Walnut Creek Library group to host talk on Broadway’s Golden Age
By Lou Fancher
Admired for its virtuoso vocal stars, visual spectacle, spectacular choreography and deeply relatable characters embedded in dramatic narratives and jouncy, irreverent or even jarringly satirical comedies, classic American musical theater sprang to maturity from its roots in vaudeville and traveling minstrel shows.
The art form entered New York City’s Broadway, and between 1927 and 1964 produced musicals that became towering classics such as “Show Boat” (1927), “Porgy and Bess” (1935), “Oklahoma!” (1943), “The King and I” (1951), “West Side Story” (1957) and “Fiddler on Roof” and “Hello Dolly” (1964). Entwined within musical theater’s separate strands — singing, dancing, acting and production design — are America’s grand and often thorny themes and issues: among them, revolution, racism, spirituality, religion, industrialization, commodification, technology, innovation, economic and educational inequality, political corruption and political heroism.
To unpack and examine 20th century musical theater’s heyday and highlight it through the lens of American history and culture requires an expert. Fortunately, as COVID-19 vaccinations increase and theaters in the Bay Area begin to return to in-person productions, audiences eager for live entertainment will find welcome opportunity for a “tune-up” with actor, director, writer and educator Rob Seitelman. The Walnut Creek resident on Oct. 6 will present “Broadway’s Golden Age: The Making of an American Art Form, 1927-1964” courtesy of the Walnut Creek Library Foundation. The free Zoom webinar is part of the foundation’s “Live! From the Library” series.
“When shelter-in-place hit, I realized I was taking theater for granted and how central it was to my life,” Seitelman says as to his motive for the presentation. “I wanted to take part in a group event, and musical theater represents something people like. Why? Because it’s messy. It’s not opera, it’s not Shakespeare, it’s not straight drama. It’s a cast-off form that grew up out of a confluence of the industrial revolution, post-Civil War migration and rising mass transit. Those things made it possible for folks to experience something shared across many miles. With the digital age, content is shared broadly. Musical theater did that first.”
In the early 1900s, people staying at hotels on a vaudeville circuit would see a show, fall in love with a tune and pick up sheet music to play it at home or hear a song crooned on the radio and call in to request it again and make it a much-played favorite.
“It became a shared experience,” says Seitelman.
Although admitting there is song and dance in Greek drama and visual impact and meticulous design in Japanese Kabuki theater dating back centuries, Seitelman posits that American musical theater distinguished itself by braiding together those threads with gem-like or prickly features. The gems include larger-than-life celebrity talent and actors able to depict “flawed characters doing the best they could with what they had at hand,” he said. Representing a musical stoked with “prickles,” Seitelman selects “South Pacific.”
“It pushed against culturally accepted racism and bigotry when it was not commercially advisable to do so. The song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” claims that racism and bigotry aren’t inherent — they’re learned behaviors that are detrimental to progress in society. It was a daring message to espouse in 1949, having just come out of World War II and with the opportunity to be rah-rah jingoistic. Instead, it makes a bold statement against racism.”
Seitelman attributes growth of Broadway musical theater during its Golden Age to the New York City subway map. It arbitrarily made Times Square a junction, a primary meeting place for socialization and recreation during a time when industrialization made leisure activities increasingly possible.
“People loved the stars, craved long narratives, developed characters, complex songs,” he says.
The approach to Broadway shows in the 21st century continues to be propelled by audiences wanting see certain stars, but is even more determined by today’s exorbitant ticket prices, Seitelman says.
“Tickets are ridiculously expensive, which hurt theater in the last two decades. Revivals dominated because people wanted a known, sure thing if they’re spending hundreds of dollars.”
With increased live-stream or screen capture productions online and theaters “catching up with the times,” he says audience numbers are actually improving because people can first view productions at home.
“Theaters are finding people then want to go see it in-person because they know they love it. It’s more democratized now. And that will engage a whole new group of folks.”
Likely among Broadway’s new audience members — or maybe onstage? — will be Seitelman. After years working in performing arts high school classrooms in the East Bay, he continues to be involved on the local theater scene while working with Sports for Learning, an extracurricular soccer program based in Southern California that morphed into a social-emotional learning company. Teachers in the Bay Area with students currently being resocialized into in-person classrooms receive peer mentoring to support the transition through the program.
During the last 18 months, in addition to visiting musical theaters virtually, Seitelman says he has kept busy.
“I lost 100 pounds, started learning Spanish and hiked all over the area singing.”
Along with him occasionally may have been his wife, Abby Seitelman, and their two daughters, who bear Shakespeare-inspired names, Miranda and Amelia. Or perhaps along for an outing were the family’s one cat (named after Shakespeare’s tragic Juliette) or, more likely, two dogs bearing monikers of characters in Shakespearean comedies, Olivia and Benedict. Asked if his hiking-and-singing repertoire includes “The Hills Are Alive” from The Sound of Music, Seitelman uses his most perfect Spanish to reply, “No sé (I don’t know).”