The Form Without a Name: American Music Theater

The Form Without a Name: American Music Theater

Barry Drogin
Barry Drogin
Photo by Lindsay Drogin

Here’s a frustrating parlor game:

Come up with a term for the form that includes the operas of Gian Carlo Menotti, the musicals of Leonard Bernstein, the dance-theater of Meredith Monk, the music-theater of Robert Ashley, and such hard to classify works as Porgy and Bess, Four Saints in Three Acts, Lost in the Stars, Revelation in the Courthouse Square, Einstein on the Beach, and The Cradle Will Rock, as well as a host of works that, unlike most of those above, can never be performed in a conventional opera house and don’t use classically-trained singers.

If you come up with a good answer that won’t confuse the general public or spell death at the box office by using the term “opera,” I’d like to know.

What it’s not

For the purposes of this HyperHistory, I’m borrowing the term, American Music Theater, although some organizations that use that term in their title are not as broad-minded as I intend on being. I’m implying a huge category, but still some arbitrary boundaries can be drawn.

First, remove works that do not use the human voice in some way. This keeps out a lot of dance, and many of the Cage/Cunningham collaborations, but lets in some dance-theater, and is vague enough to admit the singing/counting in Einstein on the Beach and the language-less expressive cries of Meredith Monk and Diamanda Galas.

Next, stay restricted to performances that are “live” in some way. This leaves out film scores, movie musicals, music videos, and cartoon and video game accompaniments, but also will remove some radio operas I love. It might, however, be loose enough to allow in Tod Machover’s Brain Opera, the lipsynching of John Moran and the video work of Steve Reich…or is it?

Finally, is it a lack of visual elements or movement that separates dramatic oratorios, art songs and choral pieces from The Gospel at Colonus and the performances of Dora Ohrenstein? If so, then Scott Johnson’s landmark John Somebody and Steve Reich’s Different Trains may have to be left out as well. And what about the work of Jon Deak or Joshua Fried?

Gee, even defining what American Music Theater is not is an awkward task.

How it began

With the term “American Music Theater” narrowed to a body of work that is still huge, some of its American roots can be identified. There are the operettas of Victor Herbert, the melodramas of the Yiddish theater, the burlesque reviews, the follies, and the landmark Broadway musicals like Showboat, Of Thee I Sing, and Oklahoma!. Popular song, ragtime, jazz, and novelty songs all contributed to the development of a unique American sound. By mid-century, the American Musical Theater had become such a hotbed of activity that, while geniuses like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Adler and Ross, and Loesser were creating their best work, productions of Weill, Menotti, Blitzstein and Bernstein could also be accommodated on Broadway stages.

Experimental music-theater existed, too, but not in Broadway houses. The Thomson/Stein operas were a little too outré for both the American Musical Theater and the European-obsessed opera institutions as well. Partch, Cage and George Crumb could not be accommodated, either. As Broadway evolved to accommodate rock operas and the work of Kander and Ebb, Jerry Herman, Jules Styne, Cy Coleman and Stephen Sondheim, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway developed work by Al Carmines, Polly Pen, William Finn, and Michael Sahl, while work by Glass, Monk, and Ashley was forced to survive under its own terms.

What it is today

So what is American Music Theater today? There are various forms of Opera, the American Musical Theater, Multi-Media work, and so-called “Music-Theater.” These are all coming together, at the international level, under the rubric of NewOp, which I am heavily involved in.

I’m sorry that this HyperHistory is somewhat NYC-centric, but I have lived in Manhattan for over twenty years, and, after all, “the” Broadway is a street here. Know that for every American company and venue outside of New York not mentioned, there is another inside New York City not mentioned, either. Just check out the membership lists of OPERA America and NAMT for confirmation.

Please report on exciting work in your region, or important performance venues near you, in the NewMusicBox Forum. You may write to me directly, also. And consider joining the ill-named c-opera listserv, which I have become the American moderator of (the European moderator is Glenn Erik Haugland of Norway, who will be hosting NewOp10). While you’re at it, link your homepage to the NewOp Web Ring, which I manage.

And come up with a decent name for this new work we are all creating – one which does not use the word “opera.”

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