Part I—Reclaiming the ‘Top Forty’: Broadway’s Relationship with Popular Music

The debate over popular music’s place on the Great White Way continues to rage; on the flip side of the coin, the Broadway music lovers of the world mourn that they are in an extreme minority.  Why?  There was a time when popular music and Broadway music were in fact the same genre.  Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring that time period and also asking what changed the landscape of popular music. 

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Part I— Defining a Song’s Popularity Using the Charts

The music of Broadway has always been a genre in dialogue with the popular music of the time.  In the early part of the twentieth century, theatre-goers could expect to hear the music they found in theatres broadcast on that new device—radio—and conversely, they thrilled to hear their favorite radio and parlor hits sung live onstage.  In a not-so-distant era, the music of Broadway was popular music.  At some point, however, the homogeneity that existed between popular music and Broadway music began to fissure.  At various junctures in musical theatre history, Broadway looked to popular music, but popular music seemed to give little regard to Broadway.  One data-driven indicator of the relationship between Broadway and popular music lies in a Broadway song’s inclusion in the ‘Top Forty’ charts.  The idea of the ‘Top Forty’ serves as the standard measure for song popularity in the United States, and it stands to reason that any Broadway song that made the charts successfully “crossed over” the genre divide.

This paper will first define the parameters for how a song charts and define terminology both in the context of the industry and for use in this paper.  After that, the research will investigate several factors of the 1940s and 1950s that changed how music was published, recorded, and distributed and how that affected the chartable popularity of musical theatre songs.  Finally, this paper will examine the seven singles that can be classified as musical theatre songs that reached #1 on Billboard’s ‘Top 100’ or ‘Hot 100’ between 1955 and the present and use them to map a musical course through the Rock Era.  This paper will use 1955 as a reference point for three reasons: first, Bill Haley and His Comets topped the charts that year with “Rock Around the Clock” which signaled the beginning of the Rock Era; second, the year marked the creation of the ‘Top 100’ which merged several disparate music charts into one; third, the musical theatre was in its own ‘Golden Age’ with giants such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Frank Loesser dominating the landscape.  Given these three aims, this research will describe the relationship between Broadway music and popular music from 1956 until today.

Let’s first define ‘Top Forty.’  In one regard, the top forty (lowercase ‘t’, lowercase ‘f’) is an idea.  It is a radio programming principle created to feature only the most popular music content.  Following World War II, an Omaha-based record executive developed the format.  Radio programming of the time consisted primarily of national programming distributed to local affiliates.  In the late 1940’s, radio programming shifted to include an increasing amount of recorded music (using long play records, or LPs) as opposed to live programming (featuring a house band) which had been the norm in the 1930s and early 1940s (Peterson 112).  3_vinyl_singlesIn addition, new record technologies following the war created a smaller vinyl record meant to include two single songs.  The “45” proved to be a cheap way for most Americans to consume music as well as a way to program for a broadening radio listenership.

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Mark Stolz, Omaha-based radio music director who–as the story goes–invented the ‘Top Forty’ as a programming principle after an incident at a diner.

As radio industry lore goes, the invention of the ‘Top Forty’ can be traced to Omaha, Nebraska.  While at a diner in 1954, a radio music director named Mark Stolz and one of his disc jockeys became increasingly annoyed with a waitress who kept putting money in the jukebox to play the same two songs repeatedly.  Despite the frustration, he observed that this woman was voluntarily spending her own money for this very specific niche of the market.  After that, Stolz began playing exclusively songs that the trade magazine charts showed were hit singles.  His station’s popularity skyrocketed, and the formatting principle took hold in other major radio stations across America.  The term ‘top forty’ evolved as a result of this highly focused playlist that included roughly the top forty or so of the hundred songs from the weekly industry magazines (Peterson 113).

For the sake of clarification, the ‘Top Forty’ (capital ‘T’, capital ‘F’) can also serve as reference to a very specific radio program: American Top 40.  This internationally syndicated, independent song countdown is also known as AT40.  Long-time host Casey Kasem created the radio program along with Don Bustany, Tom Rounds, and Ron Jacobs in 1970.  As opposed to ‘top forty’ programming as a guiding principle, the radio show exclusively uses the top forty songs of the week and counts down to the number one song.

Casey Kasem, co-founder and long-time host of 'American Top 40.'

Casey Kasem, co-founder and long-time host of ‘American Top 40.’

Distribution of this program now resides with Premiere Radio Networks although the show was originally a production of Watermark, Inc., a division of ABC Radio.  Though Kasem is most recognized with the program—two different vintage shows from the 70s and 80s are still aired weekly—Ryan Seacrest has served as the host since 2004.  Originally, AT40 used the Billboard charts to determine what songs made the countdown but in 1998 switched to Radio and Records, a now-defunct trade magazine competitor to Billboard.  Currently, AT40 uses Mediabase to determine their list; Mediabase is a music industry service that monitors radio station airplay for both terrestrial and satellite airplay.

Ryan Seacrest, current host of 'AT40,' the successor of 'American Top 40.'

Ryan Seacrest, current host of ‘AT40,’ the successor of ‘American Top 40.’

Despite the varied definitions, abstractions, and sources of the ‘top forty,’ this paper will derive its findings from the data published by BillboardBillboard magazine is the industry standard for charting song popularity.  Aside from being among the oldest trade magazines in the world—it was first published in 1894—the lists they currently produce give a ranking of both top song and top album regardless of genre.  While its history includes an assortment of lists—some of which are relevant to this investigation—the rankings that span genres will be the most useful in comparing musical theatre songs.  Without trying to add confusion, Billboard does not actually publish a ‘top forty.’  Billboard does, however, publish the ‘Hot 100.’  That term has served as the primary chart of the top one hundred songs across all genres each week since August 4, 1958.  Billboard uses data collected by Neilsen SoundScan which tracks song popularity based on digital download sales, radio airplay, and internet streaming.  Billboard has used Neilsen Soundscan since 1991.  The ‘Hot 100’ is in itself a merging of several previously published lists.

The ‘Top 100’ was the immediate predecessor to the ‘Hot 100’ and tried to combine all aspects of a song from three other lists: Best Selling Singles, Most Played by Jockeys, and Most Played in Jukeboxes.  This iteration lasted from November 12, 1955 until the creation of the ‘Hot 100’ in 1958.  In the chronology of definitive lists, the previous list to the ‘Top 100’ the list called ‘Best Selling Singles’ (Hamm 126).  Here again, Billboard’s term requires a bit of explanation.   Though Billboard currently tracks and reports lists in genres ranging from gospel to Latin to pop, prior to 1955, chartable music fell into one of three distinct categories:  Best Selling Singles, Race Records, and Country & Western (Hamm 126).  The existence of these three provide a picture of the state of affairs of not only the music publishing business, recording industry, and radio airplay practices of the 1940s, it even allows an accurate glimpse of the racial boundaries of America during that time.

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The ‘Best Selling Singles’ list included all of the music of Tin Pan Alley—a mostly white, Jewish set of composers, many of whom came from immigrant backgrounds and lived in New York City.  The music on the ‘Best Selling Singles’ primarily appealed to urban whites.  The ‘Race Records’—later called ‘Rhythm & Blues’—list charted blues players and black jazz and gospel musicians.  The music appealed mostly to blacks, both urban and rural.  The ‘Country & Western’ list included folk and bluegrass artists.  This music appealed primarily to rural whites.  Between these lists, crossover for both performer and listenership was rare.  Broadway music fell squarely into the category of ‘Best Selling Singles.’  Audiences found music across markets to be hard to relate to:  consider a rural, white farmer listening to the upper class problems in a Cole Porter song, for example.  The musical camps of the early part of the last century had drawn their lines.  Then along came rock ‘n’ roll.

UP NEXT:  Part II—The Changing Face of the Charts in the 1950s includes the earliest tensions between the music of Tin Pan Alley and that of rock ‘n roll.

All research conducted by Bradley J. Behrmann at San Diego State University (SDSU) and submitted on December 11, 2014.  Findings presented at the Student Research Symposium at SDSU on March 6, 2015.  Subsequent presentation at the Musical Theatre Educators’ Alliance Conference at Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts in Perth, Australia on June 22, 2015.  Bibliography published in final installment.

La Jolla opens spectacle-packed premiere with ‘Up Here’

Up Here—the latest project from Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez—opened at La Jolla Playhouse last night…

The cast of 'Up Here' bring to life anything in Dan's mind, and Dan's got a lot on his mind. (Photo-Matthew Murphy/ San Diego Union-Tribune)

The cast of ‘Up Here’ bring to life anything in Dan’s mind, and Dan’s got a lot on his mind. (Photo-Matthew Murphy/ San Diego Union-Tribune)

Now, before jumping into this review, we should acknowledge the elephant in the room.  And the gorilla.  And the giraffe.  And the ninja.  And the quintet of figures hiding in the corner.

As for the elephant, let us recognize the multitude of eyes that are, have been, and will be scrutinizing the development of Up Here.  As the first project for the husband and wife songwriting team since their immense success with Frozen, the creative duo face enormous pressure from both musical theatre nerds and casual “Let It Go” hummers everywhere.

As for the gorilla and the giraffe, they are Up Here’s choreographer and director*.  These two powerhouse talents— Joshua Bergasse and Alex Timbers—also come with their fair share of expectation.  Timbers last brought success to La Jolla Playhouse with Peter and the Starcatcher(s).  Bergasse’s choreography for Broadway’s On the Town recently earned a Tony nom.  (He’s already got an Emmy for his work on Smash.)

Regarding the ninja, in general, it’s worth mentioning there is one in this show; in particular, let us recognize that this show conjures characters as quickly as our protagonist—Dan—can imagine them.  That anything could appear out of thin air can be a luxury in storytelling, but it also poses a risk.  Dan’s “anything” includes but is not limited to boy scouts, lumberjacks, wizard cats, cacti Rockettes, and Pacific Islanders.

And as for that group in the corner, wait…who is that over there?  I can’t quite see them…OH!  It’s the cast of Disney Pixar’s new animated film, Inside Out!  Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, Anger!  Come on out here!  No need to hide!  It is only a coincidence that your movie came out mere months prior to Up Here’s opening and deals with the same conceit of personified emotions.  No hard feelings.  But since the film was first, the chances are likely that when describing Up Here, laymen will say, “You know, it’s like Inside Out:  The Musical!”

…Now that we’ve identified these imaginary forces in the room and the mammoth pressures they place on the success of the show, let’s deal with the imaginary forces onstage.  The catchphrase from La Jolla marketing has been “a musical comedy with a lot on its mind”:  a brilliant description.  This review can’t even start without a five-paragraph detour.  Put plainly, it’s a lot.  And that’s partly the point.  The human mind is colorful, noisy, and relentless, and so is Up Here.

A thirty-something IT guy named Dan (Matt Bittner) and a spunky t-shirt designer named Lindsay (Betsy Wolfe) wonder whether they can really ever know each other. (Photo-Mathew Murphy

A thirty-something IT guy named Dan (Matt Bittner) and a spunky t-shirt designer named Lindsay (Betsy Wolfe) wonder whether they can really ever know each other. (Photo-Mathew Murphy

When the runaway train of Dan’s mind chugs into a station for a moment of calm, the audience is able to digest and connect with this fragile, modern love story.  These moments of relative stillness in a maelstrom of thought are also the most enchanting bits of storytelling.  Dan and Lindsay’s “I Feel Like I’ve Always Known You” is warm and simple.  Lindsay’s titular-eschewing number “Up There” is a heartfelt plea for Dan to communicate with her.  The duet “Like a Stranger” that they share in their respective analyst’s office is hilarious and clever.  But the action rarely stays settled for too long as Dan’s inner demons propel him ever onwards—usually into a production number.  The show teeters constantly between tender and lollapalooza.

Matt Bittner portrays our hero with impish, introverted charm.  Betsy Wolfe endows Lindsay with pluck and spirit.  Both have pipes to spare.  One advantage of the aforementioned moments of stillness is being able to enjoy listening to these two sing without distraction.  The rest of the ensemble portrays dozens of characters.  Dozens.  The cast of internal characters more or less forms two camps:  Dark Forces and Light Forces.  The quartet of Dark Forces include Cool Guy (Andrew Call), Cool Girl (Gizel Jiminez), Humbug (Devere Rogers), and Critic (Jeff Hiller).  At odds with these forces are Mr. Can-Do (Devin Ratray) and Captain of the Guard (Kikau Alvaro).  In particular, Hiller and Alvaro elicit guffaws.  The strong ensemble delivers explosive vocals and dance.  Kudos also to Eric Petersen—in a nod to Kristen’s own brother who is undiagnosed but lies somewhere on the spectrum—who portrays Lindsay’s slightly touched brother, Tim.  Though Tim’s situation is secondary to Dan’s, this bit of characterization adds richness.  When the moral of the story comes around for Dan and Lindsay that we never really can know everything about people “up here,” we also think of Tim.

Two major concepts of the show prove to be the greatest potential obstacles to an audience’s understanding.  Firstly, the parallel story of ‘The Rock’ gives a humorous history of Manhattan’s geology while helping us feel pride, fear, and joy for an “inanimate” object.  (As a side note, The Rock’s etude is quite lovely.)  Dan’s story collides—rather literally—with The Rock’s at the climax of the show.  The second obstacle is Tim’s mantra “There is no such thing as the number one.”  Despite a musical number with the same name providing a lengthy exegesis on the matter, the audience’s attention bounces between singer, animation, and unfolding action—missing half the explanation.

For all its production value, Up Here is a simple story that shows immense heart.  Timbers and Bergasse manage those heartfelt moments the best, but all of the flash is also fun.  Scenic designer David Korins brings a set that moves easily between the interior mind and the exterior world, almost reminiscent The Drowsy Chaperone at timesDavid J. Weiner’s lighting design is—to quote the show itself—“kaleidoscopic.”  Costume designer Ann Closs-Farley deserves praise for simply the sheer quantity and variety of costumes required for this whimsical story.   Music Director Aron Accurso leads a first-rate orchestra.

No doubt, Up Here will continue to grow and seek a life on Broadway.  La Jolla Playhouse has proven to be a nurturing place for works at this stage of development, and Up Here is lucky to be in their capable hands.  Maybe that elephant could go in the show.

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Up Here runs at La Jolla Playhouse through September 6.

*Any likeness between the creative team and actual jungle creatures is purely coincidental. 

Musical Theatre Nerd Alert–Ep. 2

Hey, nerds!

Happy 4th of July, everyone!  This holiday weekend is a perfect time to share the second episode of Musical Theatre Nerd Alert, because today Liv is telling us everything we need to know about Irving Berlin.  Jerome Kern–someone we learned about in the first episode–once said, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music; he IS American music.”

So happy birthday, America!  Celebrate with some Irving Berlin!

Check it out and share with all the musical theatre nerds you know.

PREVIOUSLY:  Episode 1–Jessica on Jerome Kern

UP NEXT:  Episode 3–Courtney on Oscar Hammerstein II

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