A Love Letter to the Golden Age of Broadway: Why I Always Appreciate the Musicals of the Past
Contemporary theatre is exciting and something to celebrate, but I also like to take the time to appreciate the glory days of Broadway. It’s because of the Golden Age that I fell in love with theater. While I feel like I’m in the minority of those that prefer more “dated” musicals, I love them for the inspiration they’ve provided for today’s writers. From the flashy dance numbers to the large companies, I’ve never felt such joy as when I listen to a score or see a show from that incredible time period of theatrical innovation.
The very first cast album I received was the original Broadway cast album of West Side Story. It was a bit of an odd gift to give a 9-year-old, but it completely changed me. In a time when my friends were listening to pop and rock, I would escape to a world that transcended my small room where my stereo blasted the sounds of Leonard Bernstein’s score. It was a bit bizarre to hear such rich music accompanied by complex lyrics that told a powerful story. And honestly, it took me a solid two years to get down every word that Stephen Sondheim carefully chose for West Side Story. But those two years were worth it because I would just repeat the cast album again and again. Every time I played it, I heard a different trumpet part throughout “I Feel Pretty” or noticed a new character’s line during the incredible “Tonight.” Even 11 years year later, I still take the time to listen to the full album, and I can assure you that I’m still mesmerized.
One of my greatest challenges as a kid was trying to get my friends to listen to this music. We would be hanging out and getting a chance to play whatever we wanted, but let me tell you: Brigadoon’s “Almost Like Being In Love” was NOT a popular choice. Despite my friends’ quick movement to skip to the next song, I still loved it. The songs were powerful and exciting enough to capture my attention even with their lacking popularity. I, and many of our favorite writers today, owe a lot to these old musicals.
Take Oklahoma!; it was one of the first musicals to cohesively intertwine a rich score with real dialogue. Yes, there’s a huge ballet that closes the first act, but it’s balanced by the colloquial dialogue amongst all the characters. It just looked normal and relatable while sounding like something completely new. The music is hummable, and the characters (save Jud) are lovable. So many musicals followed this formula, and I’m sure you can thank Rodgers and Hammerstein for laying the groundwork for your favorite contemporary musical.
Maybe I love these older musicals because they incorporate huge casts and giant sets and require a large orchestra. It seemed like a true team effort to produce these shows and make them last for many years. While the dialogue may seem normal, it’s balanced by luscious scores that transport you to that setting. Watching these older shows feels like I’ve truly escaped to another world. For two hours, I’m not hit hard with the pressing issues of today, but rather gently reminded of the world that I left behind.
I don’t care if shows that were first produced in the ’50s or ’60s are considered “dated.” While not everything in their plots is relevant to today’s matters, I still feel something when I watch or listen to these shows. I know that they’re good because they can transcend time and transport me to a whole other world, whether it’s as simple as a town in Oklahoma or to the streets of New York. And that’s all I can ask of a show to do, old or contemporary.