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John H. McWhorter

Lost Treasures

Rewriting the history of American musical theater.

Not so long ago, from even the better-informed writers on American musical theater scores one expected the boulevardier more than the scholar, especially on the older works. Typical: a classic survey's complete take on Jerome Kern's superhit Sunny of 1925 was that its "value was enhanced more by the bounding Jack Donahue and the Tiller Girls than by any superior qualities in the score."

Yet Sunny was in fact bursting with music of near-operatic scope. The problem is that the authors of that survey had no way of knowing it. In the old days, Broadway theater music was thought of not as art but as commerce for the moment, no more worthy of preservation than the pit music for television variety shows. Show music was still America's pop music. 45-minute recital lps of the kind Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald pioneered were technically impossible before the Fifties; before this, even the great song-writers had no sense of contributing to an eternal "songbook."

Thus after an old show closed, all that was left was sheet music of the songs the producers hoped might become hits—only a fraction of the 14 or so songs in the show. Dance music and underscoring were never published as sheet music, and even if a fullish piano-vocal score was published—which was only for the biggest hits—often not in them.

Once a Sunny was off the boards, it was largely unknowable beyond the sheet music, some photos, and scattered recollections—until 1982. This was when the original performance materials for hundreds of Broadway musicals were discovered in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. Since then, some dozens of projects have used this material to create recordings of the old shows as they were originally heard, and writers can now explore the actual scores of these shows rather than their isolated musical souvenirs. This more comprehensive approach to America's musical theater heritage has also spurred a similar approach to more recent theater music. A writer whose book ...

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