One of my courses is on the historical aspects of musicals: the context in which they are written, the intentions of the composers, the historical background to the events depicted. Many musicals have important features that reflect the conditions of society at the time they are set or written or both. One good example is Show Boat, which has much to say about the segregation of blacks and whites in America in the immediate aftermath of the abolition of slavery, but importantly also at the time the musical was written in the late 1920s. Not much had changed by then, and in writing the musical, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II were consciously criticising the discrimination against the black minority in America, particularly in the Southern States. They believed their show could change minds, enhance perceptions, and hopefully even help bring new federal legislation to prevent such treatment of human beings just on the grounds of race. One aspect of this was the central story of Julie and Steve, whose marriage is illegal because she is of mixed race and he is white; sexual relationships between different races were forbidden in many of the United States. While the show boat is moored in one Southern town on the Mississippi, the sheriff arrives to arrest the couple – something that he would indeed have been entitled to do in reality.
Kern and Hammerstein both had Jewish backgrounds – Kern’s parents were both Jewish and Hammerstein’s father was, and Edna Ferber, the writer of the book Show Boat, was also Jewish. As such, they were victims of racial prejudice too, although not to the extent of the institutional racism against African Americans. Thus their motivation was partly from personal experiences: they could identify with some of the experiences of the black minority, both directly and through their family backgrounds. Edna Ferber was quite used to prejudice, both anti-Semitism and the misogynistic attitudes of some of her male colleagues in journalism. And many Jewish families in America were only living in the country because they had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. This treatment of Jews was later to form the background to the musical Fiddler on the Roof. But soon Jews were to experience an even worse form of persecution and murder in Eastern Europe with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and its system of concentration and extermination camps. The Holocaust is hardly ideal material for a musical, but some musicals of more recent years have at least addressed the issue of the Nazi control of Germany and its domination of Europe in the early 1940s.
Cabaret looked at the darker side of Germany in the 1920s, showing the undercurrent of anti-Semitic, nationalistic sentiment that pervaded society and how it clashed with the cosmopolitan decadence found in Berlin at that time. Arguably this is more historically accurate than the depiction of the Nazis in that eternal favourite the Sound of Music. In the latter, the Nazis are caricatured as an unfeeling brainwashed automatons who persecute a wholesome family and force them to flee their country. But as a historical document, the Sound of Music fails in so many other areas. Rodgers and Hammerstein based the musical on a film made in West Germany in 1955 called the Trapp Family, which drew on Maria von Trapp’s own book from 1949, the Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Maria von Trapp’s account seems to be have been embellished to the point of fiction, and through the “Chinese Whispers” of transfer to German film, to stage musical, to film musical, the story became even more a distortion of truth. Perhaps the most striking disregard for the facts is the supposed escape of the family over the mountains to Switzerland following a concert where the Nazis had tried to arrest them. Escape from the country in this way was impossible, as the Swiss border is actually about 250 miles from Salzburg, so it would have been a long walk: in reality, they left Austria by train for Italy (by a quirk of the redrawing of national boundaries after the First World War, Captain von Trapp was an Italian citizen) and the Nazis made no attempt to stop them.
There is much to learn about history from musicals but you have to be careful. As with all forms of art, facts are sometimes manipulated to satisfy contemporary tastes. But how those facts are manipulated can also be interesting. In the late 1950s and 1960s, memories of the Nazis were strong and many people in the United States and Britain saw all Germans as potential Nazis. They also had clichéd views of the Nazis from their depictions in countless war films. But the situation today is somewhat different, and thus the Nazi threat in the Sound of Music can be viewed as more like a comic book version. Although also a product of the 1960s, is a different matter and has much more to offer as a reflection of social history. The song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” still has the power to shock – but I think only because of what we know now. At the time, the Nazis were viewed by many Germans as the answer to the country’s economic and political problems in the 1920s and early 30s and few of those people could have anticipated the horrors that were to come.