Part IV—Broadway Tastes Rock Music

Part IV—Reclaiming the ‘Top Forty’

PREVIOUSLY:  Part III—Examining Early Chart Toppers includes early #1 hits “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Mack the Knife.”

Louis Armstrong's version of

Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly!” famously bumped The Beatles from #1. Meanwhile at the theatre, confused audiences wondered when Louis Armstrong would appear onstage.

The fluke of Louis Armstrong’s single “Hello, Dolly!” bumping The Beatles from the number one spot in 1964 is the modern-day equivalent of someone like James Taylor recording “I’ve Decided to Marry You” and it bumping One Direction.  936full-hello,-dolly!-posterDespite Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s status as one of the greats of the jazz world, displacing the Beatles from #1 was an unlikely feat for a 63-year-old trumpeter/vocalist.  His music was as much a part of the Twenties and Thirties as it was the Sixties.  The song itself was written by Jerry Herman for the title character Dolly Levi’s second act entrance.  Like “Mack the Knife,” the song is solidly based in a jazz treatment.  The structure uses a slight variation on the Tin Pan Alley form.  Instead of an AABA structure, “Hello, Dolly!” uses an AAAB structure.  Regardless, it is still a form familiar to the musical theatre ear and easily placed in the jazz style.

The next chart topper from the Broadway realm came from one of the most significant shows of the 1960s.  Hair was among the first Broadway shows to deliberately embrace rock ‘n’ roll.  Hair opened off-Broadway at the New York Public Theatre in 1967 and transferred to the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway in 1968.  HairposterThe show’s hippie themes of love, peace, and understanding contrasted with their edgy score and use of full-frontal nudity.  The show—“An American Tribal Love Rock Musical”—was an experiment for Broadway and a successful introduction of rock ‘n’ roll, although the impact on the show tune remains debatable.  One of the show’s creators, Canadian composer Galt MacDermot, muses: “It didn’t change Broadway much.”  On the other hand, William Goldman in The Season, wrote: “You better believe it’s gonna change things.  There will now be a spate of shitty rock musicals” (Kantor 325).

The Fifth Dimension recorded two songs from the musical Hair combined as one, ushering Broadway rock 'n' roll onto the pop charts.

The Fifth Dimension recorded two songs from the musical Hair combined as one, ushering Broadway rock ‘n’ roll onto the pop charts.

In terms of crossover on to the pop charts, however, the music was ripe for the picking.  Because it was conceived in the rock style and with a rock song structure, there was little adaptation needed to make it appealing to the rock audience.  The group who plucked the fruit was The Fifth Dimension.  The opening of Hair was literally an anthem of a new era, and the age of “Aquarius” sang of that world.  “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”—unlike any of the songs discussed so far—employed a verse-chorus structure, indicative of the rock form.  Additionally, producer Bones Howe thought the song was missing something.  He imagined it needed something of a gospel sing-along at the end.  After seeing the show in New York, he recommended using the last three bars of the song “The Flesh Failures” which was subtitled “Let the Sunshine In.”  The audience joined in singing at the theatre, and thus Howe had the idea to take the two pieces and “put them together like two trains” (Bronson 2003 253).  “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” lasted six weeks at the top.

UP NEXT:  Part V—A Whole New World:  Movie Musicals and Disney considers not only the movie musical as the constant bedfellow of the Broadway show, but also recognizes Disney’s contribution to the survival of the musical on the pop charts.

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.

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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.

photo-toddstorz

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.

hot 100 83

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.

Can the Music of Broadway Reclaim the Top 40?

This week, the MFAs launch their research projects.  Care to weigh in on my proposal?  Know any resources? Comment below.  

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 of American popular music, the music of Broadway was popular music.

At some point, however, the dialogue that existed between popular music and Broadway music either fizzled or turned one-sided.  Perhaps both genres amiably departed in their natural evolution or perhaps they split sharply.  At various junctures in musical theatre history, Broadway looked to popular music, but popular music seemed to give little regard to Broadway.  Looking to examples such as Hair, A Chorus Line, Rent, and In the Heights, Broadway certainly responded to popular music, as these shows all evoked the musical style particular to the period in which they were created, namely elements of rock ‘n’ roll, disco, pop rock, and hip-hop.  Whether popular music responded to any of the Broadway shows that so clearly sit rooted in popular music becomes harder to identify.

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 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.  Though the Top Forty only goes back to 1951, this research will also seek a measureable record of song popularity prior to that date.  This data can then be used to examine the following questions:

  • Did Broadway music slip gradually from the top forty charts or was it a swift fall?
  • Does the data point to any corresponding social or societal shifts such as new technology or world events?
  • Does the data point to any corresponding events in musical theatre history?
  • Can any correlation be drawn to a shift in song form or other musical factors?
  • Do individual performers have more or less success in bringing Broadway music to the pop charts (e.g.-Barbra Streisand)?

In conclusion, this research will aim to describe the relationship between Broadway music and popular music over the past one hundred years and identify certain conditions that might make a Broadway song more or less likely to cross over to the pop charts.  From there, it might be possible to make suppositions about the future relationship of these two genres.  Put another way, can the fluid dialogue that once existed between Broadway and popular music ever be restored?

 

It's hard not to think of "Let It Go".  What does the Frozen hit have that modern show tunes lack? Photo courtesy of: Jacob Brent

It’s hard not to think of “Let It Go”. What does the Frozen hit have that modern show tunes lack?
Photo courtesy of: Jacob Brent

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