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By the Book by Matthew Murray

  • Here we are at the unofficial end of summer, and the unofficial start of the new theatre season. Since today is Labor Day, it seems only fitting to pay tribute to some of the Broadway musical's greatest unsung laborers: librettists. Usually the first to be blamed when things go wrong and the last to be credited when shows succeed, those who write musicals' books are in many ways the most vital contributors to the fully integrated musical: For without a solid story, what do the songs truly mean?

    Because the songs often steal so much focus, it can be hard to see the beauty of what lies between them. So I won't be spending undue time today considering musicals' scores. There have been any number of great gags and stinging wisecracks in musicals' books over the years, but full spoken scenes are far rarer—not just because writers, like audiences, are often anxious to get to the music, but because in an integrated show the words must often relinquish the front seat to the songs and dances that express the soaring emotion they cannot. Nonetheless, some excellent compositions exist out there, and they deserve to be recognized.

    Below, listed in chronological order, are seven of my choices for truly noteworthy spoken scenes in musicals. Agree? Disagree? Have some good suggestions of your own? I'd love to hear them—e-mail your favorites or even just your comments to me at [email protected].

    1. The miscegenation scene, Show Boat (1927, written by Oscar Hammerstein II): Because of its astonishing Jerome Kern/Hammerstein score, Show Boat was probably always destined to become a classic. But it also represents some major, if tentative, steps toward what we consider the modern musical. The most notable comes when Pete, a disgruntled stagehand on the Cotton Blossom, informs the authorities that the show boat's leading lady, Julie, is actually black and married to the white Steve. Steve pierces Julie's finger with a knife and sucks blood from it in full view of others from the Cotton Blossom, so when the sheriff arrives, he can state truthfully that he has Negro blood in him and that his marriage isn't illegal. The sheriff, persuaded by the others, buys the story, but prevents Steve and Julie from playing their show, and hastens the couple's departure from the Cotton Blossom. This event may be the lynchpin occurrence in the long history of the two intertwined families Show Boat documents, but it's also one of the most important in musical theatre: when light entertainments began taking themselves seriously—and demanded audiences do the same.

    2. The hamper auction, Oklahoma! (1943, Oscar Hammerstein II): Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! is widely seen as the title that permanently established the integrated musical, and its blending of comedy, drama, song, and dance compels yet today. (Well, as long as Trevor Nunn isn't directing it.) But while its most famous set piece is the 15-minute dream ballet that closes Act I, Hammerstein's dramatic craftsmanship gets its own showcase in the second act, at an auction intended to raise money for the new schoolhouse. For both central romantic trios—Ado Annie, Will Parker, and Ali Hakim; and Curly, Laurey, and Jud—the auction is far less about its picnic-basket prizes than about the new law of the West: Will's shrewd maneuvering nets him Ado Annie and Ali Hakim a three-day bellyache, while Curly's daring resourcefulness in selling nearly everything he owns trumps the savings Jud is willing to blow to take Laurey home with him. This sets up the final, deadly conflict between Curly and Jud later and sadly proves that the farmer and the cowman can't always be friends.

    3. The jail scene, One Touch of Venus (1943, S. J. Perelman): As One Touch of Venus is rarely performed, few know that this classic comedy scene deserves a place of honor on this list. Arrested on suspicion of foul play following the disappearance of his fiancée, barber Rodney Hatch has been thrown into jail. The prison psychologist, Dr. Rook, has been summoned to determine Rodney's mental fitness, which he does by taunting him with a flashlight and pointedly impenetrable diagnoses. ("Typical Gauss-Honeywell reaction.") Then he visits the next cell, where Venus, the Goddess of Love (whom Rodney accidentally summoned by placing a ring on a statue's finger), has been incarcerated. As he interviews her, he becomes increasingly exacerbated with her uncooperative manner, such as when Venus suggests that Homer and Vergil might be able to confirm her ridiculous story. How can Dr. Rook find them? "Go to Hell."

    4. The crap game, Guys and Dolls (1950, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows): Guys and Dolls reaches its zenith when its two major plot threads, Sky Masterson's pursuit of "Mission doll" Sarah Brown and Nathan Detroit's for a place to hold his "permanently floating crap game," collide in the sewers below Broadway. As Nathan oversees his game, Sky arrives and divines his plan to fill (and save) Sarah's foundering mission with the gamblers and their stained soul—if he can win them on a single roll of the dice. The song that immediately follows, "Luck Be a Lady," is justifiably famous. But this scene leads up to and into it so smoothly and seamlessly that the music emerges from the drama more naturally and more inevitably than in almost any other case in the musical theatre canon.

    5. Scene three, 1776 (1969, Peter Stone): 1776 is one of the rare musicals that's generally acclaimed more for its book than for its score, and its third scene makes it easy to see why. While introducing new Georgia delegate Dr. Lyman Hall to the other delegates, Stone also introduces us to them and defines the relationships and disagreements that will play key roles in uniting the 13 colonies. Following the introductions, Congress begins debating Virginia's resolution on independence and doesn't stop for nearly 30 minutes. Probably the longest uninterrupted spoken scene in any musical, the tension and the drama are so clear and concise, you don't need—or want—anyone to start singing.

    6. The police scene, 70 Girls 70 (1971, Fred Ebb and Norman L. Martin): I know: This wispy musical comedy has always been and will always be overshadowed by that other 1971 musical about old people. But it contains one of the very funniest scenes to be found in any musical. A group of senior citizens living at a hotel banded together to break into a nearby store, and the police have come to see whether they know anything. In a brilliant masquerade, the "old folks" act as doddering, as forgetful, and as hard-of-hearing as they can, until the police officer storms out in frustration. To see the people we've been watching live active, energized lives suddenly become the very stereotypes they've been dispelling all evening is comic genius and, in its way, as profound as the statements about marriage and time's withering effects in Follies.

    7. Paul's monologue, A Chorus Line (1975, James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante): Who would have imagined that the key dramatic moment of one of Broadway's greatest dance musicals would come from one man standing very still onstage and delivering a speech? But when Paul, who skillfully avoids director Zach's rigorous interrogations for a long while, finally gives in and tells his personal story about growing up gay and encountering his parents while dressed in Asian drag, the moment is simultaneously shattering and uplifting. This isn't the only time A Chorus Line slows down, but it's perhaps the most powerful, as it reminds you that sometimes nothing is more overwhelming than words.

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