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The 20th Century as Told By Musicals

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Since its beginning, American musical theater has reflected the time and people of the United States. The four plays, South Pacific, West Side Story, HAIR, and Rent exemplify the change and conflict of the 20th century. South Pacific and West Side Story accentuate the prejudice present in the 40s and 50s towards the Japanese and Hispanic populations, while HAIR reflects the 60s resistance to the Vietnam War, and Rent encompasses the 90s struggle with AIDS and sexuality.

The 1949 musical composed by Richard Rodgers, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, South Pacific, tells the story of an American nurse during World War II who falls in love with a French plantation owner, but struggles to accept his mixed raced children and that of a young lieutenant who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl, but struggles to be with her because of people’s opinions back home. This hit came four years after the end of World War II, depicting how many Americans questioned the core American values, exploring issues of race and power. During World War II, many Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to internment camps (Robinson,1). Despite being American citizens, they were treated like enemies because of their ethnicity. The bombing of Pearl Harbor instilled fear in Americans, resulting in a lack of trust in Japanese Americans. This sentiment is expressed in South Pacific’s song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” The line, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid, of people whose eyes are oddly made” expresses America’s fear and prejudice towards those who looked different from them, especially those from Asian countries. South Pacific “make[s] a courageous statement against racial bigotry in general and institutional racism in the postwar United States in particular” (Knapp, 245). Through this musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein portray the fear America felt throughout the nation and the hate that grew due to this fear.

West Side Story tells of two lovers associated with rival gangs in New York City who try to be together despite the violence and hate they are surrounded by. This musical, which was originally directed by Jerome Robbins with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and music by Leonard Bernstein, reflects society in the 1950s. America in the 1950s was the main stage for the civil rights movement. Prejudice and racism were strong throughout the nation and greatly affected all minorities. Many Hispanic immigrants moved to America pursuing the American Dream, but quickly realized America was a white man’s country. In the song, “America,” Anita sings, “Life is all right in America,” and Bernardo responds, “If you’re all white in America.” These lines reflect the struggle that comes with the American Dream as it is a road paved with prejudice and unequal opportunities. Latinos, like other minorities, were considered second class citizens, denied many of the basic liberties enjoyed by the white population (Oja, 15) . In 1958, a new influx of Cuban immigrants gave another push towards white supremacy to an already white supremacist nation due to America’s fear of being overrun by immigrants (Bach, 72). The introductory song, the “Jets Song,” exemplifies this, as the Jets sing, “We’re hangin’ a sign,/ Says “Visitors forbidden”/And we ain’t kiddin’!” The message in this song is evident: foreigners are not welcomed. West Side Story portrays the social atmosphere in the 50s, while the Shakespearean end to this work shows the reader the devastating results of hatred based on cultural background.

HAIR, the rock musical with lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot, tells the story of a group of politically active hippies in New York who are opposed to the Vietnam War. The 60s was a time of change for America; gay rights movement started, the civil rights movement ended, and music was revolutionized by the British Invasion which brought rock and roll to the states. HAIR fell in line with this music revolution as the score for it was filled with rock and upbeat music, unlike anything Broadway had seen before. It was also this decade that the Vietnam war was in full swing. During the Vietnam war, many aspects of life were changing in America; people were being drafted at unprecedented high numbers, the economy was low, and the people did not the American government (McAdam). HAIR properly portrays this decade as it shows the people’s frustration with the war, calling it “a dirty little war.” This was the first war where the majority of America was opposed to the government’s decision to enter the war. The youth, along with teachers, lead these protests as exemplified by young cast of HAIR. The American people were no longer passively standing by and observing; they took action and became an active role in the government.

Written by Jonathan Larson, Rent tells the story of young bohemians in New York city and the struggles they faced. Beyond this, it tells the story of America at the turn of the century, addressing topics such as the AIDS, sexual orientation, technology, and drug use. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, more than one million people in America were affected by AIDS and being diagnosed was a death sentence. Rent portrayed the frustration and the results of the AIDS epidemic (Schrader). This is a musical that for the first time put HIV positive characters at the center of a Broadway show. In the song “Will I?”, the members of the Life Support group ask, “Will I lose my dignity/Will someone care/ Will I wake tomorrow/From this nightmare?” Through this, Rent reflects on what having AIDS is like by going through the thoughts that run through the minds of people who have to live with the stigma. Moreover, the play reflects upon the open mindedness of the time. In 1992, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of disorders, an important milestone in gay rights as it showed how views in America were changing (Seckinelgin, 21). Through its diverse characters, Rent portrayed this new openness to alternative lifestyles, not just that of homosexuality, but also of other races.

Through musical theater, people are able to see what America was like in past times. These four musicals exemplify America in the 20th century by addressing social issues.

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