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It was among the first Broadway musicals for grown-ups. Pal Joey, with a script by John O'Hara, a score by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart, centers on an amoral, two-timing cad, deceitful, weak, selfish, manipulative and utterly unprincipled, yet who is also charmingly seductive. Pal Joey’s antihero, a small-time nightclub performer and grifter, may be a disreputable schemer, a womanizer and a narcissistic hedonist, but he also brings out longings and hunger in the objects of his attention that his prey barely knew they possessed.

Hart’s witty, innuendo-laced lyrics are among the most psychologically revealing to grace the Broadway stage. In the show’s most time-honored song, Vera Simpson, the bored, married socialite, alcoholic, aging and lonely, spells out a love that combines lust, neediness and self-loathing:

I’m wild again!

Beguiled again!

A simpering, whimpering child again

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

Couldn’t sleep.

And wouldn’t sleep.

Until I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep.

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I!

Vexed again.

Perplexed again.

Thank God, I can be oversexed again

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

The original New York Times review damned this musical classic with faint praise: “If it is possible to make an entertaining musical comedy out of an odious story, Pal Joey is it … Although [it] is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” Yet in stark contrast to Annie Get Your Gun or The Music Man, this was a musical for adults, placing sex, desire and power center stage.

Rodgers only exaggerated a little when he said that this was when the Broadway musical began to wear long pants.

Along with ragtime, jazz, the blues, rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop, the American musical theater is among this country’s most original contributions to the arts. An outgrowth of the minstrel show, vaudeville, pantomime, operetta, the English music hall and ballad opera, and comedy burlesque, the American musical fused singing, dancing, spectacle, character, costume and acting to produce an art form that approached opera in its ability to immerse, excite, inspire and move.

Much more than escapism or diverting entertainment, the great Broadway musicals, though almost never radical in their perspective, went much further than Hollywood in wrestling with race (in Porgy and Bess), racial prejudice (Showboat, South Pacific), family tensions (Gypsy), ethnic conflict (West Side Story), ethnic identity (Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof), social class (My Fair Lady), fascism (Cabaret) and AIDS (Rent)—as well as the sleazy, seedy, salacious underbelly of American life displayed in Pal Joey.

If you love musicals like I do, you might want to listen to David Armstrong’s Broadway Nation podcasts. A University of Washington School of Drama lecturer, Armstrong is best known as a director, writer, producer and choreographer. Nine of his musicals moved to Broadway, including Hairspray, Memphis and Come From Away, and two received Tony awards for best musical.

I’m not much one for podcasts; I find I read much more quickly and attentively than I listen. But for this podcast, I make an exception.

The podcast’s website promises “A lively and opinionated cultural history of the Broadway Musical that tells the extraordinary story of how Immigrants, Jews, Queers, African-Americans and other outcasts invented the Broadway Musical and how they changed America in the process.” I can assure you, the site lives up to that claim.

The podcast raises a series of issues that applied more broadly to American culture’s premier modes of expression:

  • How to think about the cultural mixtures, appropriations and thefts that created the musical theater and that exercise such an outsized influence on cultures worldwide. The melting pot has become a rather unpopular metaphor. Ditto for mélange or mosaic. So what might be some alternatives as we ponder the cultural interactions that produced the Broadway musical?
  • We might also ask why cultural outsiders exerted such a disproportionate influence on the emergence and development of American musical theater. Even from its beginnings, this institution was shaped by marginalized groups. How were these groups able to succeed in the cultural domain when so many other avenues were closed off?
  • Broadway, like other purveyors of popular entertainment, is a business. Is it true that there’s no business like show business? How does the theatrical business resemble and differ from other businesses and how do those business realities shape the shows that we see?
  • To what extent does the Broadway musical offer social commentary and foster social awareness? Insofar as it does, how might we best think about the messages that it has sent, for example, about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability and other aspects of identity?

American musical theater faces many of the same pressing issues as other cultural institutions—above all, overcoming the historic underrepresentation of people of color not just as performers, but as directors, choreographers, composers, lyricists, stagehands, theater management and back office staff. It also faces a distinctive challenge: the long-term decline in the regional theater ecosystem. Apart from Broadway road shows, the local and regional theater-going audience has shrunk, and the theater companies that produced so many innovative shows in the past now face financial ruin.

More than a source of entertainment, diversion and escapism, the musical has reflected, illuminated, exposed, protested and also perpetuated cultural stereotypes and bias. As John Bush Jones argued in Our Musicals, Ourselves, Broadway has always mirrored the concerns and values of its audience. Somewhat more liberal than its Hollywood counterpart, the musical theater audience was much more interested in political, psychological and sociological matters and the musicals reflected those concerns. Though few of these stage shows were explicitly issue driven (think of the Depression-era agitprop The Cradle Will Rock), many engaged, “directly or metaphorically, contemporary politics and culture,” including “the ‘gunboat’ musicals of the Teddy Roosevelt era” and the “Cinderella shows” and “leisure time musicals” of the 1920s.

Yet for all its limitations, the musical theater probably did more than any other popular cultural vehicle to advance the sexual revolution and force the larger society to examine itself in a magnifying mirror.

If I had the talent to do anything in life, I would have enlisted in the theater world, like one of my cousins, a Broadway lighting director. Just as experiencing a musical in a darkened theater offers a collective experience unmatched by that felt watching a movie, so too a musical’s production is a collective endeavor that requires the cooperative efforts of a host of individuals who must all pitch in to bring off a stage show.

In the musical theater, the emotions are rawer, the language more articulate, the stars more stylish, the highs more passionate, the lows more profoundly tragic than in everyday life. We see certain realities in close up. Gypsy’s Mama Rose, who once epitomized the overbearing stage mother, now reflects every helicopter parent’s views:

You'll be swell!

You'll be great!

Gonna have the whole world on the plate!

Starting here, starting now, honey,

everything's coming up roses!

You can do it, all you need is a hand.

We can do it, Mama is gonna see to it!

The musical theater is one of our students’ richest inheritances, combining the visual, the aural, the intellectual, the sociopolitical, the musical and the kinesthetic into a composite that can’t be matched. It’s an awful shame that we don’t do more to integrate musicals into higher education. It’s high time to correct that omission.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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