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     Rudman By Bill Rudman
    Artistic Director, The Musical Theater Project

    When Memphis the Musical opened on Broadway in 2009, audiences were struck by the importance of the story it told—a story that most people didn’t know: white DJ Dewey Phillips’s crusade to play black music on the radio in the heart of the segregated South.

    “Musicals tell us who we were and who we are—as individuals, as members of a community, as citizens of a nation.”
    – Sheldon Harnick,
    Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist

    But as bracing as it was, Memphis is just part of a long tradition in the American musical theater, presenting superb entertainment while using song and dance to confront social issues and problems. That’s the power of the art form: As lyricist Yip Harburg used to say, “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. But a song makes you feel a thought. And that is the great advantage.”

    We can debate when the first socially conscious song moved an audience on Broadway, but there’s no question it happened as early as 1927. That’s when Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote “Ol’ Man River” for the character of Joe, a black dockhand, in the musical Show Boat. Their song has become imbedded in the American experience, and lines that shocked audiences nearly 90 years ago still sting: “Don’ look up/And don’ look down--/You don’ dast make the white boss frown./Bend your knees/And bow your head,/And pull that rope/Until you’re dead.”

    Or just a few years later, in 1932, Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s stunning indictment of economic inequality in a song from Americana that immediately became the anthem of the Great Depression: “Once I built a railroad,/Made it run,/Made it race against time./Once I built a railroad,/Now it’s done,/Brother, can you spare a dime?”

    Jump to 1950, when Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning South Pacific was going out on its first national tour. The writers were pressured by several Congressmen in the South to delete the song “Carefully Taught,” which includes these lines: “You’ve got to be taught/Before it’s too late./Before you are six or seven or eight./To hate all the people your relatives hate./You’ve got to be carefully taught.” But Hammerstein stood his ground: “That’s what the whole show is about.”

    Closer to our own time, social upheaval marked the 1960s and 70s in America, and our musicals reflected it in such shows as the anti-war Hair, two Stephen Sondheim landmarks, Anyone Can Whistle and Company, the eloquent feminism of Nancy Ford and Gretchen Cryer’s I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, Leonard Bernstein’s explosive Mass and Melvin Van Peebles’s “Tunes From Blackness,” Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death.

    And as Memphis demonstrates, the socially conscious beat goes on, fueled by revivals of Chicago, Cabaret and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, along with Caroline: or Change, Falsettoland, Being in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk and two brilliant scores written by Jonathan Larson: another Pulitzer Prize winner, Rent (produced last spring by CMSD), and tick…tick…BOOM!

    In fact, the All-City Musical during Tony Sias’s tenure has played a leadership role in making sure such works are seen in our community. In addition to Rent and South Pacific, the series has offered Dreamgirls, Footloose and West Side Story, all of them stirring documents of American social history. As lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) observes, these and so many other musicals “tell us who we were and who we are—as individuals, as members of a community, as citizens of a nation.”

    In other words, to quote Harnick’s mentor, Yip Harburg: “The musical theater songwriter, like any artist, cannot be neutral. He must be committed to the side of humanity.”