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Hamptons Life

Jan 15, 2019 11:44 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Laurence Maslon's 'Broadway To Main Street' Explores How Musicals Entered Homes

Jan 15, 2019 11:56 AM

For well more than a century, New York City has been the incubator and proving ground of the Broadway musical, that most classic of American art forms. While a popular musical can be seen live by as many as 10,000 audience members each week, historically speaking, there have been millions more Americans whose only contact with Broadway arrived via the latest audio technology of their day.

It’s a concept that Laurence Maslon, an associate chair and arts professor at the graduate acting program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has spent the last seven years researching for his book “Broadway to Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America,” which was published by Oxford University Press in September.

You could say that Mr. Maslon, who is affiliated with NYU’s graduate musical theater writing program, is something of an expert in the field. Right now, he’s working on a companion book for the hit musical “Come From Away,” and on January 9 he began his eighth year as host and producer of “Broadway to Main Street,” a weekly radio program on WPPB 88.3 FM Peconic Public Broadcasting in Southampton that explores various aspects of the musical genre. He also wrote “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” a documentary on the late singer and entertainer that was screened as part of the Hamptons Doc Fest in December. The film will air on PBS’ “American Masters” in mid-February and Mr. Maslon is also the artistic director of “Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis Jr. Songbook,” a live show running February 23 through 25 at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.

Though his faculty position at NYU and other related theater projects mean that Mr. Maslon sees dozens of Broadway shows every year, his own first experience with musicals was not from a seat on the aisle, but rather a seat in his parents’ living room where a turntable played cast albums of popular (and sometimes less than popular) shows of the 20th century.

“My parents were very into theater,” explained Mr. Maslon in a recent interview in Southampton. “I was named after Olivier—my mother was pregnant with me when she saw him in ‘The Entertainer.’ My dad would say, ‘Come watch this on TV.’ It was ‘Pygmalion’ and I was 10 or 11 … We also had these strange records, including ‘Oh, Captain,’ and I got interested in shows based on what they were about.”

But going to see an actual Broadway production? That was not a regular feature of Mr. Maslon’s formative years, despite the fact that he grew up in Malverne, Long Island—just 23 miles from midtown Manhattan.

“In the pre-credit-card days, my parents couldn’t figure out how to get in town and get the tickets,” Mr. Maslon recalled. “It wasn’t until 1977 that you could use a credit card.”

So it was the record player that first introduced Mr. Maslon to Broadway. The role that cast albums played in taking show tunes from New York into the heartland of America is explored in Mr. Maslon’s new book. It offers a history of the musical as seen through the lens of the changing technologies that brought Broadway scores into homes at a time when a trip to see the real thing was either impractical or geographically impossible.

Mr. Maslon explained it’s a story that began in the 1890s with the availability of printed sheet music that allowed popular show tunes to be played on the piano at home. What followed were recordings of individual songs on gramophone or short play records, radio programming, the advent of long play cast albums, TV productions, film soundtracks, cassettes and CDs and, finally, digital downloads.

He noted that in the beginning of sound recording the names of the singers were far less important than the songs, which could be put out only as singles. As technology improved and shifted, radio and television came on the scene and pop singers, even those without acting careers, often opted to record Broadway tunes.

But it was the invention of the LP record that really opened up the genre so that the stories and full scores of musicals could be available to home audiences.

“1948 to 1969 were huge years in American musicals and at least 13 cast albums made it to No. 1 for at least one week,” Mr. Maslon said. “Cast albums were the most attractive packages. They tried to sell this avatar of what a Broadway show was like, and that’s the best they could do.”

The first big game changer in terms of cast albums was “My Fair Lady,” which spent eight weeks at No. 1 when it debuted in 1956. The album found its way into millions of homes and it stayed on the charts for 480 weeks. Like Mr. Maslon with his parents’ record collection, this was how most people got their first taste of a full Broadway show.

“‘West Side Story’ spent over a year at No. 1. ‘The Sound of Music’ opened in November of ’59 and the album didn’t hit until 1960. That cast album was No. 1 for at least 10 weeks,” Mr. Maslon said. “It stayed on the charts past the opening of the movie in ’65. Then the movie soundtrack was at No. 1 and stayed on the charts through 1969.”

That means together, the cast album and the movie soundtrack of “The Sound of Music” had a presence on the charts for the entire decade of the 1960s. It was also an era when Broadway songs found favor with the giant vocal stars—people like Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra all covered Broadway material.

Quite a reach for an art form defined by such a small geographical area.

“There’s a paradigm. The musical is a two-and-a-half-hour live event you see within a 12-square-block radius in New York City,” he said. “How did people re-create it in their living rooms? Technology has these weird intersections. No one was interested in cast albums until after the war because they weighed eight pounds. People were interested in two or three songs from the show because it was covered by pop stars.”

Things changed in the late 1940s.

“The technology came out for the LP with 50 minutes on a record, and now there were stories worth telling,” Mr. Maslon said. “Then cassettes happened. When the CD comes out, it’s the second game changer. You could buy the music in the theater. Now you can listen to a whole show without getting up to change discs.”

Today, despite the plethora of touring companies crisscrossing America and the availability of digital technology that allows for instantaneous downloads of all sorts of entertainment, Broadway, Mr. Maslon said, is more popular than ever. But these days, shows offer storylines catering to a much younger generation of theatergoers.

“Every year, Broadway does better and better,” Mr. Maslon said. “My heroes were middle-aged—Dolly, Tevye, Captain Von Trapp. I wouldn’t say ‘Annie’ was a game changer, but there are now three musicals running about high school students.”

Mr. Maslon explained that the show “Wicked” also had a lot to do with shifting the trend toward younger protagonists and storylines that speak to youthful audiences. When his wife’s relatives visited New York from Alaska recently with their 13-year-old daughter in tow, “Wicked” was the show they sent them to see.

“Fifty years ago, it would have been ‘Hello, Dolly,’ ‘Fiddler,’ or older shows for older people,” he said. “When I grew up, there wasn’t a show for me. I was a precocious kid, but shows didn’t speak to me. It’s so different for young people today. They have access. You don’t have to wait until someone gives your parents a cast album. Everyone is their own DJ. Those who download anything from ‘Hamilton’ download the whole thing … and they want to hear the whole thing.”

Though time, tastes and technology may alter many things about theater, Mr. Maslon notes there’s one aspect of the great American musical that has never changed.

“You can only see a Broadway show on Broadway,” he said. “Going to see a Broadway show isn’t just about the show. It’s the lights of Times Square, a salty pretzel, seeing a celebrity.

“It became mythologized … and it’s been that way for 115 years.”

On Sunday, January 20, at 3 p.m. on 88.3 FM and 883wppb.org, Laurence Maslon will present his “Eighth Year Kick-Off” show, which will offer a lighthearted look at all the songs he really loves that he never got to play because they didn’t fit within a bigger topic or theme.

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