What is the music of New York City? Okay, it’s a stupid question. Depending on what you like, you can chose almost anything you’d want to listen to, and call it authentic New York music. Genre after genre of American music has its roots in New York City, from classical music—native New Yorkers Copland, Gershwin, and Carter are perhaps the greatest composers in 20th century America—to all of the creators of rap music, from Grandmaster Flash to Jay-Z. But leave us to avoid chauvinism, or ill-becoming boosterism. For most musical genres, New York City has to share the honors with other cities. If nothing says New York City in music like jazz, NYC must share the honors as the pre-eminent jazz city with Chicago, Kansas City, and of course, New Orleans. And New York City, if not quite tangential to the development of the post-war blues and rock and roll, is not nearly as central as say, Detroit or Memphis, or for that matter, Liverpool. But there is one musical genre which was New York City born and bred, and really had no life outside of the city, except for a few of its practitioners who ventured to Hollywood. This is the remarkable flourishing of musical theater in New York City from about 1920 to about 1970, a rough half century that saw the production of masterpiece after masterpiece. It was a synthetic genre, with a foundation in Viennese operetta on which was overlaid ragtime, jazz, and newer popular music styles, but it has a coherence and distinctiveness that was all its own; verbally deft, melodically pungent, nimble in its dance, and elegant in its presentation. In his history of Opera in America, John Dizikes, calls this, quite aptly, “New York Opera” and the name is a good one. For most of the 20th century, some of the most sophisticated, memorable, and lasting musical theater, anywhere in the world, was created in New York City.
These reflections are prompted by the sad news that John McGlinn, an extraordinary conductor of American musicals, passed away last week. Before McGlinn, the performance of American musicals was haphazard, with numbers cut out, added, or reshaped according to the whims of the performers. Little attention had been paid to the original intentions of the composers, or efforts made to search out the original scores, and attempt to create authentic performing additions. What a host of musicologists were doing in the 1980s and 1990s for baroque music, McGlinn did for American musicals. His masterpiece was undoubtedly the 3 CD release in 1988 of the complete score for “Show Boat,” demonstrating an previously unrecognized architecture to the entire work, and salvaging numbers cut from the show. It was a revelation, and he followed this up with similarly vital reconstructions of the works of Cole Porter, Gershwin, and all of the giants of mid century American musical theater. There is nothing automatic about the preservation of our cultural heritage. John McGlinn, in his many recordings, did much to help keep the mighty majesty of the musical “rolling along.”