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date: 20 September 2020

Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical

Abstract and Keywords

The article focuses on advancement in the authenticity or idealism through artificial modes of performance offered up in musicals. Musicology became established as a discipline during the nineteenth century in part as an outgrowth of German Idealism and German nationalism, which gave a direction and purpose to the young discipline. The authenticity comes out directly from the historically based valorization of subjective musical expression, and links up to both a related valorization of folk music as authentic within nationalist discourses and a strong latter-day emphasis on the recapturing of origins, whether in source studies, sketch studies, editions, or performance practice. The interpretation and re-creation influences every facet of putting on a musical, combining to create a complex layering of performances at every stage. The humor in American musicals tends to suggest that negative forces need not be taken seriously, or at least should not be allowed the final say, an attitude that emerged as a particularly American form of idealism. The reflexive idealism of the American musical has a specifically musical basis, relating to its comic tone and deriving from European musical comedy in the eighteenth century, borrowing in particular the sanguine assurances of tonality, the sustaining musical achievement of the eighteenth century. A musical may thus bring dramatic emphasis to bear on idealist potentials, arguing through plotting and musical numbers that ideals are more valuable than their potential for realization, and this matters beyond the realities that prevent their fulfillment.

Keywords: American musical, authenticity or idealism, humor, German idealism, tonality, comic tone

The American musical, throughout its history, has proved capable of reinventing itself in countless, often unexpected ways.1 In this capacity, it has mirrored one of its own dominant themes, allied closely to its most distinctive performance modes, singing and dancing. That theme is a kind of reflexive idealism, based on the implicit belief that renewal and redemption are always possible, that people can and should reinvent themselves as necessary, and in the process discover and unlock unexplored capabilities and capacities. In this final chapter of the volume, I first consider one of the negative dimensions of this thematic emphasis, which has placed the musical at odds with modes of musical authenticity long dominant in critical discourses. I then explore how reflexive idealism, as a transformative meta-theme, plays out both in performance generally and in the specific contexts of Candide and Man of La Mancha. Key to both prongs of my discussion is a transgressive dimension of performance especially evident in musicals, encapsulated in the carelessly affirmative response musicals give to the rather serious question, “Can either authenticity or idealism be advanced through the blatantly artificial modes of performance offered up in musicals?”

(p. 409) Performing Authenticity

The musical has long provided fertile soil for American popular music, producing hit songs and jazz standards; fostering the song traditions of Tin Pan Alley; and accommodating elements of ragtime, jazz, blues, and other emergent popular styles. Yet the musical, while mostly ignored by those who work the “serious” side of the musicology and theater streets, is similarly marginalized within the burgeoning field of popular music studies. Within that realm, musicals belong to a large body of music—including Barry Manilow, disco, the Eagles, smooth jazz, Celine Dion, and so on—that, although manifestly popular, has been traditionally ignored or treated with disdain, amusement, or embarrassment.2

The reasons for this are many, but let's start with some history. The study of popular music arose in earnest during the long shadow of the 1960s and has ever since tended to reflect important issues and attitudes from that era, in many cases directly carried over from such periodicals as Rolling Stone or the Village Voice. To traverse some of that landscape: Youthful rebellion and the counterculture were establishing and reinforcing the boundaries of the generation gap. The civil rights movement and evolving notions of racial identity in America became politically energizing issues for the younger side of that gap. The sexual revolution was in full swing. The mainstream study of classical music was still ideologically opposed to serious engagement with the cultural and political foundations of music. The boundaries between American musicology and ethnomusicology were increasingly fluid regarding American music. And, enforcing and coloring the interactions of this potent mix of issues, attitudes, and circumstances, music's capacity to instill emotional fervor made questions of authenticity and relevance seem especially important.

Within this environment, two narratives of authenticity attached to popular music with particular force. Jazz and blues became seen as the foundational music of African Americans as a people, establishing along with spirituals a heritage that authenticated their claims to depth, emotional capacity, and cultural legitimacy during a time when that was at issue. And for many who were then coming of age, rock-and-roll emerged as an offshoot of blues and country, rapidly becoming the principal vehicle of youthful musical expression by offering sexualized, politicized, and directly real expressions of rock musicians’ subjectivity, powerful enough to weld together a collection of causes, complaints, and compulsions into the semblance of a movement. Supporting these narratives was a centuries-old tendency to find musical authenticity among the working and peasant classes, which translated, in American terms, into whatever might be understood as “roots” music, especially when it expressed real or imagined experiences of victimhood.3

It is easy to see why Barry Manilow and the musical would seem just as irrelevant to all this as classical music. The area of popular music studies, especially as it tried to secure a foothold in the academy, engaged not so much with popularity, nor even with music per se, but rather with types of music within popular culture that seemed capable of engaging its broadly based, activist narratives.4 Music that offered (p. 410) comfort, enforced the status quo, or gestured too strongly toward older mainstreams simply did not count, however popular or musically interesting. As for the musical study of musicals, it tended to retain the perspectives, methodologies, and borrowed prestige of traditional musicology, where it had long shared a ghetto with popular music more generally.

But why should a criterion such as “authenticity”—so obviously problematic and, well, phony—have the capacity to carry rock and jazz into academic legitimacy while so many other musical styles and practices languish in their various mixes of real-world popularity and academic obscurity? The answer has to do with a somewhat older academic history, that of musicology itself.

Musicology became established as a discipline during the nineteenth century in part as an outgrowth of German Idealism and German nationalism, which gave a direction and purpose to the young discipline: to foster a canon of serious, mainly German, musical works. The overriding standard of value was set by German Idealism, with its dual focus on subjectivity and the Infinite, and its ongoing difficulties regarding the real world, the “thing in itself.” As German Idealism took hold, music became seen as the highest of the arts, capable of linking intense subjectivity directly to something much larger, be it nation, the world in some deep sense, or something beyond the world, such as God, universal consciousness, or the Will. These larger somethings were mostly interchangeable as far as music was concerned, allowing it to accommodate easily to the evolving constructs of German Idealism. But the focus on the musical subject as the generator of musical value—of music as such—and, from the other side, on music as the purest expression of subjectivity, became the foundation of a new understanding of music that has ever since dominated discourses on musical value.5

Within popular music studies, the cult of authenticity stems directly from this historically based valorization of subjective musical expression, and links up to both a related valorization of folk music as authentic within nationalist discourses and a strong latter-day emphasis on the recapturing of origins, whether in source studies, sketch studies, editions, or performance practice. All of these seek authenticity by reaching back to moments of inspiration or conception, of first thoughts and first performances or modes of performance, in order to bring us as close as possible to the unmediated expression of the originating subject or subjects.

In contrast with the hard-won authenticities of the classical canon and the projected authenticities of jazz and rock, musicals offer instead a multi-authored, highly collaborative, eclectic, star-driven commercial product in which roles are performed in the most artificial of modes: the glitzy glitter of song and dance, often with an admixture of camp. And these products are sustained not by artists steeped in a revered tradition but by a full gamut of performers, from Broadway casts performing the same routines every night, to musical neophytes lip-synching to playback that may or may not include their own voices, kids in high schools, college and community groups, and really, anyone who might want to sing or dance along to a cast album. How much further from the paradigms of authenticity could you get?

(p. 411) To illustrate how deep the divide between these worlds has been, historically, we might consider Bye Bye Birdie (1960), a show that addresses many of the issues I’ve identified, but especially the generation gap and the supposed authenticity of rock-and-roll. The show's parodic dismissal of the latter, welcomed by critics of the time, in retrospect seems a bit clueless, as if the show has not taken the full measure of what it parodies. This has partly to do with its timing; the show played between 1960 and 1961, when rock-and-roll seemed to have run its course, just before its dramatic resurgence and reification as rock. And this has partly to do with the unidimensionality of the show's faux-rock-and-roll songs, “Honestly Sincere” and “One Last Kiss,” both of which devolve into excessive repetitions of simple-minded lyrics. Within songs that are fundamentally Golden Age Broadway layered with elements of rock-and-roll, this blatant repetition points in two directions at once: to the banality of directly expressed feeling as such, however authentic or “sincere,” and to the vain pretensions of Conrad Birdie—the show's manipulated rock-and-roll icon, modeled on Elvis Presley—whose authenticity is clearly a pose ( Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.1;  Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.2).6

These song parodies have not worn well on film or in revival, where they serve mainly as vehicles for slightly exaggerated rock-and-roll performances. In a sense, the rock-and-roll ethos itself rejects their parodic dimension, absorbing it into a mode of authenticating abjection, and so making their sharper barbs seem gratuitous. More basically, the parody of these songs fails because it takes rock-and-roll's claims to authenticity as the central issue, instead of querying how such claims function for those who invest in them. But to get at this dimension, we must indulge in some historical speculation.

Claims of authenticity regarding rock-and-roll began when teenagers who had become hooked on it in the ’50s became adults and didn’t want to let it go. To rationalize this desire, college students and other young adults developed what might be called a rhetoric of relevance, through which they attached this music directly to things that mattered, at least to them: to youthful idealism; or to forms of political and social protest, especially as they involved race, war, and sexual freedom. In the process, “rock-and-roll” became “rock,” and there were four compelling reasons for the shift in terminology. Aesthetically, the shorter term seemed purer and more powerful, as if condensing rock-and-roll to its essence. Moreover, it freed this music from its function as dance music, foregrounding instead its capacity either to empower or to overpower, and so to inspire a different kind of movement. And the new term made it seem as if the style itself were somehow elemental, obscuring its origins as a hybrid style. But more practically and decisively, rock became a term used in combination with other musical terms—as with folk-rock, an initially controversial fusion in which rock lent its power to a proven musical vehicle of political protest. Whether in combination or in one of its increasingly varied forms, rock thus became the basic music currency of the counterculture.

Which makes it particularly interesting to notice, regarding Bye Bye Birdie, not only its setting just before all this gets under way but also its near elimination of the college-age generation. It has teenagers and adults in large number, and a sprinkling of pre-teens who either feel left out or form alliances with the adults. But there are (p. 412) no college-age young adults to speak of—except for the show's leads. Albert and Rose are aging members of this cohort, fending off both generations at once, caught for eight years—that is, since around 1950—between the oppressive caricature of Albert's mother and, at least for part of that span, the callowness of Conrad Birdie. In the end, their dramatic project is to free themselves from both sides.

But anyone who's ever been involved with Bye Bye Birdie in repertory knows that for a significant swath of the cast and audience, the star of the show is neither Albert nor Rose, but Conrad. Conrad is, after all, more precisely part of the pivotal age group than either Albert or Rose, and he has the rapt attention of those who are at stake, especially Kim MacAfee, who—at least by aspiration—is coming of age when the show opens. But the issue is even more basic than that: how can Elvis—even a parody of Elvis—be in the show and not be its star?

And this gets directly to the heart of the problem: from the perspective of the preemptive authenticity of the rock aesthetic as it evolved in the years immediately following the show's run, Conrad—even as a parody—trumps the musical's core plot, no matter how extravagantly decked out with elements borrowed from West Side Story, Gypsy, and other shows from the recent past, and no matter that the show is basically right about role-playing in the rock-and-roll scene of the late ’50s. Even if the bigger project in mounting Bye Bye Birdie is to put on a musical, you’re also putting on a rock concert, and it's hard to keep the show's focus centered on Albert and Rose when most of the cast is modeling fandom directed elsewhere, whether to Conrad Birdie or to Ed Sullivan.

While this may seem to place musicals and “authenticity” at an impasse, there is, crucially, a dimension of German Idealism (and its American offshoots)7 that I’ve sidestepped by focusing on the category of authenticity as it is generally understood (usually implicitly) in popular music studies. German Idealism is not about indulging the subjective position above all else but rather about the imperative to develop one's self so as to align with larger forces. It thus came to underwrite the German concept of Bildung, a term taken over in the late eighteenth century from Pietism, pointing to a deepened sense of education that encompasses character formation and the capacities for reflection and realizing individual potential. To the extent that ideals of authenticity seek to reify the presentation of self within some frozen, essentialized state, indulging one's feelings over one's potential, they are not based in German Idealism, but in a self-indulgent tributary. To borrow from the political scene of the recent past, the core of German Idealism is about change.

Now, this is not inconsistent with many elements of rock, which strikes a balance between the impulse to support either protest or progressive agendas, and the tendency to hold fast to particular modes of expression, which might be rendered impure if allowed to evolve and cross-breed with other modes of expression. But this transformative mode of authenticity is more fully and fundamentally consistent with the musical. As theater, the musical is about enacting change, and it is no coincidence that one of its most time-honored devices has been the transformation scene. In this, it plays not so much to German Idealism (with its aversion to transcendence) as to a characteristic American optimism, to beliefs about realizing potential and the capacity for redemption, or for responding to disaster by starting (p. 413) afresh. Corollary to this, musicals also do two other things: they involve music as a kind of fluid medium that facilitates change (and allows us to believe in it); and they also typically involve a dramatically delineated process of earning the desired change, through performance. These processes are part and parcel of how musicals work: characters have something to learn, and music teaches them what they need to know—including their capacity to learn it—while at the same time providing an environment that facilitates change. And except for the distraction of Conrad Birdie's insincere sincerities, Bye Bye Birdie, like most musicals, strives to work in precisely this way, especially with regard to Rose and Albert.

Further examples are legion: Magnolia in Show Boat, who early on is too enamored of appearances but learns to find and express shared truths through performance. Curly and Laurey in Oklahoma!, who early on don’t learn enough from their shared songs, and emerge as a successful couple only by aligning—through song—with larger forces. Fred and Lilli in Kiss Me, Kate, who learn to perform themselves and their relationship through the characters they perform on stage, in song. Anna in The King and I, who teaches through both song and dance but also learns (most importantly, about herself) through performing the role of teacher. Most of the cast of The Music Man, who align with community through music. And Maria in The Sound of Music, who does it all: teaching through song, gaining courage through performance (at least in the film version), and, most extraordinary of all for a star on Broadway, attending quietly while someone else teaches her how one builds one's own character, in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” the quintessential Bildung song.

In musicals, transformation, self-discovery, and self-expression all happen through performance. One may well argue that Broadway stars aren’t really performing themselves but are instead performing roles.8 But in truth, as I will explore more broadly in the following section, they are performing themselves, or at least that part of themselves that can be forged through performance. In merging their public personae with the roles they play on stage, stars demonstrate that one may perform selfhood much like any other role, internalizing it but directing it outward into specific action—a mode of performance perfectly in line with dramatic, vocal, and danced performance more generally. Musicals matter to people largely because they provide fluid musical texts that inscribe possibilities of social interaction and change, first observed in performance but then taken over through processes of internal modeling or external reenactment, which allows people to discover aspects of who they are, and (re)imagine who they might become.

Performing Idealism

Because the musical is a highly collaborative, commercial art form involving both drama and music, its intertwining of creation and performance, on all levels, is distinctively rich. The so-called creative team—lyricist, librettist, composer, arranger, choreographer, director, set, lighting, and costume designers—all play to (p. 414) an audience as much, if less directly, as those on stage and in the pit. And the familiar claim that original cast members “create” their roles is not as grandiose as it sounds; indeed, in a literally vital sense all stage performers create their roles—bringing them to life through their own performing bodies and projected personae—even if they follow models, obey their directors, and adhere closely to their given texts. On a still broader level, all of the above are involved in a process of performance-based re-creation, contributing to a performed re-creation of the genre itself with every new mounting of a show, re-inscribing or overturning the practices and tropes of musicals on all levels.

Understood this way, interpretation and re-creation always already inform every facet of putting on a musical, combining to create a complex layering of performances at every stage. To perform a given role convincingly, an actor must make that role his or her own, merging identities as a performer and human being with those of an interpreted text. In situations that involve the mediating step of adaptation, this process of assimilation—sometimes devolving into a kind of performer-based imperialism of the present over the past—involves another layered stage. Authors who base a musical on a literary text are also in this sense performers, bringing to life the literary basis they are setting, adjusting it, whether consciously or unconsciously, to fit contemporary circumstances and their stars’ capacities, and thereby creating a new text as a basis for performance in the more conventional sense. Nor does the layering stop there, since audience members (or auditors of recordings) quite often appropriate these performances, making them their own in various ways, by re-performing them or by performing their lives alongside, harnessing their rhythms, sentiments, and affects to their own purposes. Thus, they may sing the songs of a musical in the shower; sing along or lip-synch with the original cast recording on their phonograph, CD player, or iPod; or borrow energy by listening to show songs as they walk, drive, Web-surf, or perform other tasks. At each stage within this layered process of remaking and performance, identities are conceived and reconceived, formed and re-formed, and, above all, performed, which is a matter of both assimilation and self-invention.9

Useful to consider alongside this performance-based dimension, and in extension, is the specific comic tone of the American musical, including camp, which persists even within musicals on serious subjects and both depends on and helps support the resolute belief, often presented as a specifically American attitude, that a “cockeyed optimism” is an appropriate response to adversity. We may think of this as the “happy-ending” expectation of musical comedy (and comedy more generally). Humor in American musicals tends to suggest that negative forces need not be taken seriously, or at least should not be allowed the final say, an attitude that emerges as a particularly American form of idealism. These two intertwined elements of the American musical—its performed re-creations on several layered levels and its comic tone—are largely responsible for what I term its reflexive idealism.

In the remainder of this chapter, I consider, in demonstration of this dual basis, the reflexive idealism that directs the hopeful narratives of the musicals based on (p. 415) Cervantes's two-volume novel Don Quixote (1605 and 1615) and Voltaire's novella Candide (1759). Each of these source texts is vehemently anti-idealist, opposing a brand of idealism popular in its day—Don Quixote the persistence of a nostalgic longing for the age of chivalry, and Candide the optimism associated with the Enlightenment. Both texts’ protagonists repeatedly survive extreme physical violence, humiliation, and deprivation, appearing more and more ridiculous as they persist in beliefs that run counter to the worlds they live in—worlds not so different from those of Voltaire's and Cervantes's first readers. And both were adapted for the musical stage during the final decade of Broadway's “Golden Age,” Candide in 1956 and Man of La Mancha in 1965.

Despite the anti-idealism of their sources, both musicals are strongly idealist, and in three important ways. First, as with many Broadway shows during this period, Candide and Man of La Mancha reflect a desire to elevate the American musical by drawing upon venerated texts. This is, to be sure, the idealism of middlebrow culture, but it is firmly grounded in the optimism of eighteenth-century Enlightenment beliefs and aspirations—the very target of Voltaire's Candide, with its unbroken parade of human misery. This type of idealism, however, sometimes comes into direct conflict with a second type of idealism fundamental to musicals, as noted: their apparently reflexive impulse to instill hope and optimism, even when neither seems warranted. I explore this second idealist mode before introducing the third.

The reflexive idealism of the American musical has a specifically musical basis, relating to its comic tone and deriving from European musical comedy in the eighteenth century—borrowing in particular the sanguine assurances of tonality, the sustaining musical achievement of the eighteenth century. The familiar tautologies of tonality—embedded in its syntax and realized within a wide variety of new forms—carry with them the assurance that things will work out, that we will find our way home. Every single time, no matter what. True, those tautologies could be put to other expressive and narrative uses—for example, through irony, or through enforcing the sense that we cannot escape our given situations, however inhospitable, so that we must return home whether we want to or not. Thus, irony and fate-based tropes, among other archetypes, find ready expression in tonality. But the fundamental and most often exploited affect of tonality, at least on the popular musical stage, then as now, is a basic cheerfulness founded in optimism, even if that cheerfulness can, in its very ubiquity, seem insincere or jaded at times.10

In illustration, we may consider West Side Story and The Music Man, which opened in 1957, the year after the original short run of Candide. West Side Story—based like Candide on a venerated literary property—is a tragedy, yet it clings to the fundamental optimism that sustains the reflexive idealism of the American musical stage. It performs Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet by grounding tragedy in contemporary gang violence, reinforced with a gritty urbanized musical syntax based in jazz, serialism, and other contemporary idioms. But it also performs its audience's need to experience hope, allowing its Juliet to live and ending with a reprise of the most hopeful music of the show, “Somewhere.” Moreover, the extended audience (p. 416) for West Side Story has tended to perform an even more hopeful version of the show, displacing its tragedy with either its core of redeeming love—by singing “Maria”—or a more hopeful version of the future than the show itself allows, by singing “Tonight” without its counterpoint of incipient violence and sexual craving (sung in the show by the rival gangs and Anita, respectively). Even so, West Side Story initially proved less successful than The Music Man, a show that promotes its musical fantasies as a cure for all social problems and ultimately insists on the reality of its alternative world, asserting, essentially, that to lie to the accompaniment of music—even music as only imagined, through the “think system”—is to tell the truth.

This kind of ontological assertion is the mainstay of the American musical, which presents its fantasies as alternative realities, ultimately more important than whatever more conventional reality is being displaced. But the assertion is conditional; one must experience that music as true for its reality to emerge; which means, one must in some sense perform it, if only internally. In this way, the American musical is habitually both idealist and optimistically realist, creating an analogue of the idealist interior world through its capacity to project fantasy and providing the material for performing a version of those fantasies in the real world.

Candide initially fared poorly in this environment, its ironies buried beneath a heavy-handed book, its music pared back to bubbles and mirth, and its audience left wondering how to reconcile what the show's book was saying with what the music seemed to be saying. The subsequent history of the show has been about following the music, which is more immediate and richer than the original book, long since replaced. With the cult-based success of the original cast album as inspiration, the concert-repertory status of the overture as standard bearer, and a treasure trove of previously discarded music as fuel, the show was gradually developed from an uneasy operetta into the semblance of an opera, a culmination of sorts for the aspirational idealism that originally fueled the project.11 The specific contribution of the music, both to the original failure and to the later success of the project, thus warrants some scrutiny.

To begin with, the overture flat-out lies to us about what to expect. Reasonably enough, it uses the two opening numbers as they were then—“The Best of All Possible Worlds” and “Oh, Happy We”—as the basis for a foreshortened “sonata form.” Sonata form—the crowning achievement of eighteenth-century tonality—provides a structure for presenting and resolving conflicts that can be represented as contrasting themes, initially presenting those themes in contrasting keys, but eventually playing the second of them in the key of the first. From this structure, we know (or think we know) that everything will work out ( Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.3). To be sure, the overture also tells us other important information: that it won’t be easy; that it will involve carnivalesque exaggeration; and that the ending may not be quite as expected, since the resolution of the “love” theme does not bring the overture to a close but yields instead to a fast coda based on a later number from the show (“Glitter and Be Gay”). In its very mastery of tradition, form, and material, the overture reassures us, encouraging us to believe that the world we are about to enter, though a bit out of kilter, is “the best of all possible worlds”—a sentiment that the (p. 417) show in all its versions, like Voltaire's novella, turns squarely on its ear. And perhaps, so does the overture, by topping its innocent love theme with the cynical laughter of “Glitter and Be Gay”—in which case it is still lying, in pretending not to care about the innocence it mocks ( Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.4).

Candide's music also offers, as counterweight to this mix of idealism and mockery, a persuasive idealist trajectory set across the show, much of which has been restored only with the 1989 “opera” version. This trajectory records the protagonist's journey from idealism through disillusionment to wisdom, in a series of meditations framed by chorales in the style of Bach ( Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.5;  Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.6;  Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.7). The first chorale sets the text, “We have learned, and understood/Everything that is, is good” ( Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.8;  Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.9), and the final one concludes with “Life is neither good nor bad./Life is life, and all we know” ( Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.10), setting up the final number, “Make Our Garden Grow,” with its sober commitment to life and work. That final number convinces in part because of its musical lineage from the meditations and chorales, but even more it depends on a single masterstroke within the closing section, when the orchestra falls away suddenly, leaving the choir to continue on its own. The gesture invokes traditions of a cappella singing as an emblem of community but also depends on the visceral effect of removing all external foundations from the singers, who must then do their best without help, a musical correlative for their dramatic situation. In this moment, the cast stands before us suddenly exposed, and the thorny counterpoint ensures that we hear them struggle a bit before they emerge together on the culminating phrase, “And make our garden grow” ( Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.11).

Yet, however well realized this core musical elaboration of Candide's redemptive theme may be, it still matters that the overture has lied to us, because the overture and much of Candide's music more generally (especially the cast album selections) indelibly imprint a world in which innocence somehow can be preserved through it all. Voltaire knew better. And so surely did Bernstein—why else would he have so carefully nurtured a musical narrative that entails the complete disillusionment of Candide's opening innocence? But despite this knowledge, the show's music, perhaps generically, tries to have it both ways.

Emblematic of the show's affective divergence from Voltaire's novella is the matter of Cunegonde's appearance at the end of the show. On Broadway and the opera stage she remains enduringly youthful and beautiful even then, but Voltaire renders her, more realistically, as having grown old and ugly before her time. Cunegonde's appearance as an operetta ingénue seems “naturally” to preempt the aging process, underscoring the music's assertion of unspoiled innocence, but there is another idealist mode at work—the third of my promised three—which offers a fuller explanation for this particular divergence.

Typically in musicals of this era, major themes are elaborated within coupled heterosexual relationships, as a way of making those themes directly performable.12 In a musical that makes idealism its central theme, the central relationship will most often be a problematic or unsuccessful love story, serving as a “reality check” on the ability of the idealistic hero to realize his ideals; in one way or another, the idealized (p. 418) woman, who stands symbolically for the idealist dimension of the show, fails to live up to the demands of that symbolic function. A musical may thus bring dramatic emphasis to bear on idealist potentials, arguing through plotting and musical numbers that ideals are more valuable than their potential for realization and matter beyond the realities that prevent their fulfillment. According to this familiar trope of musicals, another lie that Candide indulges is that, despite the wisdom that Candide acquires, even about Cunegonde, the music itself does not admit—perhaps generically cannot admit—to Cunegonde's failures as the embodied ideal.

Man of La Mancha, on the other hand, by embracing more fully its responsibility to its time and place, emerges as more successful than Candide, despite the greater violence it does to its source material and despite the fact that Candide, for all its contradictions, is smarter, richer, and more ambitious. Man of La Mancha succeeds at all relevant levels of performance, in particular by speaking more directly to its contemporary audience through its hit tune, “The Impossible Dream,” which became an international anthem of idealist striving.

Working backward through the three musicals-based idealist modes I’ve identified, we may note how much better the “ideal woman” trope works in Man of La Mancha, which awakens latent idealism in the brutalized Aldonza, as an emblem of the redemptive power of idealism; through her character, we see how identities might be reformed, performed, and, finally, transformed. Moreover, this mode extends and effectively overlaps the first idealist mode, giving dramatic presence to the “real-life” transformative potential of great literature, even if it must first be rendered accessible to the uneducated and illiterate. Through the example offered by Cervantes's fellow-prisoners, whose lives are changed by acting out his improvised account of his unfinished novel, the musical reinforces both the Aldonza-Dulcinea transformation and the larger aspirational project, of elevating the musical by drawing on great literature. Thus, in Man of La Mancha, these idealist modes are aligned, rather than opposed as in Candide.

The specifically musical idealist mode in Man of La Mancha, as is typical for this era, is built around the familiarity of the 32-bar Tin Pan Alley song type, which can most easily be seen in “The Impossible Dream.” The song lays out the tenets of chivalry with a carefully balanced tension between internal ideals and outward action, couched in a characteristic Spanish idiom whose ostinato rhythms serve as an emblem of steadfast obsession. The song unfolds within a Tin Pan Alley form but with a “heroic” expansion of the bridge. Within this structure, the lyric at first maintains a careful alternation between inward-directed idealism and the heroic action it inspires (“To dream … To fight … ”), throwing increasing emphasis to action (“To try … To reach…”; ( Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.12). Active verbs then carry us to a climax during the bridge, which dissipates in a series of idealist verbs; significantly, the verbs that mark the climax itself are idealist (“And I know if I’ll only be true … ”). Finally, the satisfying completion of the well-known form—the return to the melody of the first phrase, after the bridge—adds conviction to the lyric's concluding concern for legacy, for how the world itself might be transformed through the image of the inspired, idealist hero ( Performance, Authenticity, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical Example 29.13).

(p. 419) Part of what makes Man of La Mancha “work” better than Candide is the way it manages performance on every level. Whatever its strengths as a performable text, Candide's move to opera has confirmed that it is more about being a text than a show; not by coincidence, it has been published, at various stages in its development, more thoroughly than any other piece of American musical theater. As a text, it promises to outlive Man of La Mancha. But because the latter “performed” Don Quixote more appropriately for its intended venue and audience; because its onstage players so vividly enact its central metatheatrical theme and are redeemed, as characters, specifically through performing their redemption; and because it provided one of the central anthems through which its extended audience forged and performed the idealist component of their identities, its cultural impact has been much more powerful and lasting.

A central lesson to be learned from all reflexively idealist musicals is how lasting their moments of expressed idealism are, especially when sung, far outliving the cataclysms that often surround those moments. And in performing this reflexive idealism, both Candide and Man of La Mancha are, despite all odds, true to their originals, whose protagonists—at least in reception, and whatever Cervantes or Voltaire might have intended—have provided some of the key idealist images that have sustained Europe-based culture.

I have in this chapter addressed the need for a more congenial environment, especially within musicology, for the study of musicals, and argued for a perspective more centered on performance and less beholden to inherited notions of authenticity or text-bound standards of value. There has, indeed, been a broad surge of performance-based studies of the musical in the past few years, and a similar surge in studies that place performance at the center of musicological inquiry. One can only hope, with reflexive optimism, that these waves will be sustained, and that they will grow stronger in alignment.


(1.) I have presented much of this essay's argument in a series of talks: “Cervantes, Voltaire, and the Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical” (“Musical Theater and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Spain and America,” symposium held at the UCLA William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, Los Angeles, October 27–28, 2006), “Performing Authenticity; or, Why the Musical Doesn’t Seem to Count as Popular Music” (“American Musical Theater,” conference hosted by CUNY Graduate Center, April 2–5, 2008), and “The Musical, the American Musical, and ‘Musical Comedy’: Reflections on the Comic Inclinations of a Genre” (“Music and Humor,” conference hosted by Echo: A Music-Centered Journal, UCLA, June 5–6, 2009). Additionally, my examples draw upon my discussions of Candide and Man of La Mancha in The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

(2.) An important exception to this trend is Mitchell Morris's The Persistence of Sentiment: Essays on Pop Music in the ’70s (forthcoming from the University of California Press), which considers several components of this list. Regarding the musical's lack of prestige, as theater, see David Savran's chapter in this volume, as well as his “Middlebrow Anxiety” (in his A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003]); and, regarding theater's intersection with jazz and the popular more generally, his Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009); and “Toward a Historiography of the Popular” (Theatre Survey 45.2 [November 2004]: 211–17). See also Carl Wilson's extended discussion of Céline Dion in Let's Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (New York: Continuum International, 2007).

(3.) For a trenchant (and entertaining) account of this period, detailing its history while also querying its mythologies and what has motivated and sustained them, see Robynn Stilwell, “Music of the Youth Revolution: Rock through the 1960s,” in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music, ed. Nicholas Cook and Anthony Pople (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 418–52.

(4.) See, however, Elijah Wald's How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), which takes as its scholarly starting point an obligation to consider what music was actually popular at a given time, rather than what music best fits the conventional narratives of American popular music.

(5.) I consider some of this history, and its effect on the early development of American popular music, in my book Surviving Absolute Music: Haydn, German Idealism, and the Persistent Dualities of American Music (in progress).

(6.) For more on the background and rock dimension of Bye Bye Birdie, see Elizabeth Wollman, The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical from Hair to Hedwig (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), pp. 16–20. Elsewhere in the book, Wollman speaks directly to the question of authenticity as a contentious category within rock musicals; see especially pp. 24–41.

(7.) For an extended discussion of how German Idealism relates to the idealism prevalent in American musicals, see chapter 4 of my The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity.

(8.) Regarding the important connections between stars’ personae and the roles they play (on stage and for their audiences), see Holley Replogle-Wong's contribution to this volume, and Stacy Wolf's A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002) and Wicked Divas, Musical Theater, and Internet Girl Fans” (Camera Obscura 65, 22.2 [2007]: 39–71).

(9.) In stressing the dynamic of performance and (re)creation in musicals, I am both indebted to Bruce Kirle's Unfinished Show Business: Broadway Musicals as Works-in-Process (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005) and insistent that the idea of performance be applied as broadly as possible. For related arguments, see Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).

(10.) For an extended discussion of this aspect of tonality, see Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

(11.) Among many accounts of the mismatch among Candide's constituent parts, Stephen Sondheim's is especially memorable: “The book didn’t belong with the score, the score didn’t belong with the direction, and the direction didn’t belong with the book. I thought Lillian [Hellman]'s book was wonderful, but it's very black. The score [by Leonard Bernstein] is pastiche, with bubble and sparkle and sweetness. The direction [by Tyrone Guthrie] was wedding cake, like an operetta” (quoted in Meryle Secrest's Stephen Sondheim: A Life [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998], p. 120). For related accounts, see Humphrey Burton, Leonard Bernstein (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. 263 (quoting lyricist Richard Wilbur); Brooks Peters, “Making Your Garden Grow: Lillian Hellman and Candide” (Opera News 65.1 [July, 2000]: 38); and Ethan Mordden, Coming Up Roses; The Broadway Musical in the 1950s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). For accounts of how Harold Prince spearheaded the show's renovation, see chapter 26 of Prince's Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1974); Carol Ilson, Harold Prince: from Pajama Game to Phantom of the Opera (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), pp. 212–25; and Foster Hirsch, Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 149–56.

(12.) For discussions and examples of what I term the “marriage trope,” see my The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) and Knapp, 2006. Rick Altman succinctly describes this aspect of musicals: “The marriage which resolves the primary (sexual) dichotomy also mediates between two terms of the secondary (thematic) opposition” (The American Film Musical, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987, p. 50). For revelatory discussions of how this entrenched trope has sometimes transferred to homosocial relationships, often similarly uniting opposites, see Stacy Wolf 's “ ‘We’ll Always Be Bosom Buddies’: Female Duets and the Queering of Broadway Musical Theater” (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12:3 [2006]: 351–76) and “ ‘Defying Gravity’: Queer Conventions in the Musical Wicked” (Theatre Journal 60 [2008]:1–21).