In the era of its soaring triumphs, the Broadway musical saturated popular culture and flavoured the air everyone breathed. It flowered for only about a quarter of a century, but during that time its effect was inescapable.
The New York theatrical success of Oklahoma!, for instance, was only the overture to the show's long run in the bloodstream of America and the America-influenced world. Shortly after opening night in 1943, its songs spread across the continent. Everyone who owned a radio soon heard about the corn as high as an elephant's eye, the reasons people might say we're in love, the girl who couldn't say no, and the fact that everything was up to date in Kansas City. Later came the endless road shows, the big movie, and thousands of amateur productions, performed by children at summer camps, by college students, and by everyone else who loved the exhilaration that comes with putting on a musical.
While the song Oklahoma! was adopted as the official song of the state of Oklahoma, the whole show became an unofficial anthem of national patriotism, a piece of Americana about democracy pushing westward across the continent. Idealism and optimism fuelled the narrative, with no nonsense about elitism or hierarchy. As one character sings: "I don't say I'm no better than anybody else,/But I'll be damned if I ain't just as good!"
Oklahoma! penetrated the American psyche, presenting America to itself as a healthy, growing community, healthy enough to admit an outsider like Ali Hakim, the peddler. Outsiders appear as characters in most musicals, and for good reason: Musicals were usually written by people widely considered outsiders, second-generation Jews. This is the remarkable story analyzed by Andrea Most, an assistant professor of English at the University of Toronto, in her first book, Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (Harvard University Press).
Born in 1966 into the Jewish community of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Most grew up enthralled by the musicals of her parents' generation. She worked on musical productions as a high-school student, an undergraduate at Yale, and later during a brief period in the professional theatre. Of course she noticed who wrote the words and the music -- Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, George and Ira Gershwin.
"It started to occur to me that all of these writers were Jewish. What does that mean?" The answer has several layers, which she carefully peels away, studying mainly the words rather than the music (that would be another book).
The Golden Age lasted for about a quarter of a century, from Pal Joey (1940) and Oklahoma! (1943) to Fiddler on the Roof (1964). In between came Carousel, South Pacific, Wonderful Town, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and three of the shows discussed at length in Making Americans: South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun and The King and I.
Most makes original and coherent arguments, even if she does occasionally slosh through a few puddles of academic theoryspeak. Usually she's a shrewd and thoughtful writer with a cultural reach that easily bridges the distance from George Eliot's Daniel Deronda to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Her not-to-be-missed footnotes are more engaging than the main texts of many academic writers on popular culture.
She carefully braids together two interdependent events, the absorption of Jews into America and the rise of the musical as a celebration of democracy. Jews, while defining themselves in the new world, helped America define itself as an egalitarian democracy -- precisely the kind of place where Jews wanted to live. This meant dramatizing sympathetically the American idea of community. Each musical, Most suggests, tells a story about difference and community. Each contains outsiders who are converted, assimilated, or simply accepted. Sometimes, as in The Jazz Singer, specifically Jewish characters play out the story; more often, the characters enacting the theme were non-Jews who were nevertheless groping, like the Jews, for new roles.
The King and I, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, has an exotic setting but nevertheless delivers (as Most puts it) a rewrite of the American immigrant melodrama that goes back to The Jazz Singer and beyond. It focuses on a racially defined Old World father, the king, who can't assimilate the new ways of democracy brought to Siam (Thailand) by his children's teacher, Anna.
Most points out that in many cases it's musical theatre itself that demonstrates the point of the story. Those who sing and dance together learn to make a community. Anna teaches the royal children to sing, and the crown prince learns the theatrical convention of bowing. When he demonstrates that he understands human dignity and freedom, "The American audience, watching this American play in an American theatre, is triumphant as the play ends, witnessing a Siam on the road to Western-style individualism and American-style democracy." The king will die and make way for his son's progress into a new and better age.
In becoming Americans, Jewish writers found it natural to associate themselves with the founding myths of America. They understood, through a long back-and-forth exchange with the older America to which their parents had immigrated, that they themselves were already Americans.
But they also imagined that in some sense Americans were already Jews. Among American Jewry 60 or 70 years ago you could hear it said that Columbus was Jewish, that American Indians were the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and that the Puritans were in truth a Hebraic sect. Andrea Most points out that Mel Brooks in his movies carries this farther than anyone else, grounding his comedy in the notion that everyone is Jewish: The Indians are Jewish in Blazing Saddles, medieval English outlaws are Jewish in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, the past is entirely Jewish in History of the World, and the future is Jewish in Spaceballs.
The reader of Making Americans comes to understand why good musicals are no longer written. The audience has changed, of course, and so has music in general. More important, so have the people who choose to write musicals and the people who rush to see them. As Andrea Most says, the musical was rooted in a historical moment, a period whose transitions we can see with clarity only now. It was a time when Jews were becoming Americans, and America, in a significant way, was becoming Jewish.