Opera News published a super article by Michael John Lachiusa about the state of musical theatre. Entitled “The Great Grey Way”, the article is essential reading for anyone interested in musicals and how they are developing in this new century.
The American Musical is dead.
Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about something more lively: the American Musical. Wait — didn’t I just say…? Never mind. Our country’s greatest export, our national treasure, that sassy and brassy mongrel child of European operetta, jazz, ballet, circus, vaudeville, popular song and you-name-it, what we call the American Musical has died more times than a season’s worth of characters on The Sopranos. Since I write musicals, I’m loath to admit that the art form is deceased; if I did, wouldn’t that be admitting to necrophilia (sort of)? No, I’m not going to line any coffins. But it’s worthwhile to take a moment and try to understand where the recent claims of the American Musical’s demise are coming from, and why.
Could it be a simple case of semantics? Maybe “dead” is the wrong word. Maybe “undead” would be better. After all, there were two vampire-themed musicals on Broadway in the past two years, Dracula and Dance of the Vampires, both critical and commercial failures that drained more than money and blood from the community known as Broadway. Since the premiere of these shows, several books devoted to the demise of the musical have hit the shelves. The estimable Ethan Mordden’s The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen is the most readable and most sincere in its handy dissection of the current state of the art. Barry Singer’s Ever After is a thin, melancholic collection of articles written while the author was covering the theater beat as a freelancer for The New York Times. The others are more pedantic; pointing out that the sky has fallen, after it’s fallen, is pointless. In addition to the pedantic, there’s the negligible — as in Broadway: The American Musical, a companion book to the PBS series directed by Michael Kantor. A purportedly thorough “history” of the Great White Way, it omits the great contributions to musical theater by luminaries such as composer Jule Styne and director George C. Wolfe while crediting Disney with resurrecting the Broadway musical with shows such as Aida. The series bizarrely culminates with scenes from Wicked, a current Broadway blockbuster, as a green-faced Idina Menzel, portraying the Wicked Witch of the West, hollers an incomprehensible “power-ballad.” I was baffled. Was this meant to make me feel celebratory or queasy?
What prompts all this eulogizing, amplified to Mamma Mia! proportions? Collectively, the authors of these books and television shows seem to be canvassing only one place in their search for life: Broadway. What if they’ve limited their search to too small an area? What if, instead of dead, the American Musical is simply missing from the surveyed landscape? What if, like the elusive leopard coping with an unhealthy environment, it’s in hiding, or on sabbatical, or on vacation? Simply because the real thing isn’t on Broadway — except for a very few examples — why presume it’s dead?
Everywhere you look in Times Square, you see the advertisements for what seem to be musicals. The Producers! The Lion King! Mamma Mia! The Phantom of the Opera! Hairspray! Movin’ Out! Musicals appear to be everywhere; many are box-office hits. But are they really musicals? I’m old-school about what makes a musical a musical. Lyric, music, libretto, choreography — all work in equal parts to spin out the drama. And the best of craftsmanship is employed, craftsmanship that nods to the past and leans to the future: a great song is something we think we’ve heard before but haven’t. A real musical makes perfect symmetry out of the muck of diverse and eclectic sources, and transcends those sources. A real musical is organic in all its parts. It’s equal parts intelligence and heart. It can never be realistic theater, only realistic in its humanity. But who wants that in 2005? We’re into reality programming, after all — which is hardly real at all. It’s post-America America: we want faux!
Faux-musicals are just that — faux. The Producers is an example; so is Hairspray. If that label sounds disparaging, it’s not meant to be. The creators of these shows set out to make musicals based on formulae, and they delivered. Neither transcends its source material (both are based on wonderful cult films), but as facsimiles of the real thing, they do very nicely — and the box-office receipts prove that. In no way do these two shows aspire to be the next West Side Story or Sunday in the Park with George. There’s not even an attempt to deliver an old-fashioned, knock-’em-dead, lodge-like-bullet-hook number à la Jerry Herman. All sense of invention and craft is abandoned in favor of delivering what the audience thinks a musical should deliver. Everyone involved, from the usher to the stage manager to the producer to the landlord to the critic, is satisfied. There is no challenge, no confrontation, no art — and everyone sighs with relief.
The creators (and subsequently very rich producers) of these pieces consider them to be “loving valentines” to the musical, by their very act of imitation. A philosopher might consider them simulacra: Plato’s “copy of a copy,” a fake that seems more real than the real thing. (There are film adaptations of both The Producers and Hairspray in the works — that is, movie versions of the stage versions of the original movies.) No aesthetic is involved in creating the faux-musical, and it’s pointless to disparage the effort or claim that they prove the American Musical is dead. The best of them are exacting copies of copies; they fool the eye and ear to perfection.
The faux-musical prides itself on returning to the American Musical’s populist roots, not such a bad thing when you think about it. Their creators pride themselves on producing “escapist” entertainment for a troubled time. But even that’s a faux supposition, more P.R. than genuine sentiment. Escapist theater still should be theater. There’s plenty of theatricality to be found in a faux-musical, but no theater. It’s a theme-park ride copied from an original and authentic ride — a cloned version of the Tea Cup Ride at Disneyland. It looks like a musical. It sounds like a musical. But it’s synthetic. The only organic feature to be found is in the performances of its original stars — Nathan Lane in The Producers, Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray. Once their replacements take over, the shows reveal themselves for what they are: machines. Instead of choreography, there is dancing. Instead of crafted songwriting, there is tune-positioning. Faux-musicals are mechanical; they have to be. For expectations to be met, there can be no room for risk, derring-do or innovation. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Little Women, Brooklyn — all are faux-musicals.
The parody musical isn’t quite the same thing. Rather than imitate, Avenue Q pokes fun at the musical’s conventions and yet feels organic. A parody of Sesame Street for the X-Y-Z generation, it works pleasantly on several levels, including social commentary. It’s not a sophisticated work, though its craftsmanship is levels above the “best” of the faux. Spamalot, on the other hand, shares with Urinetown the premise that musicals are stupid. If you start there, where do you go? Mocking the unrealistic nature of musicals has its limits. The Producers and Hairspray celebrate that quality, no matter how mechanical or sloppy the execution may be to discerning eyes and ears. Avenue Q is a model of good parody, certainly in keeping with musicals such as Of Thee I Sing. Spamalot is not. It’s not parody, it’s not faux; if anything, it’s faux faux, a parody of a parody. It not only mocks musicals, it mocks us for liking musicals. Oh, and did I mention? It’s a huge hit.
Have we seen the real thing recently on Broadway? Rent? I’ll say yes. But it’s an unfinished work by a talented man, Jonathan Larson, who died before he could fine-tune his creation. (Remember, too, that Rent is based on one of the greatest musical-theater inventions, La Bohème.) The production plays like an extended concert reading; its choreography does not illuminate the drama. Movin’ Out? Yes, it’s the real thing — a real ballet, that is, though it longs to be musical theater. Caroline, or Change? As close to the real thing as one can get. New York audiences and critics didn’t know what to make of it. Transplanted from a not-for-profit off-Broadway garden (the Joseph Papp Public Theatre) to a weedy jungle of faux- and jukebox musicals (which I’m getting to), it got choked out. (Since that rough Broadway run, it’s been an artistic hit on the West Coast — long considered arid in terms of theater — where audiences and critics seem to recognize its value.) Caroline lacks only one key component in making it the real real deal: lyric, the words to the songs. It relies on a musicalized libretto. Tony Kushner’s words sing, to be sure — he’s a poet of the first order — but often not with notated music, in spite of composer Jeanine Tesori’s best efforts.
Quick sidebar: There’s a difference between libretto and lyric; the libretto is never the lyric. But lyric can create the libretto. (The same holds true for choreography. Take Movin’ Out: choreography creates the libretto, and not vice-versa.) Adam Guettel, with his The Light in the Piazza, understands the importance of lyric. Hairspray and The Producers seem to endorse the hateful operatic adage: no one listens to lyric. Piazza insists that one do. Lyric is one component of the American Musical that gives the art form the dramatic upper hand when compared with modern American Opera (even to this diehard opera-lover). You have to — or should — listen to the lyrics to follow the drama.
But what to do when American audiences no longer hear in the same way as they did twenty years ago, or fifty years ago? Not only is our sense of hearing changed, so is our ability to listen. After all, television has made us a nation of lookers, not listeners. We see the news. We’re shown the events of the day. We may hear, but we don’t listen intelligently. Amplification in the theater is used primarily to help people hear — rarely is it employed to help us to listen. This may have something to do with the appeal of the so-called “jukebox” musicals.
Jukebox musicals are the current whipping-boys of the critics. A jukebox musical is essentially a catalogue of songs by a well-known pop composer or group inserted into a libretto, providing a result that is either deftly entertaining or coldly depressing. Movin’ Out (using songs by Billy Joel) is an example of the former. Good Vibrations (using the music of the Beach Boys) was an example of the latter. The difference between the two, aside from the quality of creative talent involved, is simply point of view. Directed by Twyla Tharp, Movin’ Out is about something: the terrible cost of war. Good Vibrations was about … well, who knows? The catalogue of songs used in Movin’ Out is inherently more theatrical; Billy Joel writes character studies and situations. The Beach Boys’ songs — though in many ways more musically complex than Joel’s — are not theatrical. They’re state-of-mind songs. And without the skills of a good librettist to string the songs together, they bounce and flop about nonsensically, like the beach balls thrown at the audience at the show’s end.
The mega-hit Mamma Mia! (using songs by the Swedish pop group ABBA) is credited with initiating the trend of jukebox musicals. The show has made millions. Critics fell over themselves with delight when it rolled into town; Ben Brantley in The New York Times called it “comfort food.” The idea of “using” or “placing” pre-existing songs into a storyline isn’t a new device; it’s certainly an easier one than allowing a song to spring indigenously from the drama. Mamma Mia! inserts its catalogue of ABBA hits into the thinnest of librettos, but it does so with a modicum of sly wit. Those who wish to imitate its success had better think long and hard about it, or the result can be disastrous.
Lately, critics have begun backtracking on their praise of Mamma Mia!, blaming it for the current trend of jukebox musicals, forgetting that there was Contact, a short dance program with no live music and no live singing that won Best Musical in 2000 and made a tidy profit for the not-for-profit Lincoln Center Theater. Critics fell over themselves for that one, too. To their credit, Contact’s creators, Susan Stroman and John Weidman, never called their show a “musical”; the critics chose to — if only because it seemed possessed of something of a musical’s energy. After all, the songs were familiar, a jukebox stuffed with fattening comfort food. With big box-office from shows such as Contact and Mamma Mia! there was bound to be the inevitable imitation of product: musicals that use songs, rather than invent them. Now, with jukebox musicals bloating the boards, the critics are beside themselves bemoaning the situation. Serves them right.
Maybe that’s too harsh. The critics didn’t make Mamma Mia! a hit — audiences did. Audiences can keep a mediocre show running for years. Elton John’s Aida received terrible notices, but audiences kept it alive for more than three years. Critical responsibility is one thing, but economic responsibility is another. I’m talking about the “green.” Broadway is real estate — and Off-Broadway as well, these days — given the rise of rents and shortage of space. Real estate is at a high, and the effects trickle down. Theater owners need the green to pay the rent. Producers need the green to pay the theater owners. Writers, directors, designers, actors, technicians and musicians need the green to pay for their living costs in order to create and perform in hits. Advertising a show to get the green requires the green.
The Great White Way has always been about the green. Today, getting the green means corporate sponsorship, which means playing it safe. Given the prohibitive cost of tickets — in spite of the best efforts of the Theatre Development Fund and other groups that try to sell tickets at cut rates — Broadway audiences are more than ever disinclined to see something that has even the faintest whiff of the controversial, the different: the real. Key words that critics and editors use today to describe new shows that may be something less than a “good time” are “cerebral” and “earnest” and “emotional.” Audiences spending upwards of $200 are not willing to sit through cerebral, earnest, emotional work. Maybe for $60, but even then, that’s expensive, particularly for an audience that the theater desperately lacks: students, minorities and intellectuals. I’m not saying one shouldn’t pay more for the experience of theater. It’s highly labor-intensive. It’s handmade, as my colleague Polly Pen once suggested — who wouldn’t pay a little more for a handmade object? But I like my theater to be as economically accessible as a nice dinner out — not something on which I’d spend my 401(k).
As I said above, it’s a hostile environment for the real thing; no wonder it’s gone missing. But it is learning how to adapt; in the nonprofits, in opera houses, in school cafeterias in Vermont, in basements in Boston, it’s alive and well — far away from the economics of Broadway. Everyone agrees that the economics of Broadway are prohibitive. The League of American Theatres and Producers, musicians’ and actors’ unions agree. Artists and critics agree. Season after season of postseason autopsies offer solutions (lower ticket prices, government subsidization, a national theater, etc.), but it’s mostly lip service. Still, any offered solution is better than none at all. The antithesis of finding a solution would be the 2003 Broadway musicians strike: while New York was still reeling from the effects of 9/11 on the tourist trade, the local musicians’ union went on strike — and came out of negotiations with less than they went in with, if not a large dollop of ill will. Surely and swiftly, the live pit orchestra is pricing itself out of the market. And sooner rather than later, producers will find a way to do without; watch for this season’s Sweeney Todd revival, presented by the Roundabout Theatre, wherein the actors will play instruments to accompany themselves.
Given the acoustics and amplification of Broadway houses, very little of what we hear is live in the truest sense of the word. This past season’s Tony Award ceremony took the live orchestra out of Radio City Music Hall and placed it in a room nine stories above, piping “live” and pre-taped music into the event; this was done to add more seats in what had been the orchestra pit. It will be a sad day indeed when the orchestra is replaced by music processors on Broadway. But it’s inevitable. In an environment of faux-, parody and jukebox musicals, it almost makes sense.