What we might call the Whig theory of Broadway history holds that it was only when Richard Rodgers abandoned the increasingly drunken Lorenz Hart to write blockbusters with Oscar Hammerstein II that the musical became a coherent whole. After Oklahoma! (1943) it was impossible to write mere song-and-dance spectacles. Musicals were now unified fields: numbers weren’t just sprinkled incontinently over some feeble yarn; now they grew organically out of a meaningful narrative. This, argues Dominic Symonds in We’ll Have Manhattan, is nonsense. Right from the jump, he says, Rodgers and Hart sought to render story and song indivisible.
In part, this ambition was a reflection of a burgeoning cultural nationalism. Until the end of the First World War, American musical theatre was dominated by Middle European operettas (all noble tenors and no-good basses) and winsome, major-chord snores imported from London’s West End. The powers that be were none