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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  • 168-page printed course guidebook
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  • Biographical notes

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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 4.4 out of 5 by 94.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Excellent narrator, perfect examples and selection I truly enjoyed his expertise and the telling of the inside stories
Date published: 2020-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved the Historical Point of View I loved the historical point of view. I recently volunteered at a local theater, the Goodspeed Opera House. I give tours of this old theater and act as an usher. Now I not only know the history of the opera house, but of the American Musical. The "Goodspeed" is known as the home of the American Musical. Thanks!
Date published: 2020-05-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous and Fun For anyone who loves the American Musical Theater and wants to know more about the history and the amazing talented people who created it this is a must see! Professor Messenger takes you on a magical journey.
Date published: 2020-05-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So enjoyable I must admit I couldn't stop listening. Being a piano player for over 60 years I totally enjoyed every minute of this course. There is so much history of truly American music. As the course moved into the 20th century, I recognized so many songs and composers. My piles of music contains so many pieces from these early times. I will never looks at these songs the same again. I have some gems. Finally, the course landed on some familiar musicals: West Side Story, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music. Just wonderful! I only regret the course did not move on to the 21st century.
Date published: 2020-05-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging as a Musical, But Exponentially More Info The course instructor has to be one of the most knowledgeable persons about Broadway, musicals, and the history and evolution of both, on the planet! He also goes deeper into the relevant music than expected, but in a way that the non-musician can appreciate. He delightfully plays the piano and incorporates both songs, parts of songs, and instruction about them in a wonderfully integrated manner. The instructor has (and what a rare treat such a thing is) added recordings from the past, reviews, and interviews both written and taped (some specifically for this course) from some of the heaviest hitters from musical theatre’s evolving story. The instructor is never full of himself (as some professors are), but always clear, fluent, thorough, and effective. You pick up clearly that he loves the subject matter, and that he enjoys sharing it. Bravo! The only criticism I can muster is that the Great Courses has not contracted a sequel to this course about Broadway and musical theatre that updates students about the field since the advent of the new millennium. Encore, encore!
Date published: 2020-03-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Survey! I thoroughly enjoyed this course. Prof. Messenger is passionate about musical theater and his infectious enthusiasm for his subject matter makes each lecture a delight. Like some reviewers, I would have preferred a bit more emphasis on post-WWII Broadway musicals to the present, but the pre-modern period is foundational, and under Prof. Messenger's tutelage, very interesting. It is obvious that the Great Courses and Prof. Messenger have done extensive work to create this course, and the large number of musical selections played, either through period recordings or by Prof. Messenger during taping, really elevate the course's quality. I listened to the audio version of this course, which was entirely satisfactory. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2019-10-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Loving it Am enjoying my way through the lessons. Lived in Baltimore and relate tolecturer/pianist and Peabody, Towson
Date published: 2019-06-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent presentation Hooray! What a wonderful tour through Broadway! And Professor Messenger was the perfect host. Congenial and enthusiastic in his telling of the history of each musical and then, at times, going to the piano and playing the songs. Kudos as well to his guests who sang and played those wonderful tunes. For a lover of The Great American Songbook, this was a delicious treat.
Date published: 2019-05-02
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