Michael Kunze and “Dramamusicals”

BroadwayWorld recently published an interview with Michael Kunze about his musical adaptation of Rebecca, which is aiming for an English language transfer to the a major commercial centre like the West End or Broadway. Kunze takes great pains to try and distinguish his work from traditional Broadway fare, so let’s take what he says, put it under a microscope and see if it holds up. The boxed sections below are all quotations from the interview.

The dramamusical is a tool to make clear that this is not a typical Broadway-type musical, which is more a musical-comedy. In what I do, we do drama with music. The way I write the shows is that I basically write the drama, of course with the music in mind, but the music is something that comes next, like a movie. The music is a very important element, but the most important element of the drama is the story, so the music really serves the story, and the music doesn’t really have a right in its own beside the story, like a number that is just made for the music and the dance.

Huh? It seems that Mr Kunze hasn’t seen any musical since 1926. He doesn’t seem to be aware of – for example – Show Boat, South Pacific, Sweeney Todd, Marie Christine, The Light in the Piazza. He doesn’t seem to be aware that musical theatre in the American tradition extends beyond the tradition of musical comedy that was dominant until the 1940s, but which made way for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical play, in which music is most certainly in the service of the drama and for the various forms of the concept musical, in which the music is often related most clearly to the ideas that are being communicated in the show from the very moment of its inception. Even if we look at the musical comedies that have appeared after the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution, many are far more integrated than their counterparts in the 1920s and 1930s. So I’m left to wonder whether this is a case of ignorance or self-importance.

It really isn’t something that I’ve invented. Jesus Christ Superstar [and] the other Andrew Lloyd Webber stuff, if you exclude Cats, follows the same kind of basic idea. Well, Andrew would never say that the music only serves the story, but that’s what it really is. He uses the music to tell the story, and that’s what all dramamusicals do.

All right, so he seems to know something about British musical theatre and deems it of a high enough standard to rank alongside his “dramamusicals”. But is it true of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals that the music serves the story? Without engaging in an elaborate discussion on the matter, I’d be willing to bet that there is at least one example in each of the Lloyd Webber musicals where the music does not serve the drama fully. Off the top of my head – and to keep in line with the example Kunze himself cites – there’s “King Herod’s Song” in Jesus Christ Superstar, although the newer, rock-flavoured arrangement does help its cause somewhat. So it seems that perhaps the music does not need a particularly profound dramatic agency for it to serve the drama in these “dramamusicals”, which of course contradicts Kunze’s original thesis, that ‘the music doesn’t really have a right in its own beside the story’. What other purpose does a song like “You Can Get Away With Anything” in The Woman in White, for example, have if it doesn’t really serve the character and the humour comes not from the lyrics but from a pair of rats that clamber in and out of the actor’s costume? Or is Kunze saying that the music in a case like this still serves a dramatic purpose, even though the song as a whole is a failure because of the lyrics?

I think all the shows that concentrate on a dramatic story are dramamusicals. Billy Elliot is a dramamusical. Wicked is a dramamusical. I just want to distinguish where theatre is more theatrical than in a classical Broadway musical which is based on the vaudeville tradition, on dance, on spectacular things happening, and this is not what I look for…. I think (Wicked is) a milestone in the development of the musical, because in the history of the musical, this show will be regarded as the first one that really combines the European tradition with the Broadway tradition.

Now I’m just beginning to chuckle. Wicked being taken as a prime example where the music exists in service of the drama? The book of Wicked was forced to fit in with Stephen Schwartz’s ideas regarding the way the story should be told. The book in its best moments is competent, but completely falls to pieces in the second act, completely ignoring the very concept that Maguire had in the first place: to fill in the gaps of the story behind The Wonderful Wizard of Oz without contradicting the basic mythology in that particular book in the series and its iconic movie musical adaptation and thereby offer a different perspective on the story. Winnie Holzman, spurred on by Schwartz, creates a story that prides itself in tying itself all up very neatly, but it does so with little sense of logic and the songs that punctuate the book become less and less credible as dramatic building blocks as we speed towards the final curtain. This doesn’t even begin to engage with ideas around the way the music is orchestrated, which separates it out even further from the given circumstances of the show. It doesn’t even work to access the show from the perspective of post-modern deconstruction, which is surely the very point of creating a musical of this nature, because the choices are so inconsistent – and in contradiction to Kunze’s view on the show, constructed around “spectacular things happening” rather than on any firm set of dramaturgical principles. Perhaps Wicked is a milestone, but it’s not one that develops musical theatre as an art form. In what is commercial, yes; in what is popular, sure. In what artistically successful and dramatically compelling; most certainly not. And I’m still not clear on what specifically European musical theatre traditions are incorporated into this hybrid form, but based on what Kunze has said about the “dramamusical”, I’m convinced they do more harm than good.

I believe in drama as the key entertainment in theatre, and I think I’m not the only one who does. I didn’t even invent the name dramamusical, that was invented by a journalist. I just think it’s more European because I think the tradition of opera with the highly dramatic stories lent more to that kind of art-form, and I think that also our audiences in Europe, and I really include here in England, are more interested in going to theatre and have a real theatrical experience, a real emotional experience at last, not just an entertaining evening, but something they can discuss after the show.

Well, at least Kunze displays some humility by admitting that he did not come up with the idea of a dramatically integrated musical. I wonder who the journalist who coined the term is; I’d love to have a look at what he has to say about this potent new musical theatre form he has identified….

The comparison with opera that follows is not one that works for Kunze’s argument either. Opera by its nature is led by the music; it is music theatre rather than musical theatre and, as long as it is technically well-performed, opera often manages to be excused in its shortcomings as drama. This is, of course, a generalisation as there are operas, particularly those that are more contemporary that do integrate dramatic aspects more successfully into the theatrical whole and certainly even many traditional operas have a strong narrative and thematic thrust – but they are still led first and foremost by the music, hence the prominence of the composer and the conductor in any discussion of any opera.

Then we get to what effect Kunze believes a musical should have on its audience. In his eyes, musicals like Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera and his own shows offer a rare, real emotional experience that delivers a sense of enlightenment hitherto unseen in the musical theatre canon and one to which the American musical theatre tradition holds no claim. Clearly, he’s never heard of Carousel, Cabaret or Pacific Overtures. Obviously, there is no such experience to be had in Camelot, Follies, Fiddler on the Roof.

I’ve never really engaged with Kunze’s musicals, but his work must be truly phenomenal if it is what he implies they are: impeccable examples of musicals in which all other elements are in service to the drama. I must get my hands on Elisabeth, Tanz der Vampire or this impending masterpiece of the musical stage, Rebecca, and see for myself – but they had better live up to the high expectations that Kunze has created for them….

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4 Responses to Michael Kunze and “Dramamusicals”

  1. R says:

    I think Elisabeth is a good show, well-put together, but I’m not sure about TdV and Rebecca, yet, as I’m not familiar with them.

  2. Juliet says:

    Michael Kunze used to be a decent chap until his head swelled and he became self-righteous self-important enough to believe he invented the drama musical.

    Elisabeth was awesome, a great show. TDV was mediocre and a rehash of Jim Steinman’s back catalogue. Kunze’s further collaborations with Sylvester Levay – Rebecca and Marie Antoinette were okay, but soap opera-style historical luuuurve stories, certainly not heady drama – with some cringeingly bad lyrics, especially his embarrassingly bad attempts at “wit”. Cripes.

    I don’t think these shows would fly elsewhere in the world, though Rebecca is supposed to hit Broadway next year.

  3. Fredrik F says:

    Way to go, David! Give him what he deserves! If Rebecca had half the suspense and poetry of Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music he might have a case. But it doesn’t. In another interview, Kunze said, almost proudly, that he didn’t know anything about Rodgers & Hammerstein. But he had enjoyed the Broadway musical The Wiz. Nice to see there are fans who like his work. Not all Europeans do.

  4. Z. Tang says:

    I think it’s just the different cognition of “drama” across Atlantic — compared to his Elizabeth, Mozart!, or other works, most, if not all, Broadway musicals are comedy, rather than drama. There is good and innovative music in Broadway like Hamilton, there is tears like Dear Evan Hansen, there is laughter like Mormon, there is cash drawer like Lion King, but there is few good story.

    I know it does not make you feel well to be recognized as amateurs, but as an international audience who has a chance to watch plays from different countries, I feel Americans have a lot to learn from that more civilized land.

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