Great American Music: Broadway Musicals
The Teaching company
(16 lectures, 45 minutes/lecture)
Taught by Bill Messenger
The Peabody Institute of Music
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.
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.
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 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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