Explain how music was used to reveal characters’ personalities in the Broadway Musicals
The Broadway musical was a time of innovation in the world of musical entertainment as it integrated music into the plot in order to advance it, reveal character, or create mood. Before this, forms of entertainment were provided for amusement only, however, with the Broadway musical came the theme of more serious issues that made audiences think and consider the world in which they lived. ‘Showboat’ has been suggested as being the first Broadway musical.
Kern uses a perfect 4th to represent the Mississippi River in the musical ‘Showboat’, which is arguably the protagonist of the entire show. In giving it a leitmotif of its own, Kern establishes its dominance in the musical. However, a triton is employed for Parthy’s motif in order to show her hatred and hostility toward the river. In the opening number, ‘Niggers All Work’, hollow chords are used to provide a lack of warmth to the piece. This, along with the detached style of notes shows the hostility the black workers felt toward their white bosses. This is juxtaposed against the long, smooth, upbeat music which is then sung by the white chorus in ‘Cotton Blossom’.
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The song, ‘Old Man River’ is in the popular song style of ABAB. Section A is legato and the music to the lyrics word paint the gentle lilt of the river by ascending and descending gently. This changes however in Section B when the lyrics change as he subject has; section B speaks of the work and the hard life the black workers must endure, ‘Tired o’ livin’, and scared of dying’.’ This section also contains aspects of a Spiritual, ‘Gittin’ no rest til’ de judgement day’ and of a work song, ‘lif’ dat bale, tote dat barge’, both of which are suited to Joe’s character as a black worker. The narrow range of notes in this section symbolises Joe’s tiredness due to the strain and monotony of his work.
Also, in ‘Showboat’, Kern uses music to reveal Magnolia’s character and to expose her mixed heritage. In singing, ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’, Magnolia’s true heritage is revealed through the use of vocal glissando, bent notes, and the overall relaxed style of the piece which gives it its jazzy quality.
In the musical ‘Anything goes’ by Hammerstein, the character of protagonist, Reno Sweeny played by popular singer Ethel Merman is portrayed the numbers she performs. The piece ‘Anything Goes’ can be used to best reveal her personality and her background; it begins with a strict, march like style with on the beat fanfare interjections and features a downward minor tonic triad. This represents Reno’s current strict lifestyle as an evangelist. However, the music then changes and becomes more upbeat, and legato with long, smooth phrases; this symbolises her previous night club lifestyle.
Reno’s leitmotif is triplets and these are prominent in the piece, ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’. Reno sings this to Billy and her leitmotif is present when she sings of all the things she does not get a kick out of, but they disappear whenever she tells Billy she gets a kick out of him. Complex rhythms are also associated with Reno to show the complexity of her character. Her evangelist lifestyle is shown also through the song, ‘Blow Gabriel Blow’, this piece is an upbeat, gospel like song which makes use of church like features such as an accompanying organ and chorus to represent a church choir. She refers to night club lifestyle when she sings, ‘Once I was headed for Hell’, and describes her transformation to evangelist through the lyrics of the piece also.
However, despite the former two musical, it was not until the folk opera, ‘Porgy and Bess’ was developed that the idea of revealing character through music was exploited fully with every central character in this show having their own leitmotif. Porgy’s leitmotif featuring a grace note and chromatic movement in steps symbolises Porgy’s small steps. When he sings ‘Bess You is My Woman Now’ octave leaps are used for ‘You is’ to show the demand but is off-set by the gentle syncopation to remove any harshness and to show his gentle nature.
Bess is the only character not to have her own leitmotif as it, along with her persona, changes depending on the man she is with at the time. This doesn’t only show her status as an outsider in Catfish Row, but also shows her fickle qualities. However as she sings, ‘Bess You is My Woman Now’ with Porgy, she sings a portion of Porgy’s signature song ‘When Gawd Made a Cripple’, this shows that Bess is the answer to Porgy’s loneliness. To show their connection, Gershwin uses an F# major chord in their duet which doesn’t appear in any other piece of music throughout the musical. In addition to this, at the end of the opera, Bess sings ‘Summertime’ to Clara’s baby showing she has been accepted into Catfish Row. The chorus is a central character in ‘Porgy and Bess’ and the song ‘Summertime’ is used to show their closeness as a community.
Sportin’ Life’s motif in ‘Porgy and Bess’ is a high pitched and eerie to show he is an outsider and triplets demonstrate his snake-like charm. The use of chromaticism symbolises his attempt at seduction and a triton is featured also to show his evil qualities. His leitmotif is dominant when it plays, making other music subordinate showing his dominant personality. For the character of Crown, energetic syncopation is employed to symbolise his highly energetic character.
It is clear composers during this time consciously employed musical features to portray to the audience the personalities and themes of characters within their shows.