Strike Up the Band
Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Though the overture to this, the first fully-integrated score to a book musical, remains a well-known concert selection, the musical it precedes is far less familiar to contemporary audiences. Originally tried out in 1927, later revised for a Broadway run in 1930, the show carried strong satirical elements (an American tycoon convinces the US Government to go to war against Switzerland as a means to protect his cheese – revised to chocolate – monopoly), and the revision added a stronger romantic element along with a happy ending.
Aside from the 191 performance run in 1930, no major revival has taken place in the nearly 85 years since. However, the show included several future standards, including the title song, as well as "I’ve Got a Crush on You", "Soon", and "The Man I Love".
The songwriting of Stephen Foster remains among the most memorable of all American music, even today. The writer of over 200 songs, Foster was a self-taught musician and composer. He was capable of playing at least five instruments - clarinet, flute, violin, guitar, and piano. He began writing songs at the age of 14, although success did not come until his 20s.
His earliest successes included "Oh! Susanna", which soon took root as an anthem for the Gold Rush in California. He soon was contracted by the Christy Minstrels as a songwriter for the blackface minstrel act. Here, he delivered several more enduring songs, including "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home", and "My Old Kentucky Home". The latter two songs would later be adopted as the state songs of Florida and Kentucky, respectively.
Although many of his songs express a fondness or longing for the ‘Old South’, Foster only visited the South once, traveling by riverboat to New Orleans. Little is concretely known about his final years in New York City, except that he died after a fever led to a fall in his hotel that cut his neck and caused significant bleeding. He was just 37 when he died.
Frank Sinatra is often considered to be the first modern pop music star. Most recorded songs prior to World War II were aimed at adult listeners. During the 1940s Sinatra's recordings attracted a strong following among younger listeners, whose growing disposable income would make them a prime audience for pop music in the years and decades to come.
Victor Herbert enjoyed a successful career around the turn of the 20th century, mainly as a composer, while also making a name for himself as a cello soloist and conductor. His most notable and successful works were his operettas. Essentially the predecessor to musical theatre, the operetta was a popular form in the late 19th century, providing a light-hearted and limited-length alternative to a full opera. Where musicals (in general) would be plays that incorporated songs and dancing, operettas were essentially light operas with the addition of some dialogue.
Herbert occasionally wrote music for others’ plays, as well as composing in a variety of genres. His second cello concerto was particularly notable, entering the standard professional repertoire. One of his most common styles was the waltz, reflecting his background knowledge and experience with Viennese operetta.
Herbert was also a major advocate for composers’ rights. Particularly with the growing development of sound recording and dissemination, Herbert’s advocacy helped lead to the mechanical license provisions (among other key recognitions) in the landmark Copyright Act of 1909. He also helped found and lead the still-active performing-rights organization, the American Society of Composers, Artists, and Performers (ASCAP). To this day, it functions principally to collect license fees from various uses of members’ works.
Music from Guys and Dolls
Adapted from short stories written by Damon Runyon in the 1920s and 1930s, "Guys and Dolls" brought tales of the New York underworld to Broadway in 1950. The original production ran for 1,200 performances. It opened to universally positive reviews and went on to win all five of the Tony Awards it was nominated for, including Best Musical.
In addition to the numerous Broadway revivals, a popular film adaptation was produced in 1955. The cast included Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, and Frank Sinatra.
The Washington Post March
John Philip Sousa
"The March King", as Sousa was dubbed by a British journalist, earned this title following the premiere of this, one his most popular and enduring marches. Sousa, then the leader of the US Marine Band, was commissioned by the owners of The Washington Post to compose a march for an essay contest awards ceremony in 1889. It could be danced to using the then-new two-step, and the popular association of the dance with this composition even led the dance to sometimes be called ‘The Washington Post’.
This popular patriotic composition presents a unique and stirring rendition of the melody, ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’. Originally written by Irish-American bandleader Patrick Gilmore (using the pseudonym Louis Lambert) and published in September, 1863, the melody was borrowed from a contemporaneously popular drinking song ‘Johnny Fill Up The Bowl".
Both sets of lyrics commented on the state of the American Civil War, ‘Marching’ focusing more on the desire to see an end to the war, and the return of the soldiers to their homes. It remained a popular song in the 150 years since, with countless renditions and recordings by various performers. It sees use in sporting events from time to time, particularly when a ‘John’ is playing. It has also been used in the soundtracks to numerous films over the years, arguably the most notable of which was Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic black comedy, "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, where it was a significant recurring theme in the film.
Paul Simon has earned the reputation of being one of the finest and most sustained songwriters in America. The New York-born Simon started writing songs in the mid-1950s, his first being published when he was just 12 or 13 years old. He recorded a number of singles and 45s during the 1950s and early 60s, under a variety of pseudonyms and band names. One occasional collaboration was with his childhood friend, Art Garfunkel, as the act Tom & Jerry.
Simon & Garfunkel eventually became one of the most popular acts of the late 1960s, with folk melodies and tight harmonies giving the duo a sound that sold millions of records to teenagers and their parents. Simon notably was the primary songwriter for the pair. Garfunkel rarely carried a songwriting credit (in fact, he co-wrote only one song and co-arranged several others, with Simon), and Simon would often compose songs for the duo in fits and starts between sessions.
Tensions would continue to build between the pair, and they finally split up after the massive success of their album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. It was this final album that was a true branching out point for Simon as a songwriter, as he incorporated numerous global musical influences and wrote in a wide variety of styles. This approach would continue to define Simon in the decades to follow, critical to all of his best-received and most successful solo albums.
Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II
This Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, first produced in 1949, began its life as a collection of short stories, observations, and anecdotes, written by James A. Michener and published in 1947. Director Joshua Logan, a veteran of World War II, quickly decided to adapt it for the stage. Hammerstein had little knowledge about the U.S. Navy, nor of the Southern culture and dialect of Nellie, and thus asked Logan to assist him in writing the book.
The musical is notable for exploring the issue of racial prejudice, including perceptions of mixed-race children, as well as interracial marriage. This would cause controversy for the 1950 U.S. tour, especially in the South, where several lawmakers considered it indecent and pro-Communist. The song, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," was perhaps the most controversial segment of the show. Despite the challenges, Rodgers and Hammerstein cited that number as representative of their motivation for creating the show, and that it would remain in the performances, even if it meant the failure of the production.
However, the show was a major success, running for nearly five years and 1,925 performances. The production won ten Tony Awards in 1950, including Best Musical and all four acting awards. It also became the second musical to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A sole Broadway revival was produced, running for nearly 1,000 performances between 2008 and 2010.
George M. Cohan
George M. Cohan spent nearly all of his life as an entertainer in one sense or another. As a child, he formed part of a vaudeville group with his parents and sister, fittingly known as The Four Cohans. He later began writing skits and songs for the act, before starting to sell his songs to a national publisher.
Cohan soon found success writing, producing, and performing on Broadway. He would write over three dozen musicals, part of a series of over fifty productions in various genres that he would create or produce between 1904 and 1920. Along the way, he wrote over three hundred songs, becoming one of the leading Tin Pan Alley composers. Many of his songs featured in his stage productions, but some found their own success. Most notable among his songs was the World War I song, ‘Over There’.
Cohan’s work was part of a defining revolution in Broadway musicals. Instead of simply presenting a loosely-connected set of songs, his musicals incorporated a ‘book’ - a story, script, and set of characters that were fully integrated with the song and dance routines performed. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is the core format used by practically every musical created in the last seventy years.