How Broadway Conquered the World


Though his book is unusually good, Larry Stempel is not the first to sum up the history of the Broadway musical theater. The literature, as they say, is vast. They say that about subjects where literature is not the first thing you want. You want it only later on, after you have already fallen for the subject because of its inherent enjoyability, and not because of what can be brought to it by way of explanation. In that respect, Broadway itself was vast almost from the start, when a musicalized version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first staged in 1853, included Stephen Foster’s catchy lament “Old Folks at Home,” of which even the lyrics were in blackface. “All de world am sad and dreary …” The way the word world sat on the note clinched the deal. Anybody’s grandmother could have a crack at singing it, even though she herself was as Old Folks as you could get. Something similar was true for any other show that clicked. People would come to it so that they could go home singing. People who didn’t go to the opera loved going to the musicals. Eventually people who did go to the opera went to the musicals as well. More eventually still, the musicals turned into operas—Carousel and its many successors are essentially operas, but with easier arias, and plots that add up—as America’s most energetic indigenous art form went on conquering the world. Most eventually of all, the British musicals conquered Broadway, but they got the idea from the place they conquered. The same would be true if a show starring Kim Jong Il—also responsible for music, book, and lyrics—started its New York run next week.

more from Clive James at The Atlantic here.