The history of musical theater is so much more than jazz hands and glittery costumes. The lyrical and rhythmic traditions of musical theater acted as a springboard for almost every type of music we hear today.
Joshua Hughes, a local vocalist, will outline over a century of musical theater history with a cabaret performance at Germano’s Piattini at 300 S. High St. on Friday, March 13.
“What I love about musical theater is that it’s an expressly American art form. It was created in the United States and it’s something, like jazz, that was created here,” said Hughes.
Currently studying Voice Performance and Pedagogy at Peabody Conservatory, Hughes said his cabaret will chronologically demonstrate the great changes and patterns within musical theater and how these changes were reflective of the culture and state of the world as a whole.
“It really shows the huge difference in how musicals were constructed and the type of singing involved. It’s going to show a progression of styles.”
For example, the first song performed will be a heavily operatic piece from 1905, a time long before musical theater as we know it came into existence.
“At that time, Broadway was probably just a dirt road,” Hughes jokes.
He explained that at the time, shows were just popular operettas strung together in a loose plot, much like today’s jukebox musicals.
From there, the more-common “book musical” began to emerge during the 1920s and 30s. These are shows with a cohesive plot with a storyline and dialogue. In book musicals, the songs are not necessary to the plot, but rather add an extra level to the overall performance.
With the advent of microphones and no longer needing the belt notes loud enough for those in the back rows, performers were allowed to be more creative with their voices and embrace more fluidity with notes and rhythms. This free-styling improvisation and musical flexibility eventually lead to the birth of jazz.
“So much music theater, especially early music theater like George Gershwin and Cole Porter, is the repertoire of jazz standards. Most of the jazz standards you hear probably came from a musical.”
Despite the variety of styles in music theater’s past, some patterns begin to emerge, which Hughes will highlight in his performance.
“Music theater is a great window into what the culture was at that time,” he said.
For example, the musicals performed during the Great Depression were the complete antithesis of the “real world”. All tap-dancing and bright lights and color, this era of music was used as a distraction from the harsh realities that the audience had to see every day.
“They just saw a bread line that was a block long and they didn’t want to see that on stage, they wanted to see glitz and glamour.”
Musicals reached their apex in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, he said, when Stephen Sondheim was producing hit after hit and musical theater began to establish itself as an American tradition that was accessible to people of all backgrounds.
These showy numbers eventually evolved into music theater as we know it in 2016. Although the most recent song Hughes will perform is from ‘The Producers’, created in 2000, he said it acts as a good transition into the stylings of modern musicals.
“It also shows you the way that musicals starting going then. The Producers was a movie by Mel Brooks and then he turned it into a musical, and then they turned it into a movie again. You also see this with John Waters’ Hairspray.”
This is a stark difference from musical theater’s beginning where songs were cobbled together into ridiculous plots. Now music was being added to pre-existing storylines.
He referenced Hamilton, one of the biggest shows currently on Broadway , which has hip-hop and rap influences in the music. This is another example of the culture creating music, and the music creating the culture.
A characteristic of cabaret is ‘patter’, a theater term for the audience mingling and stories that bookend each performance. Between songs, Hughes will relay information on the history of musical theater and how it impacted society at large as well as relevant personal anecdotes.
Cabaret is more than a performance, it’s a “long conversation”, he explained.
Hughes said that Germano’s in Little Italy is a perfect venue to this artform since it’s smaller and provides a more intimate environment.
He said he will still maintain the integrity of each song while incorporating his own signature “Broadway baritone” style into it.
“This is very personal and reflective of me, this is my repertoire but it also spans a century of time in different types of music that really reflect this American art form and the culture around it,” he said. “The way you’ll hear a song will be in a way you’ve never heard it before. It’s going to be a unique performance.”
Hughes came to Baltimore in 2014 from Kansas City, Missouri to attend Peabody. Growing up a performer, he had always toed the line between opera and music theater and he said this variety is needed for young musicians. As his cabaret demonstrates, music changes and the ability to adapt is important for a vocalist.
Hughes has to roll his eyes when he hears people say they don’t like musical theater because they are brushing off centuries of history as well as dozens of individual and unique musical styles.
“You listen to Victor Herbert and it’s entirely different from ‘The Producers’. I hope the audience comes and listens and they’re hopefully going to come to understand and love this broad range of things,” he said.
For more information on Hughes, visit www.joshuahughesbaritone.com.
To purchase tickets for the event, visit www.germanospiattini.com/events.
By Gianna DeCarlo