Music

Borrowed By Broadway: When Classical Music And Musical Theatre Unite

Amy Bishop examines the overlap of classical music and musical theatre.


True music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. – George Gershwin

Broadway Street Sign. Photo by Aimée Tyrrell, December 2005.
Broadway Street Sign. Photo by Aimée Tyrrell, December 2005.

If anyone could tap into the cultural soul of America during the 1920s and 30s, it was George Gershwin. He was a true musical crossover, bridging traditional classical music styles with the contemporary tunes of his time. He overlapped the old and the new and, like his fellow countrymen Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, gave America its own music. It’s hard to say if, when, or how American musical theatre could have been born without the contributions of Gershwin and his contemporaries like Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter, coupled with brilliant choreographers like Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. With finely orchestrated music, virtuosic singing, well-written lyrics, and demanding choreography, some refer to musical theatre as being America’s opera. That’s why it isn’t too surprising that some of the standards of the American musicals have made their way into the concert hall. But the reverse also applies – there have been times that musicals have “borrowed” melodies from classical composers.

As Arts Appreciation Month at Houston Public Media winds down, this week’s theme focuses on the performing arts. This Friday, tune in to Classical 91.7 for Borrowed by Broadway: When classical music and musical theatre unite. Here’s information about some of the pieces on the program:

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935)

Maybe it was the fact that Gershwin referred to it as a “folk opera.” Or maybe it was the fact that he opted for an all-African American cast – a pretty bold move, seeing as it was still a time when racial tensions were incredibly high. Whatever the reason, after its

Porgy and Bess, New York Harlem Theater
Porgy and Bess, New York Harlem Theater

premiere in 1935, the opera hardly got the credit it deserved and wasn’t really taken seriously as a “true” opera. About seven years after the premiere, it was revised and shortened as a musical, resulting in moderate success. For the next four decades, however, Porgy and Bess slipped somewhat into obscurity. That all changed in 1976, however, when the Houston Grand Opera took it out of the cobwebs and breathed new life into the production again. This time, the company used Gershwin’s complete, original score… no revisions, no excerpts. The result? A Tony Award and a Grammy. Finally, the opera was getting the recognition of which it was so worthy. Since then, Porgy and Bess has become a standard in the operatic repertoire.

Song of Norway (1944)

Technically, it’s an operetta, though it did premiere on Broadway on 1944. It’s also the collaboration of a pair of writers named Robert Wright and George Forrest, who would compose a bona fide musical ten years later with Kismet. So, for all intents and purposes, it can be a contender. The production relied heavily on musical

Edvard Grieg
Edvard Grieg

adaptations of some of Grieg’s best-known melodies: Ich Liebe Dich, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, the opus 12 Waltz No. 2, the Norwegian Dance No. 2, and the opening movement to the Piano Concerto in A.

Kismet (1953)

Anne Jeffreys in Kismet
Anne Jeffreys in Kismet

Another collaborative effort of Wright and Forrest, though nearly a decade after Song of Norway. Set in Baghdad in A.D. 1071, (around the time that The Arabian Nights was set) the musical material was adapted from the melodies of Russian composer Alexander Borodin. “The writers seized upon the melodies of Borodin, which they felt had a suitable exotic flavor and lush melodies,” wrote Canadian journalist Richard Ouzounian. Some of Kismet’s material even made its way into more mainstream music with the song, Stranger in Paradise, which borrowed the melody from the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. If you’re really into “kitsch,” check out Ray Conniff’s version here.

Bernstein’s Candide (1956)

The late 1950s were a prolific time for Leonard Bernstein, producing two major works within two years: Candide and West Side Story. Candide, based on Voltaire’s book of the same name, was composed as an operetta; West Side Story is a true musical. Although Candide wasn’t a total flop when it premiered, it wasn’t really

Leonard Bernstein, 1971
Leonard Bernstein, 1971

successful, either. The music, however, was an immediate hit – especially the overture.  It’s a perfect example of musical theater’s influence on today’s orchestral concert repertoire. As author Joan Peyser noted in Bernstein: A Biography, “The overture has become one of the most frequently performed orchestral compositions by a 20th century American composer, and by 1987, it was the most often performed piece of concert music by Bernstein.”

Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957)

The Rumble from West Side Story, 1957
The Rumble from West Side Story, 1957

It premiered just a year after Candide, though the conception of the musical started a decade before. When the production finally hit Broadway in 1957, it ran for over 700 performances. It was nominated for six Tony awards, (won two for choreography and set design) but lost to Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man for Best Musical of the Year. Again, this is an instance where the orchestral concert repertoire has borrowed the music from Broadway for performances. It’s not uncommon to hear tunes like “Somewhere”, “Maria”, “America”, and “Tonight” performed by a symphony orchestra. In the words of violinist Joshua Bell, “Bernstein straddled two worlds: Broadway and the concert hall.”

Hear it all in Borrowed by Broadway: When classical music and musical theatre unite this Friday, August 29th, at noon and 10pm on Houston Public Media, Classical 91.7.

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