmly take root and declare its supremacy for the rest of the century. With Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific, it was a decade that belonged to Rodgers and Hammerstein. x
  • 14
    Golden Age of Musical Theater (1950s)
    Rodgers and Hammerstein shared the bountiful 1950s with Lerner and Loewe, Leonard Bernstein, and Frank Loesser. Many observers of the Broadway scene consider this decade—the era of My Fair Lady, The King and I, West Side Story, The Music Man, and Guys and Dolls—the golden age of the Broadway musical. x
  • 15
    Rock n Roll Reaches Broadway (1960s)
    The 1960s on Broadway began with Bye Bye Birdie and ended with Hair, the former a spoof of rock 'n' roll and the latter an homage to it. In between came a number of shows that offered greater variety and introduced trends that would dominate musical theater for the remainder of the 20th century. x
  • 16
    Big Bucks and Long Runs (1970s–Present)
    This final lecture examines several of the trends that closed the 20th century and ushered in the 21st, including the concept musical; the European influence on the American stage; a continuing interest in darker subject matter; the revival of old film musicals on Broadway; and the return of shows with a lighter touch. x

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Your professor

Bill Messenger

About Your Professor

Bill Messenger, M.A.
The Peabody Institute
Professor Bill Messenger studied musical composition, on scholarship, at The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University under Louis Cheslock. He attended a master’s class in 1963 with Nadia Boulanger, the teacher of Roy Harris, Virgil Thompson, and Aaron Copland. Professor Messenger has two master’s degrees, both from Johns Hopkins University. He has done additional graduate work in musicology at the University of...
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Great American Music: Broadway Musicals is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 93.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good general intrroductrion The outlinbe of the course was well organized and the information presented in an interesting way, with lectures, recordings, and even some live performances. The only problem is that the subject area is very large and one cannot delve as deeply into each historical period as I would have liked. However, I bought it on saqle, and I think it was a good value for the monewy, and I will enjoy playing individual episodes over and over again because I am a big fan of movie and Broadway behind-the -scenes information and of the development of the arts in general.
Date published: 2018-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best course I've ever bought out of dozens! Passion, Depth of knowledge, clear musical examples, so important to my life's musical experiences
Date published: 2018-09-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Love Music I bought this awhile ago but have yet to listen to any of it as I am in the midst of another program. As a music lover I am looking forward to hearing this in the near future.
Date published: 2018-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent course An excellent course - informative and well presented.
Date published: 2018-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Definitely a fun course I listened to these lectures over the course of about one month. Both the material and instructor are very entertaining. Great to hear Prof. Messenger play these tunes and walk us through the history behind them. My only quibble is that I thought the course could have focused a little more on the recent history of Broadway. I found the last lecture somewhat anti-climatic. But overall, definitely worth the price of admission.
Date published: 2018-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good start to the history of Broadway musicals We enjoyed the detailed history of the American musical. Could wish for an addendum to consider more recent musicals. The professor's presentation which is to address all corners of the room but not ever directly into the camera to the viewing audience is a little offputting but you get used to it. When he plays the piano he does manage to look directly at the camera when he's done.
Date published: 2018-06-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Your knowledge was endless and the course carefully and flawlessly put together. Liked your comment that Sondheim's money came from rich investors and ALW's from his shows.
Date published: 2018-04-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good but not Great Overall, this was an ok survey of the history of Broadway. Professor Messenger looks at the evolutionary history of this uniquely American art form. One of the downsides of this course is that the professor, Bill Messenger, does not do any song analysis in any of the musicals that he covers in this course. Owing to copyright issues, this course does not feature any of the famous numbers from the great Broadway musicals he looks at. Professor Messenger spends too much time on the early years of Broadway and not enough time on the latter half of the century where many of the great shows like My Fair Lady, Company, and Miss Saigon opened. I wanted to hear more about Andrew Lloyd Webber, but because he is not an American, Professor Messenger shies away from him and other European composers. All this aside, I think that this was an ok course for me to understand how Broadway came to be. But I think if anyone wants a real look at the history of Broadway, they should watch the PBS documentary, Broadway: The American Musical.
Date published: 2018-03-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Occasional Flickers of Interesting Information The course meanders quite a bit (particularly early on) and doesn’t hang together as well as I imagine it could. It is a survey of American musical shows from minstrel shows through more recent Broadway presentations, with looks at key personalities and some trends. It felt very flat and somewhat forced.
Date published: 2017-11-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Face the camera not the wall. Very interesting and well presented except...who set up the camera work. It was horrible. Over half the time the instructor was talking to the wall and not to the camera/audience. Very distracting and off putting. I don't necessary mind him reading his script but at least do so looking forward not 90 degrees away. Content was good, knowledge excellent but production value was terrible.
Date published: 2017-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and entertaining Having taken several of Bill Messinger's courses at Elderhostels, I expected a longer course would be even better. I was not disappointed.
Date published: 2017-09-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent presentation Lectures kept you motivated by good speaker and many examples. Lectures kept to specific topic very well.
Date published: 2017-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best The lectures are superb and the teacher also. He covered a lot of ground and kept us with him
Date published: 2017-08-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from WHAT A GREAT COURSE!! I purchased this course for my husband as a gift. We have learned so much. The lecturer was fantastic (& a great pianist). I only gave 4 stars because the cameraman should have followed the lecturer a little more carefully. It's a 5 star course with a -1 star for the camera view!!
Date published: 2017-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really fun and informative I was first exposed to Great Music, including Broadway musicals, as a child. When everyone else was singing rock and pop songs, I was singing the lyrics to South Pacific, My Fair Lady and Oklahoma!. I was impressed by the scope of this course and the entertaining content made it well worth my time.
Date published: 2017-07-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Title really should state American musical history I enjoyed the early American history. Would have enjoyed more the emphasis on more current music. I feel that there was too much time spent on music of the early 1900 and became to detailed but enjoyed greatly his kniwledge
Date published: 2017-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding lectures Thoroughly enjoyable. Had me humming tunes all day.
Date published: 2017-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and interesting As one who has always loved, and been surrounded by, music (my father played in a small jazz combo in the '20s and throughout my childhood the radio was tuned to musical programs), I was interested in learning more about an area in which I knew little. I found professor Messenger's knowledge of the material as impressive as his considerable talents in playing the piano, which he frequently did to illustrate a point or to highlight a tune. His tracing of the considerable contributions made to music -- and to musical theatre -- by the 19th century minstrel shows was very interesting, as was his point that so much of American popular music has always been influenced by black music, even when racial prejudice was otherwise widespread. I believe this course would be of interest to all who wish to know more about the development of American music, especially in the area of musical theatre. On a personal note, it was a great pleasure hear again -- and often hum along to -- many of the tunes that I remember hearing over the radio in the '40s and '50s: great and enduring music, indeed!
Date published: 2017-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This presentation is excellent. I also have purchased a number of classical music presentations given by your presenter in California. Prefer not to mention his name. No comparison whatsoever.
Date published: 2016-12-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview - last two centuries of musical What a great and fun experience, reading about and listening to Prof Messenger with his clear explanations and piano playing (and singing!) to bring the history of musical theater to life. The course is filling in dozens of gaps in my own knowledge, helping me understand the context of songs I already knew, and bringing me back into my enjoyment of musical theater as a truly American art form. Thank you!
Date published: 2016-12-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved this course I listened to this while doing my daily treadmill workout, it made me go 10 minutes longer without even thinking about it. I was sorry when I finished and went looking for more of the Jazz!
Date published: 2016-11-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Most Enjoyable I love Broadway theatre so this course has been a treat. The instructor provides a great history and entertains with lots of music. One of my favorite courses.
Date published: 2016-10-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Broadway Musicals Terrific Presentation Terrific Material Terrific Piano Renditions Love it, Love It. LOVE IT1
Date published: 2016-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great History of Broadway I used to know nothing at all about Broadway, and now I feel I know enough to attend a modern musical or listen to past musicals with a much more educated ear. Professor Bill Messenger tells a wonderful story about the roots of Broadway productions and ends his course with great advice (a perfect last sentence!). Throughout the course, memories of musicals I had seen or listened to would come to mind, and when i finished the course I proceeded to listen to more recordings. I found this course to be a perfect introduction and an inspiration for more study for beginners like myself.
Date published: 2016-08-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from broadway musicals Prof never looks toward camera---thought he was blind at first. Seems hung up on Oklahoma
Date published: 2016-08-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Overview for sure Keeping track of the flurry of performer/composer names, especially in the first half of this course, was a challenge. I also found myself easily distracted with the professor's speaking cadence: pauses before finishing an idea and not always a clear shift when starting a new one. I wondered why some songs were presented with lyrics and others as instrumentals. I am somewhat tempted to listen to it again, as I think it's a well-researched series--but feel it's definitely an overview course, designed to inspire further personal research.
Date published: 2016-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fine Course Great American Music: Broadway Musicals is more than Broadway; it traces American stage shows back to the 1850s. Starting with minstrel shows, Professor Messenger traces stage shows through burlesque, vaudeville and revues where music and plot had only a nodding acquaintance. He uses not only biography and anecdotes but also insights into musical composition, rare recordings, performances from a recreation group, and his own fine piano playing and tolerable singing. He hits his stride in the 1920s and 1930s by bring in guest performers. His insights into the musicals and biographies of the “book” or “integrated” plays of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s show how music and plot can work together. To his credit, he acknowledges how the today’s “concept” plays are worthwhile even though they rarely produce hit songs. The only downside to the DVD version is Messenger’s difficulty in following the camera; he often speaks to the edge of the screen. Perhaps the audio version is the best medium.
Date published: 2016-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb lecturer As one who grew up somewhere near Broadway, and who has experienced many great shows over the years, I was very interested to know more about the historical development of music that led to Broadway into it's golden age, as well as the personal stories of the great composers, lyricists, writers, performers, and producers. Having been impressed with some of Prof. Greenberg's lecture courses (on classical music) in the past, I wondered if Professor Messenger could be as inspiring and interesting. In fact, I found that Prof. Messenger, while speaking in a slightly more laid-back manner, has delivered a truly impassioned series of lectures. and I was extremely impressed by his deep knowledge spanning from pre-Broadway musicals (Minstrel period, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville, Yiddish theatre, Zigfeld Follies, etc.) right up to the present day shows. He gives excellent biographies of greats like Gershwin, Rogers&Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Fannie Bryce, and many more. In addition, it is a great pleasure to hear Professor Messenger frequently sitting down at the piano to hammer out a tune or explain the musical structure of a famous song. My only criticism of the lecture series has to do with my own personal taste/interests, mainly that I was more interested in learning about shows and personalities in the post 1930 to present times, yet Professor Messenger spends the first 10 or so lectures on the decades before and leading up to 1915. For me, the lectures became most fascinating after that point, since those are the shows that I had heard of before. Still, as Mark Twain once said, "Education is learning what you didn't know you didn't know", I found myself newly schooled on older American music, in addition enriching my knowledge on the topic I intended to study here.
Date published: 2016-02-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Standing Ovation! I LOVED this course so much, I bought two more copies for friends! Everything about it is stupendous:)
Date published: 2016-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well done and presented Professor Messenger is engaging and fun. The material is well presented and detailed; especially noteworthy are the vintage recordings interspersed with Messenger's excellent piano playing.
Date published: 2015-11-30
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