Evolving art

May 13, 2013

On January 13, 1910, the first American public radio broadcast aired, featuring Enrico Caruso live from the stage of The Metropolitan Opera. On April 15, 1923 came the first commercial screening of a motion picture with sound-on-film. Although it was not the original intent of either, these events made the concept of "popular music" possible.

Over the next few decades, musical comedies were written for screen and the sounds of Broadway topped the Billboard charts as the nation's most listened to music. Although the trend of stage productions shifted from opera to musicals, the classic style of early American musical theatre allowed several singers to make appearances in both genres at once over the course of their careers. Among these are Robert Merrill, who sang over 500 performances of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Ezio Pinza, who was awarded the Tony for Best Lead Actor in a Musical in 1950 for his performance in South Pacific and Mario Lanza, probably the most prominent crossover artist who performed in multiple genres from the radio to the stage to the silver screen. But by this time, opera was already a 300-year-old art form, and though it did not become extinct, it did fade from popularity and grow rapidly apart from American musical theatre, distancing the artists as well. Throughout the 20th century, composers like Leonard Bernstein were devoted to keeping opera and musical theatre united, but the gap between them grew increasingly vast.

As popular music has evolved, so too has the musical. Now, other than brief runs of the occasional revival, the musicals of the 1920s to 1960s are fading fast from the lights of Broadway. Today's blockbuster shows are those inspired by rock bands, comic books and Hollywood, bringing a bigger, better spectacle with each new show. But as the classic American musical struggles to maintain its place in pop culture, it has instead been adoringly swooped up by its older and wiser counterpart: opera. Recently sneaking their way into programming of opera houses across the United States are productions of Carousel, Show Boat, Music Man, and Oklahoma!, all of which are being presented to sell-out audiences. These evenings of feel good music, toe-tapping tunes and themes you can hum for the next few weeks have reinvigorated classical music audiences everywhere. In a world where creative teams try to keep opera fresh and relevant with cutting edge productions, musicals seem to already embody those qualities by returning to traditional performances, finally played again with their glorious original orchestrations.

So let the powers combine! Let's go back to a time where musical genres were comprehensive, not exclusive. Let's not have to choose between pursuing only one career path, either classical music or musical theatre. Let us embrace the traditional without shunning the contemporary. One of the most beautiful traits of art is that it is always evolving. We wouldn't be where we are today without all the steps in between. Love the music. Respect the history. Revere the art.

© Leah Edwards 2018