Back to Before - Why Everything that Came Before RENT Still Has Relevance
Last week, there was an interesting discussion and debate on the Cast Recordings Facebook page over an article titled Twelve Cast Recordings That Will Change Your Life. There was a lot of back and forth over the piece since it mostly discussed newer musicals and one film soundtrack and seemed to dismiss almost everything in the pre-Rent era. There is nothing wrong in having your life changed by newer cast recordings. Indeed, musical theatre would be a very limited genre if we established some sort of cutoff point for musicals worthy of our attentions. The piece was obviously written by someone young and enthusiastic and it's easy to see how he'd be attracted to the contemporary pieces of his lifetime. That being said, the article was titled "Cast Recordings that will Change YOUR Life", so the author makes the egregious assumption that all of us will be taken with the titles he mentions. This proved not to be so when a variety of enthusiasts weighed in and admonished the absence of many classic titles on this list.
I am the first to admit that what is one man's cup of tea may not tickle the fancy of another. How wonderful that we have such a rich history of Broadway musicals to listen to and treasure that we are afforded the possibility to pick and choose. It is, however, becoming a growing epidemic among younger Broadway zealots that they show little to no interest in the works of Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Comden and Green, Jule Styne, Lerner and Loewe, Bob Merrill, Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, Burton Lane, Dorothy Fields, Adler and Ross, Bock and Harnick, Cy Coleman, Frank Loesser, Kurt Weill, Kander and Ebb, and dare I say, Rodgers and Hammerstein (and the myriad other names that could be added to this list).The world did not begin with Stephen Sondheim and it certainly didn't reach it's apex with Rent. I dismiss neither, but they are all benchmarks in a fascinating history of great melody, clever lyric writing and wondrous storytelling that, through evolution and imagination, led to the world of musical theatre as we know it. What came before is STILL relevant and always will be. It is for this reason I understand the frustration of the seasoned vets who look at a list like that and say "Hey, wait a minute! You can't just exclude six decades of music in your listical that celebrates cast albums that will change YOUR life.
Many of us grew up listening to every cast album we could get our paws on. At age 12, I began checking cast albums out of the library, five at a time, listening intently as my tastes evolved and I gained appreciation for that rich history. I devoured Cole Porter, begrudgingly forced myself through Kurt Weill, and was entranced by Rodgers and Hammerstein the minute I placed Carousel in my turntable. Finian's Rainbow changed my life when I heard Burton Lane's magical melodies and I drank in E.Y. Harburg's subtle (and not-so-subtle) satire and wit. These were both musicals that, in their day, were taking enormous risks, breaking down barriers, evolving musical theatre and doing it poignantly and elegantly. It never occurred to me that, though they appeared some 30 years before my birth, that they weren't worth listening to. In many ways, these two musicals continue to resonate with me in ways a lot of contemporary musicals do not.
In the last 30 years, some musicals have delighted me and caught my attention: Parade, The Secret Garden, The Light in the Piazza, Ragtime, The Scottsboro Boys and, to a lesser extent, Rent have changed my musical theatre life. Yet, all of these titles draw heavily on their predecessors, mining the best attributes of their ancestry while also forging new ground. This is the evolution of the art form.
Young people - if you love musical theatre the way you say you do, do yourself a favor and take a trip back through time and see the beginning and the exciting achievements along the way that led to your favorite contemporary musical. You'll be surprised at what you find and you will also realize that you have been cheating yourself out of two essential ingredients in understanding your love for musicals: objectivity and perspective.
In an effort to give young and uninitiated audiences the opportunity to round our their knowledge on the musical theatre and it's startling evolution, I will devote one column a week to chronicling it's history. The series will be called "Back to Before" and I hope you'll take the journey, not only for the preservation if history, but so that someday, when you look back a realize that some young people are not seeing the whole picture or acknowledging what changed your life, you can point out where you and your favorite musical came into the picture. It's all a part of a much bigger story.