Michael Henderson in Sun. Tel. 22.6.14 reported on a BBC party at which DG Tony Hall made a speech on the plans for music programming.
… there is one vast hole at the heart of the new dispensation. There was not a single reference in Hall’s manifesto to a musical form that has probably given more innocent pleasure to more people than any other since Orpheus strummed his lyre. It is called the American popular song, not to be confused with the pop song, which Radio 2 will be honouring.
There will be a three-part television series about the music of the American South, presented by one of those comedians that programme-makers deem to be such important figures. But, marvellous though much of that music is, it does not correspond to anybody’s idea of the Great American Songbook, which was composed, mainly by Jews, on the island of Manhattan between 1927, when Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote Showboat, and 1959, when Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim collaborated on Gypsy.
Showboat began it all because it was the first classic musical, composed by the man, Kern, who did more than anybody to create an authentically American form based on memorable melodies and, with Hammerstein’s words, demotic language. Irving Berlin preceded him; George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers came afterwards. But Kern’s fingerprints are all over the autograph score of the Great American Songbook.
When Gypsy came along 30 years later, the show was a tribute to everything that had happened in between. Literally, in Sondheim’s case, because he learnt about the tradition at the knee of Hammerstein from his teenage years. There have been great musicals since then, but Gypsy occupies a special place in the history of musical theatre. For many people, immersed in that theatre, it is the greatest stage musical of all.
This is the tradition the BBC is ignoring. It is commendable for schoolchildren to learn about Mozart and Bach if they are to enjoy the emotional richness that great music can bring to life. But it would be no bad thing also to introduce them to the classic American songs.
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