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Banjos on Broadway?

BRIGHT STAR sprang from the frets of Steve Martin’s banjo: having first picked up the instrument in high school, and carried it with him to the peak of his standup career, he’d already made a couple of fairly straight-faced, and Grammy-recognized, bluegrass-based albums by the time he met Edie Brickell at a dinner party earlier this decade. They soon began to collaborate, with the veteran pop artist adding lyrics and vocal melodies to Martin’s instrumentals. The germ of the idea for BRIGHT STAR came from a song they composed for their first duo album, Love Has Come for You; other songs from the show would go on to be featured on their second, So Familiar.

“It was all because of Edie’s ability to write songs that tell stories,” says producer Peter Asher, who worked with the pair on those records and became the musical supervisor for BRIGHT STAR. “Her Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby became the cornerstone of the musical—even though it wasn’t ultimately included.” Sarah Jane was based on a real news item that Brickell discovered, looking for a narrative to match the railroad rhythms of a Martin banjo line.

When word first got out about BRIGHT STAR, a few onlookers could only gaze with some incredulity, as at a beagle singing an aria: “What? Banjos on Broadway?” But the combination really isn’t so unprecedented. Much of American musical theater—and American music in general—arose out of the banjo as well.

Banjo, in its basic form, that of a gourd drum with a neck and strings attached, was brought to this continent by enslaved people from Africa. It developed its contemporary shape and sound by being passed back and forth between cultures, through a process that cultural-history scholar Eric Lott famously has called an exchange of “love and theft.” White Americans long have emulated certain aspects of black American culture because of their irresistible level of artistic invention and emotional vitality. But this emulation often occurs without credit or compensation, and at worst after distortion through a racist lens.

The most notorious example is that ignominious institution, the blackface minstrel show, which grew out of mocking on-stage caricatures in the 1700s and exploded with New York–born white actor “Daddy” Thomas Rice’s “Jim Crow” character and song in the 1830s. (The song of course later lent its name to an even more pernicious institution.) Blackface minstrelsy soon became the dominant form of live entertainment in America, and its routines survived as a template for the vaudeville show and, ultimately, the Broadway musical itself. Its long-taloned reach is evidenced by the shocking appearance of “nostalgic” minstrelsy in Hollywood musicals such as Swing Time with Fred Astaire in 1936, Babes on Broadway with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in 1941, and Here Come the Waves with Bing Crosby as late as 1944.

But the really complicated thing is that this tainted history is inextricable from the way Americans of all backgrounds developed a homegrown set of techniques for entertaining one another. Many of the songs that touring minstrel shows made popular hits became the campfire singalongs of future generations, with their most overtly racist lyrics removed and their real origins all but forgotten. (Think of Oh Susanna, or Camptown Races.) The way TV sitcoms and stand-up comedians use setups and punchlines can be traced to the showbiz methods developed in front of demanding audiences for minstrel and then vaudeville routines. So can many of the story beats of early screen melodramas.

And then there is the banjo. As a recognizably African-American invention, the banjo was the minstrel show’s signature instrument, and a symbol of the whole genre. But minstrelsy’s blockbuster popularity—to really grasp it, you have to accept that it was a mania on the scale of later eras’ swing dancing, or rock ’n’ roll, or Star Wars — meant that banjo itself became a hot trend in the mid-1800s, too. Banjos began to be produced in exponentially higher numbers; in the long term that made the banjo a common household item, a folk instrument just about anyone might pick up. Its invention among black people slowly disappeared from collective memory. And—as with many cultural practices that started with African-Americans but were then borrowed, changed, and stereotyped—future generations of self-aware black musicians no longer wanted much to do with banjo, either.

(Today, there is a movement among some determined, enlightened players to reclaim the banjo as an African-American instrument and revive historic black styles. Look up the work of Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops for some mindblowing examples.)

Eventually, as the minstrel show began its far-too-gradual fade from respectability, the banjo receded to more isolated pockets: as a lead instrument, it was mostly played in touring medicine shows (to help draw customers for patent medicines), in both black and white “jug bands” (another hot trend in popular music, for a while), and as part of what was beginning to be marketed as “hillbilly” music, what we’d come to call folk and country.

In other words, the new stereotype was that banjo was played by white rural rubes. Think of the link between Duelin’ Banjos and the predatory “white trash” hillbillies in the 1972 movie Deliverance — or, on a more benign level, of the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. That tune was packaged with some heavy cultural condescension, certainly, but it still climbed the Billboard charts, and helped sow the ground for future banjo-curiosity among its audience, thanks to the fiery performance of bluegrass legends Lester Flatt on guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo.

By then, the duo had helped popularize the high-energy sound of bluegrass. Lots of people mistakenly think of bluegrass as a generic term, but it’s really a midcentury invention heavily influenced by jazz and other modern sounds, and partly defined by Scruggs’s rolling, accelerated, three-finger style.

His innovations eventually dovetailed with the interest in “old-time music” among the hip kids of the 1960s folk revival, under the wing of banjo enthusiast Pete Seeger. The banjo was soon being hybridized with folk-rock and psychedelia and back-to-the-land country-rock, and by explorers of other folk traditions (the forerunners of banjo prodigies like Tony Trischka or Bela Fleck).

This is when a young California kid named Steve Martin took up the banjo. When he became a standup star, he brought his banjo along, bridging the vaudeville tradition and the new post-hippie banjo-positivity. And as he matured as an actor, writer, and general renaissance man in his later years, Martin became a more dedicated musician, too—forming an alliance with North Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers, and eventually with Brickell. In 2010, Martin also founded the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, a $50,000 award that’s honored the likes of Rhiannon Giddens, as well as the punk-bred banjoist Danny Barnes and others whose ingenuity resists all banjo clichés.

Bringing a banjo-based musical to Broadway was another stage in that expansive aesthetic campaign. Again, modern Broadway hasn’t been banjo-less. The instrument’s appeared in rural-themed musicals such as Big River, Annie Get Your Gun, and the 1970s’ The Robber Bridegroom (still a popular pick for regional productions), not to mention as an almost exotic touch of Americanness in the cabaret-jazz ensembles of Berlin transplant Kurt Weill, which are of course echoed in Cabaret. BRIGHT STAR finds a middle zone, leaping off from bluegrass but borrowing from Broadway, too, perhaps landing somewhere within the not-quite-country (or sometimes, too-country-for-country) genre often labeled Americana. Peter Asher was part of the process all the way from the albums to the stage; he and Martin had been friends since they and Linda Ronstadt were all hanging out at LA’s Troubadour club in the 1970s.

As BRIGHT STAR’s songs germinated, Asher exchanged ideas with musical director Rob Berman, who did the main stage arrangements. “You rethink every song once it’s in a play,” Asher said. “The song becomes part of the story. You don’t stop the play and stand there to sing a song—it has to move the action or the characters forward.”

Asher’s favorites among the results include Asheville, sung with plaintive country strains by Margo to a departing Billy in Act 1, as well as Miss Murphy’s more Broadway-leaning Way Back in the Day.

“To me what’s interesting,” he said, “is that we’re providing the kind of heartfelt songs you’d expect in a classic Broadway show—they still make me cry when I hear them. But they also stand up, and you can play them, straightforwardly, as bluegrass songs.”

And fittingly so: Just as from the banjo so much of American music has come, to the banjo it can return. It may carry a long trail (including tears) behind it, but it can all be made new for another age with the power of that sparkling twang.

Join us for Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's BRIGHT STAR, November 28 - December 17 at the Curran.