Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class
David Savran

The culture clash that permanently changed American theater


Highbrow/Lowdown explores the twentieth century's first culture war and the forces that permanently transformed American theater into the art form we know today. The arrival of jazz in the 1920s sparked a cultural revolution that was impossible to contain. The music affected every stratum of U.S. society and culture, confusing and challenging long-entrenched hierarchies based on class, race, and ethnicity. But jazz was much more than the music—it was also a powerful cultural force that brought African American, Jewish, and working-class culture into the white Protestant mainstream. When the influence of jazz spread to legitimate theater, playwrights, producers, and critics rushed to distinguish the newly emerging literary theater from its illegitimate cousins. The efforts to defeat the democratizing influences of jazz and to canonize playwrights like Eugene O'Neill triumphed, giving birth to American theater as we know it today.

"An elegant, erudite, and thorough study . . . The venture into music history and the impact, both positive and negative, of jazz on culture, and especially the emergence of a literary art theater, is the book's most obvious unique contribution . . . the analysis of the place of various critics and the audience in a period of major cultural change involving class, race, and ethnicity is especially welcome."

"Highbrow/Lowdown stakes out the secret history of how that yawning abyss between mass culture and serious theatre came about—a dynamic that still plays out to this day both in the commercial and resident theatres. This intellectual study, a revelatory blending of music criticism and drama history, delves into the critical and artistic antagonisms between jazz and classical music, the serious and lively arts, as well as the old and new middle-class tastes."
American Theatre

"A book about the fracturing of the theater audience in the 1920s using jazz as a lens. [Savran] points to jazzy composers such as Gershwin, who never got his due while he was writing because of his embrace of jazz . . . What is intriguing about Savran's book is how these class distinctions still hold true today."
All About Jazz

David Savran is Distinguished Professor of Theatre and Vera Mowry Roberts Chair in American Theatre at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Praise / Awards

  • "Like a canny fight promoter in the perennial American culture wars, David Savran puts the reader ringside for a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of the Brows--high, middle, and low. Setting Jazz Age entertainments at one another, with 'legitimate theater' duking it out with nightclub revues and movies pummeling vaudeville, Highbrow/Lowdown tracks the rise of heavy-weight Eugene O'Neill to the top of the card, but it also makes heroes of the referees--the drama critics and audiences who crowned the winners. This is performance history as an innovative 'political economy of culture,' and it's a knock-out."
    —Joseph Roach, Sterling Professor of Theater, Yale University

  • "A stunningly original analysis of music and theater in the 1920s as inseparable faces of jazz. Savran grounds his social history on a huge array of primary sources while drawing, without fanfare or jargon, on theorists such as Adorno and Bordieu. His musical analyses of Gershwin, John Alden Carpenter, and George Antheil are not just first class but path breaking. No student of jazz as a Western cultural phenomenon—or of any American music or theater in the 1920s—will dare miss this powerfully illuminating, unabashedly reliable, beautifully written book."
    —Rose Rosengard Subotnik, Professor of Music Emerita, Brown University

  • "An important book that raises crucial questions about how and why a literary 'art theatre' came to be seen among tastemakers and canonizers as 'legitimate'. Savran makes the persuasive argument that jazz needed to be defeated in order for the art theatre to take center stage, using an impressive variety of tools to make his case."
    —Andrea Most, University of Toronto

  • "While there are other causes for the near death of serious drama in the United States, Savran makes a convincing, fascinating argument for locating the source of the malaise in the jazz age. Highbrow/Lowdown is essential reading for anyone interested in American theatre history."
    —John Clum, Studies in Musical Theatre

  • "... Throws light on the development of serious theater in America and, in its imaginative viewing of theater through the lens of jazz, offers an innovative way of analyzing social classes and their desire to be entertained."
    Atlantis. Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies

  • "One does not need an extensive understanding of modern American drama or jazz music to understand the implications of Savran's argument. Written in a style that eschews the overly arcane and theorhetical for an interdisciplinary diction, Highbrow/Lowdown invites wide and multiple readerships."
    African American Review

  • "Impressive in depth as well as breadth, Highbrow/Lowbrow rewrites 20th-centure theatre history."
    —Shane Vogel, Indiana University, The Drama Review

  • "David Savran's thought-provoking book will cause scholars to reconceptualize American culture during the Jazz Age... Highbrow/Lowdown demonstrates the centrality of jazz as arbiter of class and taste in the formation of early twentieth-centry American culture." --Katie N. Johnson, American Studies
  • "Savran treats an enormous range of ideas with virtuosic confidence. ... Everyone interested in twentieth-century American music culture can learn from Savran’s boundary-crossing book. His perspective from outside the confines of music scholarship brings fresh insights to our understanding of the cultural contests at work on multiple levels of society, and especially to those being enacted on stage."
     ---Journal of Society for American Music
  • Winner, Joe A. Callaway Award for Best Book in Theater and Drama

  • Honorable Mention, Barnard Hewitt Prize, American Society for Theatre Research, 2011

  • Winner Kurt Weill Article Prize, 2011

Supplemental Materials

Sample Audio Tracks

Author David Savran has selected a series of musical compositions especially for this site, that he feels help to identify some important trends discussed in the book. Read the descriptions below and click the links to hear a clip of each song.

Fascinating Rhythm

Fred Astaire, "Fascinating Rhythm" from At the Movies
NOTE: The big hit from Lady, Be Good!, the Gershwins' first Broadway smash, "Fascinating Rhythm."

Crazy Rhythm

Caroll Gibbons & The New Mayfair Dance Orchestra, "Crazy Rhythm" from The Charleston
NOTE: "Crazy Rhythm," the 1928 song by Roger Wolfe Kahn and Irving Caesar that explains what happens when a highbrow meets a lowbrow.

Sweet And Low-down

Various Artists - AVID Entertainment, "Sweet And Low-down", from George Gershwin - A Celebration: Fascinating Rhythm
NOTE: The big hit from Tip-Toes, the Gershwins' 1925 hit, "Sweet And Low-down."

When Do We Dance?

Various Artists - AVID Entertainment, "When Do We Dance?", from George Gershwin - A Celebration: Fascinating Rhythm
NOTE: "When Do We Dance?" from Tip-Toes.

These Charming People

Various Artists - AVID Entertainment, "These Charming People", from George Gershwin - A Celebration: Fascinating Rhythm
NOTE: "These Charming People" from Tip-Toes.

Concerto in F

Michael Tilson Thomas; Garrick Ohlsson, "Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra/Allegro," from Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Concerto in F; An American in Paris: Classic Library Series
NOTE: George Gershwin's Concerto in F, the work that proved that he could write serious concert music.

Ballet Pour instruments Mecanique et Percussion, Roll One

The New Palais Royale Orchestra & Percussion Ensemble, Maurice Peress, "Ballet Pour Instruments Mecanique et Percussion, Roll One," from The Original Ballet Mechanique - George Antheil's Carnegie Hall Concert of 1927
NOTE: George Antheil's Ballet mecanique, the most scandalous and revolutionary piece of music of the 1920s.

I'm Just Wild About Harry

Vaughn De Leath, "I'm Just Wild About Harry," from Ukulele Lady
NOTE: "I'm Just Wild About Harry," by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, the big hit of Shuffle Along.

Rhapsody in Blue

Michael Tilson Thomas, "Rhapsody in Blue," from Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Concerto in F; An American in Paris: Classic Library Series
NOTE: George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924), the piece that changed American music forever.

News, Reviews, Interviews

Read: Review on All About Jazz | 8/25/09

Read: Review on Jazz Times | 12/01/09

Media Kit

Product Details

  • 5.675 x 8.75.
  • 336pp.
  • 21 B&W photographs.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2010
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-03445-1

Add to Cart
  • $29.95 U.S.



  • Louis Armstrong, avant-gardism, ballet-mecanique, Irving Berlin, blackface, Eubie Blake, burlesque, John Alden Carpenter, George Gershwin, Eugene O'Neill, Jewish American identity, ragtime