The Long-Neglected Passageway Between Classical Music, Theater, and Pop Reopens

O'Hara (center) and co. in The King and IEXPAND
O'Hara (center) and co. in The King and I
Paul Kolnik

The vast gulf we now perceive between classical and popular music didn't exist a century or even half a century ago. Music was music. Then as now, a vastly larger audience preferred the popular kind — of which show music was considered the more polished upper edge — to the classical. But the traffic was freer back then, in both directions: Opera stars and instrumental virtuosos toured in vaudeville; Tin Pan Alley songwriters returned the compliment by saluting the classics in numbers like "I'm After Madame Tetrazzini's Job" and "That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune." In the 1930s, classical celebs migrated to film and radio, and in the 1950s they appeared regularly on TV variety shows.

The not-so-secret passageway that linked the two modes was the American musical theater. Beginning in the age of operetta, opera stars like Emma Trentini had musical shows built around them, inaugurating a line that led through Ezio Pinza and Helen Traubel to the time, still within recent memory, of Broadway ventures by Cesare Siepi and Teresa Stratas. The post–World War II generation of American classical singers, who had grown up with pop and show music as part of their daily sonic diet, found it even easier to move back and forth between the genres. New York City Opera, in its heyday, boasted a roster of artists who could move from Broadway to Wagner and Verdi without batting a stylistic eyelash.

Back then, composers who had begun in pop, like George Gershwin, could freely travel upward, as it were, and attempt large-scale compositions. Simultaneously, the classically trained could move in the opposite direction, in search of both wider audiences and fresh materials, like Marc Blitzstein and Kurt Weill transforming pop idioms into "Broadway opera." The infusion of the new modes of amplified music that have arrived since the 1960s, from Hair to Hamilton, has only increased the theater's capacity for mixing and matching. The constant re-synthesizing of these seeming antitheses gave, and will probably continue to give, our musical theater its essential dynamic energy.

Though long overlooked, that link is starting to make itself visible again. The most recent piece of evidence for it came in the form of two press releases that arrived almost simultaneously: Kelli O'Hara, the Tony-winning star of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I at the Vivian Beaumont, will leave the show on April 17. But she won't be going far: Her next gig, just a few blocks down at New York City Center, will be a staged concert, on April 28 and 29, of Henry Purcell's 1688 opera Dido and Aeneas given by the choral ensemble MasterVoices (formerly the Collegiate Chorale). One of her partners in going for baroque on this occasion will be Victoria Clark (who won a Tony playing O'Hara's mother in The Light in the Piazza), and Purcell's lovely short opera will be receiving a new prologue composed by Michael John LaChiusa, best known for works like The Wild Party and the Obie-winning First Lady Suite, not famous for their seventeenth-century gentility.

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It's a simple fact that nowadays, in the Sondheim era, Broadway composers, conductors, and singers are musically better schooled than ever, and at ease in a wider range of idioms. Difficulties arise, though, because musical understanding in general has fallen so low: Our well-trained artists have to face uncultivated producers, stage directors, and audiences, who've grown up listening uncritically to nothing but the most widely available pop-rock sounds, with no sense of nuance and no clue to the complex demands a new score can make. Sound designers and choreographers often find themselves caught uncomfortably between the two sides.

Which makes it all the more startling that the classical/showtune connection has reopened, with evidence on display all around us. A monumental epitome of the link arrived last fall with the completion of the new-music pianist Anthony de Mare's gigantic project, Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim (ECM). De Mare invited 36 composers, ranging from old-school polytonalists to jazz, show, and avant-garde creators, to rethink a Sondheim tune, each in his or her own way, for solo piano. The results, packed onto a three-CD set, are dazzling and dizzying, a treasure trove of approaches — all immaculately conveyed in de Mare's ineffably precise playing — that make Sondheim seem the quintessence of the past century's music.

Through the prism of his melodies, Eve Beglarian and Steve Reich perceive minimalist meditations; Wynton Marsalis soars wildly off into Thelonious Monk's hair-raising harmonic freedom; film composer David Shire evokes Thirties pop-piano virtuosity; other contributors evoke everything from Louis Moreau Gottschalk to Debussy and John Cage. Wittiest of all is the shortest piece, at the very top of disc 1, a tiny mock fugue by senior composer William Bolcom that manages to turn "Anyone Can Whistle" into "Send in the Clowns" in a minute and a half. And most haunting of the lot is Frederic Rzewski's slow, soulfully expansive fantasia on "I'm Still Here." It's all classical. It's all show music.

Another announcement of an upcoming cast change in a long-running show — Rebecca Luker will be replacing Judy Kuhn as the harried wife and mother in Fun Home for two months starting April 5 — sent me hunting through some less recent CDs graced by her full-toned, plangent soprano. Like O'Hara and Clark, Luker belongs to the new breed of Broadway singers who can tackle anything from Bach to bop with ease. Before catching her in Fun Home, sample her essence on her 2013 album, I Got Love: Songs of Jerome Kern (PS Classics). Kern's shimmering melodic elegance — the film critic James Agee compared his music to mother-of-pearl — couldn't be further from Jeanine Tesori's contemporary, hard-edged Fun Home score, but Luker's wide-ranging selections and pert performance make Kern sound brand-new. (By the way, the disc's title song has its place in crossover history: It was written to give Met coloratura Lily Pons some big-band hepcat cred in a 1930s flick.)

Luker is also the standout, amid a covey of classical and Broadway singers, on a monumental rediscovery project that came out in 2012, Victor Herbert: Collected Songs (New World Records). Herbert (1859–1924), the Irish-born, Stuttgart-educated granddaddy of American musical theater, is mainly known for composing 45 full-length operettas, several of them still played. But he also tossed off a host of miscellaneous songs for various occasions, and this four-disc box collects them all — art songs (many on German texts), occasional songs for various events, "specialties" for vaudeville performers, and contributions to Ziegfeld's Follies and other revues. Most were wholly unknown till this set came out; disc 4 contains fifteen unpublished songs, including a lush setting of Burns's "My Love's Like a Red, Red Rose," handsomely sung by Ron Raines. The set's other peak is Luker's sweet, understated rendering of the familiar "Kiss Me Again." But the set itself deserves extensive attention. Herbert was a classical cellist (his cello concerto has been recorded) as well as a harmonically supple, melodically inventive composer. Moving without hesitation from lieder and opera to Irish vaudeville and chorus-girl frippery, he presided over the birth of our paradoxical landscape, in which the trip from The King and I to Purcell is only a hop across the plaza. Skill and sympathy are the only travel restrictions that apply.

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