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The Greatest Musical: “I Can’t Live With ‘West Side Story’ Not Being Among the Finalists”

Carousel suffers from political incorrectness. A Chorus Line trips up on its score. And then there’s the vexing question of Porgy and Bess.

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Barbara Baxley and Jack Cassidy in She Loves Me, 1963.  

Last month, at Sardi’s Restaurant, with painted characters from the history of the American musical supervising on a folding screen, our panelists convened for their great work. Each brought a list of titles—36 in total—deemed worthy of discussion. The 13 mentioned only once on those lists were eliminated at the outset.

Jesse Green: Some of the 13 singletons we’re dumping are incredible shows: Assassins; Damn Yankees; Fiddler on the Roof; Fiorello!; Hedwig and the Angry Inch; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; Kiss Me, Kate; The Light in the Piazza; The Most Happy Fella; Oklahoma!; Passion; See What I Wanna See; and Shuffle Along. The earliest of the remaining 23 is Show Boat, from 1927, and the latest is Caroline, or Change, from 2004.

Frank Rich: Are we choosing just one in the end?

Green: If possible.

Nora Ephron: It’s like the scene in Guys and Dolls: the strudel versus the cheesecake.

Green: Before we start fighting over pastry, let’s have full disclosure. I was atrocious in school productions of Cabaret and South Pacific, and I later proofread the score of Sunday in the Park with George.

George C. Wolfe: I was in the original company of West Side Story.

Green: You were not.

Jonathan Tunick: I should disclose that I’ve been employed by certain individuals who wouldn’t want to be neglected in this process.

Green: Nor are they. Jonathan, you orchestrated the original productions of five of the semifinalists: A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd, Follies, Company, and A Little Night Music.

Wolfe: And I directed one of them—Caroline, or Change—but I didn’t write it. So I shouldn’t be disqualified.

Green: Frank, you were the chief drama critic for the Times from 1980 to 1993, so you are pure. Nora, you have a disclosure, I think.

Ephron: I do? I’m so excited, what is it?

Green: Carousel.

Ephron: Oh, well, my parents were involved with the movie of it, that’s true.

Green: On to the strudel. First, a question we need to answer: Is Porgy and Bess a musical?

Rich: Yes.

Tunick: I disagree. For three reasons. It’s through-composed. It has to be sung by opera singers. And while it has popular songs that tilt it toward being a musical, I would call it an opera that sounds like a musical part of the time.

Green: What about the fact that it was written for the legitimate stage? Does that matter to you?

Wolfe: And how does your rule apply to Sweeney Todd, which is also nearly through-composed?

Rich: And you’d have to eliminate Floyd Collins, too, because it had virtually no scenes.

Green: You could make the distinction that Sweeney Todd and Floyd Collins are capable of being sung by theater singers—are perhaps better sung by them.

Rich: And don’t you think Caroline, or Change could be thrown out on this point, too?

Green: Oh, Caroline is certainly a musical. No opera singer could possibly sing it.

Rich: Well, they haven’t tried yet.

Ephron: Considering that we’re talking about a tiny category that almost doesn’t exist—popular American opera—I think we should just consider them all musicals and not get stuck on it.

Rich: Steve Sondheim says that if you perform it in a theater it’s a musical; if you perform it in an opera house it’s an opera. It depends on what people’s expectations are. You could have the same argument about The Most Happy Fella, which was already eliminated.

Wolfe: But aren’t we discussing a form that redefines itself perpetually?

Tunick: I just think that if we’re going to include Porgy and Bess we can all go home. If it’s in the discussion, it is the discussion.

Green: I’m not sure everyone agrees with that.

Rich: I think it should be on the list, and if people want to vote for it, fine.

Green: It’s often performed in theaters and thus meets Sondheim’s genre test, so let’s consider it on the merits. Which for me, even though I voted for it, are not unalloyed. There’s something bloated about the storytelling.

Rich: And it can make you wince in places.

Wolfe: Yes! I’ve been asked to direct it 27 times but I know I could never stage “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’.”

Green: Yet most older musicals have books that are much worse. I assume that’s why Porgy and Bess and Show Boat—not exactly a model of efficiency—are the only two on our list until 1945.

Ephron: Well, the musical was really invented with Oklahoma! in 1943.

Wolfe: To me, Show Boat was the first American musical, the first to have the real texture of this country.

Tunick: Until Show Boat, musicals were disposable: delivery devices for new tunes. Nobody really took them seriously as theater. And when they’re revived you see that they have stock characters and stock plots.


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