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Give my regards to Broadway… . Is it possible to read those lyrics, let alone hear them, without mentally filling in: Remember me to Herald Square? Have you begun to hum or sing it to yourself, with the words and notes carrying you back in time to the Broadway of George M. Cohan and the heyday of Tin Pan Alley?

What a delight, then, to be able to promise you the same experience in an entire course. For in Professor Bill Messenger’s Great American Music: Broadway Musicals, you get the story and the music, as well—and not only in the examples expertly played by Professor Messenger at the piano to illustrate insights, techniques, or subtleties of composition.

You’ll also hear rare recordings of groundbreaking artists such as Nora Bayes, the singer selected by Cohan to record his unofficial World War I anthem, "Over There,"and Fanny Brice, the great star immortalized in Funny Girl. And you’ll hear contemporary recreations that reconstruct the sound of early musical theater, as well. You’ll listen in on recorded interviews that take you behind the scenes of some of Broadway’s biggest hits and most memorable moments.

But Great American Music: Broadway Musicals is far more than just an immersion in musical nostalgia. Professor Messenger ranges across the entire culture of which music is a part, teaching you some of the intricacies of musical composition and song construction—and how they were used to create specific effects—as well as the social and historical backdrop against which musical theater needs to be considered.

You’ll learn, for example, how Jerome Kern dealt with what was perhaps Broadway’s first attempt to use music’s technical subtleties as a way to suggest time and place when he was writing Show Boat, deliberately incorporating into his music for "Ol’ Man River" a five-note pentatonic scale often used in Negro spirituals.

Professor Messenger tells how "You’re a Grand Old Flag," today one of Cohan’s most memorable songs, was greeted with dismay and anger when Cohan introduced it in his 1906 musical, George Washington, Jr., with its original and affectionate title and lyric, "You’re a Grand Old Rag." Though Cohan quickly rewrote the song in the form we know today, sheet music for the original version—at a time when sheet music was immensely popular—had already reached stores all over New York City. Visiting one store after another, Cohan managed to retrieve almost every copy, burning them and replacing them with the new version. Today, there are only a half-dozen very valuable copies of the original in existence.

But the harsh reception given the original version of Cohan’s song is far from the only reminder this course offers that the Broadway stage, as wondrous an escape as it might be, is still an illusion, with only the flimsiest of curtains separating it from the real-world passions—and even life-and-death conflicts—from which it draws.

After his heart had been broken by a flashy showgirl and vowing never again to be taken advantage of, Kern had met and married a timid 19-year-old English girl 10 years his junior and brought her back to America, an overwhelming experience for her. On the morning he was to sail to England with his producer, Charles Frohman, Kern overslept. By the time his still-timid wife had decided to awaken him, Kern had missed his voyage. The ship was the ill-fated Lusitania, and Frohman was one of 1,198 who perished on it. Kern survived to complete a fruitful career that would include, 11 years later, his remarkable score for Show Boat, with melodies, like its haunting "Ol’ Man River," that are still enjoyed today.

In today’s era of songs written and produced specifically for compact discs, it’s easy to forget that an overwhelming number of standards that have both delighted and helped mend the broken hearts of Americans for decades—and will undoubtedly still be doing so a century from now—were, like "Ol’ Man River," originally written for the stage.

"My Funny Valentine," for example, came from Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms; "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’" from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!; "Someone to Watch Over Me" from George and Ira Gershwin’s Oh, Kay!; "Begin the Beguine" from Cole Porter’s Jubilee; and "Almost Like Being in Love" from Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon.

We’ve heard these songs—and hundreds more like them—for as long as we can remember. In many ways, they’re the soundtrack of America. For millions of us the music makes up the soundtrack of our own lives, as well; if you were somehow able to remove them from our collective memory, it’s hard to imagine any of us as quite the same people.

But the total creative output of the extraordinary roster of artists who gave us these songs tells only part of the story, which would be incomplete even with the addition of the performers, writers, choreographers, directors, and others who also helped create the stage magic that launched these songs into immortality.

That’s because American musical theater, much as we often concentrate on the so-called "golden age" of the 1950s, spans the history of two vibrant centuries: the era of the minstrel show, whose contributions to American music were immense, in spite of the embarrassment we still feel at many of its images; vaudeville; ragtime; the revue; and the age of fully integrated book musicals launched by the 1927 production of Show Boat.

It’s difficult to imagine a finer teacher for this material than Professor Messenger; he is a scholar, teacher, and professional musician. His course, Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion, makes clear, even to those with no musical training, the techniques, principles, and innovations that make it possible for music to embody so much.

In bringing those skills to Great American Music: Broadway Musicals, Professor Messenger has created a complete learning experience—educational, insightful, and sublimely enjoyable—that can forever change the way you experience musical theater.

Good but not Great Overall, this was an ok survey of the history of Broadway. Professor Messenger looks at the evolutionary history of this uniquely American art form. One of the downsides of this course is that the professor, Bill Messenger, does not do any song analysis in any of the musicals that he covers in this course. Owing to copyright issues, this course does not feature any of the famous numbers from the great Broadway musicals he looks at. Professor Messenger spends too much time on the early years of Broadway and not enough time on the latter half of the century where many of the great shows like My Fair Lady, Company, and Miss Saigon opened. I wanted to hear more about Andrew Lloyd Webber, but because he is not an American, Professor Messenger shies away from him and other European composers. All this aside, I think that this was an ok course for me to understand how Broadway came to be. But I think if anyone wants a real look at the history of Broadway, they should watch the PBS documentary, Broadway: The American Musical.