UP FOR DISCUSSION: “Musical Theatre and the Uncool”

I just read an article called “A Slushy in the Face: Musical Theatre Music and the Uncool“. Some interesting points, but I felt several are steeped in generalisations. One of the things that I found to be so was the idea that ‘the music of musical theater has evolved into a highly stylized and specific “genre” of its own, instantly recognizable’. Sure, that’s true of some musical theatre music. But would some of the songs from, say, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson be recognised instantly as ‘musical theatre music’? I don’t think so. Certainly when I’ve had the cast album playing in the car, people have asked me what band is singing the music. I’d certainly agree that there is a certain theatricality to musical theatre music that is perhaps missing from pop music, but I think that within musical theatre music there is a fair variety of styles that make musical theatre music far more variegated than it was prior to the 1960s.

There is also the claim made that Glee is single-handedly making musical theatre more popular and a direct link is made between the popularity of Glee and the financial success of The Book of Mormon and Spider-Man. Where’s the evidence of that? Both The Book of Mormon and Spider-Man have other factors at play in regard to their selling power. The rest of the article ponders the history of musical theatre and its links to popular culture. Dave Molloy’s conclusion to this argument is that musical theatre music lacks authenticity and that’s why it is unpopular. The best actors in musical theatre (Liza Minnelli and Lea Salonga), he says, are barely acting at all, just being themselves. The way to make musicals cool is to make them into concerts, with onstage bands that put the music ahead of the storytelling. I don’t really agree with any of this. The best musicals are those that acknowledge their inherent hybridism, not those that ignore it.

Molloy states that the music in musicals is an afterthought these days, taking second place to the book. I don’t agree with that either. Some of the books we see in some of the most mainstream of musicals today don’t live up to the scores. The book of The Book of Mormon, for instance, starts off well, but then degenerates into little more than a series of song setups at some point in Act I and never really steps up its game after that. And with cast albums travelling further faster than new productions do, it is the music that is known more widely than the shows themselves.

Any thoughts on this, or on anything else raised in the article? I thought it an interesting read, but I don’t think that Molloy really gets to grips with the reason why musical theatre needs to be “cool” to be compelling. Popularity sells, for sure, and if that were what he was implying – fine. But he’s trying to link coolness to artistry and I’m not sure he does that all that well here.

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2 Responses to UP FOR DISCUSSION: “Musical Theatre and the Uncool”

  1. Hans says:

    I think I agree with you here, David. In my opinion, musical theatre should not change to become cool. If acting (as opposed to “authenticity”) and diction, projection, and extroversion is uncool – which I guess it is – then so be it. Because it’s what I LIKE about muiscal theatre. What we need to do is to convince the cool people that other qualities than coolness also are good.

  2. As a producer deeply involved in the presentation and development of new material, I found Malloy’s article very condescending and somewhat insulting. And with that said, I think he misses the stark difference between the two mediums and what they demand. Theater seeks to tell a story, whereas concerts and cabaret are where one seeks the visceral “authentic” musical experience the author speaks of.

    First and foremost, he misses the profound point of what a good theater song is. He’s all hopped up on style. No one can put a definition on what is “authentic,” any more than one can describe “normal.” Who cares if a song is in the vernacular of a rock, hip hop, or country song? All that really matters is if the melody and lyric are truthful, and are relevant to character and/or situation.

    Secondly, even as someone who is a huge fan of “authentic” rock and pop music, hearing that kind of music in every show would be a big turn-off for me. I’ve always known there is an inauthentic rock styling in most rock musicals, and frankly I don’t care. While the generic musical theater style may not be “cool” with the general public, it has definitely built an audience that doesn’t want to hear the pop hits. This quote particularly annoys me: “We need sound designers that blow the rooms up, and we need directors that will let them. We need audiences that will let a missed lyric go.” That may work for songs that are meant to be appreciated individually, but a song for the theater has to take a character from one point to another, and that doesn’t happen if the audience can’t understand what is being sung. A lyric should ideally be missed as often as a spoken line is mumbled (in other words, never). The point of theater is to tell a story. That’s it. Bottom line. If you’re letting lyrics fly by, then what’s the point?

    Other things I noticed:
    * He cites Danny Elfman’s score for “The Nightmare Before Christmas” as “cool,” when the score is influenced heavily by Weill and other musical theater composers, and it wasn’t any more new sounding than any of its musical theater contemporaries. Why does that one get a pass?
    * How can he write an entire essay on this subject and never once mention “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and its influence and popularity?

    I guess if I got this assignment I’d write “If you want to be cool, don’t write musicals. Write ’em if you love ’em and can’t imagine doing anything else.” This man’s obsession with wanting to make theater “cool” only shows his insecurities. Perhaps he should write the “authentic” rock music that he loves.

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