The sound of Broadway’s mean streets: Setting New York City’s ‘edge’ in show songs | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 7, Issue 2
  • ISSN: 1750-3159
  • E-ISSN: 1750-3167



Broadway has historically played directly to its home crowd of New Yorkers and suburbanites, providing musical stylizations that would gratify or (sometimes) challenge that audience. Thus, even for its more remote or exotic settings, Broadway has honoured audience expectations more than historical or ethnographic accuracy. But Broadway has also provided local audiences with a different kind of mirror, reflecting their native city more directly and often aiming more to disquiet than to gratify. This study considers some of these more troubling musical cityscapes across the end of the ‘golden age’ and beyond, including the comic underworld of Guys and Dolls (1950), the upbeat cynicism of Wonderful Town (1953), the playful angst of Saturday Night (1954), the incipient violence of West Side Story (1957), the sleazy underside of Gypsy (1959), the street-savvy innocence of Sweet Charity (1965), and the alienated sophistications of Company (1970) and Follies (1971). After sketching the trajectory of these diverse representations, involving five composers and an array of perspectives and moods, I focus particularly on the scores of West Side Story and Company to show how their edgy critiques inspired their composers, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, to explore similarly edgy musical idioms that blend familiar Broadway musical practices with an assortment of musical modernisms.


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