Smithsonian Perspectives

“Red, Hot & Blue,” a new exhibition saluting the American musical, is an invigorating example of the Smithsonian’s mission to illuminate our past

The 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian has been punctuated by a number of museum exhibitions in addition to the marvelous traveling show "America's Smithsonian." This column is devoted to "Red, Hot & Blue," an exhibition jointly mounted by two Smithsonian museums: the National Museum of American History and the National Portrait Gallery, and housed at the latter. I attended its opening on October 24, the date I composed this column. You have read about the exhibition in the November issue of SMITHSONIAN, but I want to add my personal perspective.

"Red, Hot & Blue" tells the story of American musicals and, in the words of the exhibition brochure, "showcases the Broadway and Hollywood musical from its immigrant roots in nineteenth-century vaudeville, through its heyday on both the 'Great White Way' and the silver screen, to its redefined cultural role today."

And it does it very well, especially for someone like me, who as a teenager in New York City in the 1940s and early '50s was taken by my family to a host of hits of the day (Oklahoma!; Kiss Me, Kate; Guys and Dolls; South Pacific; Brigadoon; Carousel ) but had no idea of either the genesis of American musicals or their significance as an authentic American art form.

There was more than theater for a youngster in New York City at that time. Our parents and grandparents listened to the music of the previous decades (Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Victor Herbert, George M. Cohan, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker), and we all went to the "musical" movies (The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, Cover Girl, An American in Paris, Gigi ).

Until I saw our exhibition and read the accompanying book (the authors, Amy Henderson and Dwight Bowers, so well exemplify the finest qualities of Smithsonian curators), I had not realized that my slice of time as a teenager and a young adult was when popular culture largely celebrated optimism, patriotism and assimilation. The past I had not shared, nor the pessimism and loss of faith in a buoyant American character that were yet to come. All of us, in small or large part, have a worldview shaped by the popular culture of our youth. Whether it realistically prepares us for the challenges of middle age is debatable, but I feel fortunate that mine was acquired when it was.

We often use the metaphors of the wheel or the pendulum to describe cultural change. This exhibition ends with several 1990s revivals of classic musicals (Show Boat, Guys and Dolls, The King and I ). The presentation has changed, but the themes of my youth reappear, often joined by a more realistic appreciation of America's central dilemmas. In writing about the revived Show Boat, our curators note the focus on "what remains a central paradox of America's democracy-its inherent racial ambivalence." But, as they also point out, "Show Boat still radiates what one critic has called 'the idealistic chutzpah of Kern and Hammerstein. Their work is full of love-for a romantic ideal that's gone, for a fraternal ideal that never arrived.'"

This exhibition, for me, is an example of what the Smithsonian does so well. It mixes memory and careful social analysis in a way that suffuses us with the warmth of tradition while educating us about themes we never knew or have forgotten. Of course, as readers of this column well know, this is not all that we do. The Smithsonian has exemplary science and art museums as well as strong research capacities. And we have a wonderful zoo. But most people think of us as the repository of American history and culture, chock full of icons and representative objects. Using these well-telling compelling stories of our past that not only inform and entertain us but give us new insights that enrich our understanding-with luck, leads toward the realization of the deepest values of this democracy. This, in my view, is our greatest calling.

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