There’s a story we’ve been telling ourselves for years, we musical theatre types, and I think it’s a fallacy. It’s a pleasant fallacy, though, because it makes us feel sad and nostalgic. So we tell it to ourselves, until we feel good about feeling sad and nostalgic, and then we bond with one another over our sadstalgic feels.
The story is this:
Once, the sound of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley was the sound of the popular charts. It was the music of the people, and musical theatre sounded fresh and current.
Then rock ‘n’ roll came along, and took over the popular charts. Broadway shows didn’t really take to rock ‘n’ roll, so they soon stopped sounding fresh and current.
Now, hardly any musicals sound like the music of the people. Something valuable has been lost, and it would be nice to get it back.
Sigh. Crank vinyl OBC of ‘She Loves Me‘.
Lately, this Pleasant Fallacy has appeared whenever anything featuring rap/hip-hop lands on Broadway. If the show fails, as Holler If Ya Hear Me did, we ask “why can’t shows sound like the music people are actually listening to?” And if the show does well, as Hamilton is doing, we cry “At last! A show that sounds like the music people are actually listening to!” Then we speculate on which songs might appear on the charts.
Our motives are good. We want younger people to fall in love with the music of musicals, because then we old folks – some of us over forty – can die happy. If the music in musicals sounded more current, we reason, it might appeal to more younger people.
But look again at the Pleasant Fallacy above, and then look at all the misconceptions we have to accept for it to work:
By “Once”, we mean somewhere in the early twentieth century. We don’t look much further back than that.
By “popular charts”, we mean a problematic measure of a particular commodity’s sales, measured over very short periods.
By “the people”, we mean Americans.
By “something valuable”, we mean cultural prominence: songs from current Broadway shows on the radio, and performances from current Broadway shows on primetime television.
Bearing all these misconceptions in mind, I would like to propose two things:
- Popular music – really, truly popular music – actually sounds a lot like showtunes.
- They’re probably not the showtunes you’d expect.
I’ll begin with …
The most popular music of the 19th century
For the first half of the 19th century, publishers of sheet music didn’t distinguish between what we would now call “classical” and “popular” songs, and popular sheet music sales didn’t really take off until after the 1850s. Nevertheless, sheet music historians have some nifty ways of telling if a song was a hit:
Song sheets: not the full printed music, but just the lyrics, given to a theatre audience so they could sing along. It’s a fair bet the tune to any one of these was well known.
Inclusions in anthologies: in modern terms, if a song is on all the later compilation albums, chances are it did well first as a single.
Answer songs and parodies: if everyone’s supposed to get the references, the original must have been pretty familiar.
Here, then, are some songs you can include in your 1890s cabaret act, and expect your audience to know:
Silent Night, or Stille Nacht (1818) – Franz Xaver Gruber / Joseph Mohr
Home, Sweet Home (1823) – Bishop / Payne
Ave Maria (1825) – the Schubert setting
Jingle Bells (yes, pedants, it’s really called One Horse Open Sleigh, 1857) – James Lord Pierpont
The Lost Chord (1877) – Arthur Sullivan / Adelaide Anne Procter
After the Ball (1891) – Charles K Harris
On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away (1897) – Paul Dresser
Those last two are publishing phenomena; written very late in the century, they sold a wagonload of sheet music. But even without them, you can see what sorts of songs did well in the century before the century before this one: occasional songs, devotional songs and, above all, sentimental ballads.
Furthermore, that sentimental ballad Home, Sweet Home, the song Nellie Melba used as a crowd-pleasing finale in her concerts, is a showtune. It appeared first in an opera (Clari, or the Maid of Milan), and was then quoted liberally by other composers in their own operas and instrumental works, before later being interpolated into practically everything.
When Clara Butt was about to tour Australia, Nellie Melba advised her “Sing ’em muck; that is all they will understand.” This is usually taken as a slight against us Aussies, but what Melba really said, according to a witness, was “Sing ’em muck. ‘The Lost Chord’ and that sort of stuff, the same as you have been singing tonight.” In other words, Aussies loved a weepy ballad back then, and they still do. But so did everyone back then, and so does everyone still.
If we look further back than the early twentieth century, I think we gain useful context for Broadway and Tin Pan Alley’s later heady era of chart success. The listeners of the nineteenth century didn’t have “charts” as we understand them today, but they had their favourite songs: a mix of the devotional, occasional, and sentimental. Some of it came from the stage.
And so to those problematic charts, which have become less problematic since the IFPI started compiling its reports in 2001. Their more recent reports include download and streaming data.
The top selling singles of each year since 2007
Girlfriend – Avril Lavigne
Lollipop – Lil Wayne feat Static Major
Poker Face – Lady Gaga
Tik Tok – Ke$ha
Just the Way You Are – Bruno Mars
Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
Blurred Lines – Robin Thicke feat T.I. and Pharrell
Happy – Pharrell
Hmmmm, these songs sound like a lot of movies, because that’s where hit songs wind up nowadays, just as hit pop songs used to be interpolated into stage shows. They don’t sound like a lot of today’s Broadway. But then, Broadway scores don’t really behave like singles, do they? Singles burn quickly and brightly, but not for long. Broadway scores used to be like that, so much so that, when people say …
I wish the charts still sounded like Broadway
what they’re really saying is …
I wish shows still ran 200 performances and were forgotten in a year.
The miracle of those old shows is that some of their songs, meant to be nothing more than immediately accessible and popular, turned out to be deeper and more durable than anyone could have predicted.
But hit Broadway scores today behave more like hit albums: they burn steadily, and for a long time. So instead of singles, here are
The biggest selling albums of all time
Thriller – Michael Jackson
The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) – Eagles
Back in Black – AC/DC
Saturday Night Fever – Bee Gees
Rumors – Fleetwood Mac
The Bodyguard – Whitney Houston
Come On Over – Shania Twain
Led Zeppelin IV – Led Zeppelin
Bat Out of Hell – Meat Loaf
Sceptical about any of these? Fair enough, and look here for why I share your healthy doubt. Nevertheless, two of these albums (Saturday Night Fever and The Bodyguard) sound like a couple of musicals, but that’s only because stage musicals have been made out of their parent films. One of these albums (Thriller) has a stage show based on its main creator’s life and music. Another (Bat Out of Hell) sounds like any musical by Jim Steinman, but that’s because all Jim Steinman sounds like Jim Steinman.
As far as younger listeners go, however, these albums are really old. The most recent is from 1997. So here are
The biggest selling albums of the last ten years
21 – Adele
X&Y – Coldplay
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends – Coldplay
High School Musical – Original Soundtrack Cast
High School Musical 2 – Original Soundtrack Cast
I Dreamed a Dream – Susan Boyle
Midnight Memories – One Direction
Recovery – Eminem
Man, that’s a whitebread list. But you will notice that, once the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the singles chart is taken out of the matter, all those artists we’re convinced the kids have been listening to disappear. No Pharrell, no Ke$ha (or, these days, Kesha), and no Lady Gaga. Nobody feat. anybody else. The only rap artist in that list is Eminem.
Also, there are two bona fide screen musicals in that list, plus an album named after a showtune.
That album, Susan Boyle’s (twice as many copies sold as One Direction’s album, incidentally), contains the following sorts of songs:
I Dreamed a Dream – the showtune I mentioned.
Cry Me a River – originally written for a film set in a 1920s speakeasy.
Wild Horses – cover of the original, by The Rolling Stones
You’ll See – cover of the original, by Madonna
Daydream Believer – not a ballad when The Monkees did it, but this version is
Who I Was Born to Be – a Boyle original
Proud – from the TV show Britannia High
The End of the World – cover of the original by Skeeter Davis, slowed down
Up to the Mountain – cover of the original by Patty Griffin
How Great Thou Art
If you ask me, Susan Boyle’s album shows how little we’ve changed, because it’s straight out of the nineteenth century. Sing ’em muck indeed.
To summarise: we need to stop worrying about the charts, music theatre lovers, because they don’t tell us what we think they tell us, and success on them doesn’t mean what we think it means. If we look instead at music that sells steadily over years, rather than weeks, we’ll find that people are actually buying and listening to showtunes, albeit ones written for the screen. Sure, they’re not tunes from Sweeney Todd, or even Rent: the showtunes that are really selling sound like High School Musical. Also, Frozen isn’t on that best-seller list yet, but give it time.
And, as fond as we are of our sadness and nostalgia, I think we should rephrase our favourite fallacy:
Once invented, recorded music used what had come before it, then learned how to make its own kind of thing later. Cinema, radio, television, and video games have all walked a similar path.
Recorded music has always gone after disposable money. Its first marks were high-tech connoisseurs, and later, the middle class (this is the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway period). After World War Two, it chased youngsters, and now it’s after anyone with a smartphone.
There was a period when the pop charts and the sound of Broadway more or less aligned. It didn’t last, and it could conceivably happen again, because correlation is not causation: all it would require is for theatre audiences and pop music listeners to want the same thing from their music.
Meanwhile, if you really want your new musical to sound like the music of the people, you should have Coldplay write a lot of sentimental ballads for Adele. Get Eminem to play the villain.