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A sONG AT ITS HEART 'Red Hot & Blue' at Washington's National Portrait Gallery tells the long and often glamorous story of the American musical.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maybe you're a museum-goer in the mood for the art world's equivalent of the tired-businessman musical. Or maybe you're a tired businessman who doesn't want to shell out $50 or so to see the latest touring extravaganza. Either way, "Red, Hot & Blue" at Washington's National Portrait Gallery is just the show for you.

It's free, this "Salute to the American Musical," so you can't complain about the price of admission. It's got lots of pictures of glamorous people you've heard of all your life, from Flo Ziegfeld and Cole Porter and Gertrude Lawrence to Judy Garland and Gene Kelly and, of course, Fred and Ginger. As well as some people you might never have heard of: Tony Pastor, Nora Bayes, Joseph Urban, Florence Mills.

It's an easy show to take, broken into five logical sections outlining the history of the American musical. It begins just after the Civil War and ends with the revival of "Show Boat" that's running on Broadway right now. Each section introduces you to the main characters and, where appropriate, fills you in on what they did to advance the American musical. Aside from the pictures of the people -- sometimes expected (suave Cole Porter), sometimes surprising (was Irving Berlin really that young once?) -- there are lots of sheet music covers with their delightful and often quite sophisticated designs.

And there are the five videos, one in each section, calling to you, drawing you on with their snippets of performance: George M. Cohan rasping "I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune" (makes you realize how well Jimmy Cagney played him in the movie bio) and Sophie Tucker slogging through "Some of These Days." Helen Morgan singing "Bill" in her fidgety way and Al Jolson sobbing "Mammy." Fred coaxing Ginger to "Face the Music and Dance" and Ethel Merman belting out "I Got Rhythm." Gene Kelly splashing along as he croons "Singin' in the Rain" and Ezio Pinza growling "Some Enchanted Evening" in Mary Martin's ear. The gang from "Hair" doing "The Age of Aquarius" and Carol Channing prancing across that runway for the umpteen thousandth time and assuring you (as if you didn't already know it) that "Dolly'll never go away agai-ain."

So who could ask for anything more from this combined National Portrait Gallery/National Museum of American History exhibit? Well, on the lighter side, you could wish for longer videos. Each one crams about eight to 12 clips into four or five minutes, for an average of something like 30 seconds a clip. So just as you're beginning to get the feel of what it was like to watch Eddie Cantor skip around the stage singing "Oh Gee Georgie," or just as Judy's glorious voice begins to bathe you in "The Trolley Song" -- poof! They're gone.

And the other side of this particular coin is that every few minutes the same snippets of the same songs roll around again. So if you spend, say, half an hour in the 1907 to 1927 section of the show, you can't avoid hearing John Steele sing "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" roughly half a dozen times, until you want to tell him to just shut up, for God's sake.

Desired objects

On the more serious side, you could wish for more three-dimensional material. There's a little bit. There's the red chair with the dragon arms owned by J. J. Shubert, who with his brother Lee formed the Shubert organization that became Ziegfeld's chief rival in the era of the great impresarios, the 1910s and 1920s. (Ziegfeld's gone, but the Shubert organization still lives.) There's a pair of shoes danced in by Fred Astaire in "Top Hat." (If memory serves me, one of the movie's dance numbers starts with a shot of his shoes -- could it be the same ones?) And a pair of Judy's red shoes from "The Wizard of Oz" (there was more than one pair), looking a bit worn, actually. And a few costumes, including Dolly's gaudy red runway-tripping number.

But we could do with more costumes and more models of stage sets, too. There's one from the "Show Boat" revival, and one from the recent revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." But aren't there more out there? Have the models for all of designer Joseph Urban's sets for the "Ziegfeld Follies" gone ,, the way of Joseph Urban? And if so, is there nothing more recent, from, say, a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, or a Bernstein show?

You could wish, if you're a purist, that they had left out the movie part and concentrated exclusively on the stage part. Sure, it's great to see Judy and Mickey and Fred and Ginger and Gene and Debbie, but isn't the stage musical worth a whole show?

And as long as you're wishing, you could wish that the show at some point addressed itself directly to what constitutes the spirit of the American musical. What is it, exactly, that sets it apart from other forms of musical theater? What is the magic that enables it, at its best, to give you that grand and glorious, that laughing and weeping and clapping and foot-stomping feeling, that makes you for a little while forget everything else in the world and just soar?

But hey, let's be fair. It may be impossible to define something that encompasses as much history and diversity and as many people as the American musical does. It's probably only possible to do what this show does well, sketch in the history and the people and give us some idea of how the American musical got formed.

The early years

The first section, "Setting the Stage: Street Scene, 1866-1906," shows us that it had its roots partly in the various strains of ethnic comedy and music that fed into the melting pot of New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- among them Irish, German (or "Dutch" as it was known from the German word for German, "Deutsch"), Jewish, African-American.

It was the singer and early impresario Tony Pastor who pulled the comedy and variety and musical acts out of the saloons and gave them the respectability of vaudeville for the middle class. Vaudeville, by the way, means "stage entertainment offering a variety of short acts." Among its great performers were the teams of Harrigan and Hart, Weber and Fields (who became impresarios themselves), and the African-American duo Williams and Walker. At the turn of the century and after, George M. Cohan, who wrote, produced and starred in his own shows, gave the vaudeville show a unifying force -- that of his own personality.

There was also the influence of operettas, imported ones by Lehar, Offenbach and others, and domestic ones by the Irish-born Victor Herbert. In works such as "Babes in Toyland" and "Naughty Marietta," Herbert's "integration of music and story set a new standard for American musicals," as curators Amy Henderson and Dwight Blocker Bowers tell us in the show's accompanying book.

"It is also a mark of Herbert's importance as a composer," they continue, "that he actually changed the role of music in American musicals: before him, music was little more than window dressing; with Herbert, music became central."

'Rise of the Impresario'

During the age of the show's second section, "Curtain Up: The Rise of the Impresario, 1907-1927," Florenz Ziegfeld elevated the vaudeville show to the status of revue by giving it a loose story line and making it much more high-toned and visually elegant in his annual "Ziegfeld Follies." That's what he's best known for, but he produced lots of other shows, too -- a staggering 60 between 1907 and 1933.

It was also the era that saw the emergence of Irving Berlin, and the African-American team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, whose greatest hit was 1921's "Shuffle Along." And aside from such stars as Eddie Cantor, Marilyn Miller, Fanny Brice and Al Jolson, we might today recall the name of Florence Mills but for her early death. When she appeared in London in the early 1920s, critic St. John Ervine called her "by far the most artistic person London has had the good fortune to see," and when she appeared in New York in 1924 the critic Theophilus Lewis called her "the most consummate artist I have ever seen on the musical stage." She died soon after, while still in her early 20s.

The era ended with the most important show Ziegfeld ever produced, the 1927 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical "Show Boat," which brought together a lot of elements. " 'Show Boat' endures as an epic synthesis of the old and the new," write Henderson and Bowers, "combining the arioso romanticism of the operetta, the native vigor of the musical comedy, and the infinite variety of performance styles in the revue." But 1927 was also the year Al Jolson sang "My Mammy" in "The Jazz Singer" and ushered in the age of the talking picture.

"Light the Lights: Broadway and Hollywood, 1927-1942" centers on the depressed and glamorous 1930s, the age when Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin wrote for stage and screen, when choreographer and director Busby Berkeley created his elaborate filmed dance numbers, when Fred and Ginger danced the Depression blues away.

'The Heights'

"The Heights: Broadway and Hollywood, 1943-1959" was of course pre-eminently the age of Rodgers and Hammerstein -- "Oklahoma!", "Carousel," "South Pacific," "The King and I," "The Sound of Music," all of which were made into movies eventually. But also of Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland and "Meet Me in St. Louis," of Gene Kelly and "An American in Paris," of Gene again along with Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor in what has been called the best movie musical of them all, "Singin' in the Rain," and of the stage version (to be followed by the movie) of Leonard Bernstein's masterpiece, "West Side Story."

In the final period, "Side by Side by Side: Redefinition and Revival, 1960-Present," with the exception of the film version of "Cabaret," the movie musical all but disappears from the show. The emphasis is on such diverse stage musicals as "Hello Dolly" and "Hair," "A Chorus Line" and "The Wiz."

It has been above all the era of composer Stephen Sondheim and producer-director Harold Prince, who have together given us "Company," "Follies" and "Sweeney Todd." But perhaps it is appropriate that the exhibit should close with the 1994 revival of "Show Boat" (directed by Harold Prince). Not only because, as Henderson and Bowers remind us, we're in a period of revivals -- "Guys and Dolls," "She Loves Me," "The King and I," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" -- but also because "Show Boat" has been called the greatest musical of them all.

Oh, yes -- you never found out about Nora Bayes, did you? One of the best variety performers of her time, she was in the first of Ziegfeld's "Follies" in 1907, and in the following year's "Follies" she and her husband, Jack Norworth, introduced their own song, "Shine On, Harvest Moon." During World War I, she promoted George M. Cohan's biggest hit song, "Over There," and she introduced the first song collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin, "The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)." She possessed, wrote one critic, "a thorough artist's taste in every spacing and movement." Remember Nora Bayes -- it would make her happy.

Art review

What: "Red, Hot & Blue: A Smithsonian Salute to the American Musical"

Where: The National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets N.W., Washington

When: 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. daily (closed Christmas Day), through July 6

Call: (202) 357-2700

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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