The Saturday List: 1998 in Musical Theatre

Scenes from A NEW BRAIN (featuring Malcolm Gets and Penny Fuller), RAGTIME (featuring Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell and PARADE (featuring Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello).
Scenes from A New Brain (featuring Malcolm Gets and Penny Fuller), Ragtime (featuring Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Parade (featuring Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello).

For our second “Saturday List” of 2023, let’s jump back 25 years and see where contemporary musical theatre was back then. 1998 was the International Year of the Ocean. It was the year that United States President Bill Clinton was impeached due to the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal. While The Troubles in Northern Ireland were coming to an end thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, protests erupted in Indonesia following the collapse of President Suharto’s government. In 1998, the Winter Olympics were held in Japan, while the FIFA World Cup was held in France. The only movie musical to have an impact at the box office – the second-highest-grossing family film of the year and the seventh-highest-grossing film of the year overall – was one of the second-tier films of the Disney Animation renaissance, Mulan. Pop music was bop-tastic in 1998, with songs like Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine,” Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” and Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” featuring in the charts. The prefix “e-” was the most significant contribution in terms of new words of the year, indicating the world’s accelerating shift towards digital literacy. Let’s look at what was happening on musical theatre stages.  

1. The Award Winners for Best Musical

In 1998, a show from 1997, The Lion King, took home Tony Award for Best Musical. This phenomenon isn’t unusual, as theatrical seasons on Broadway do not follow calendar years. The following year, the revue that was the first Broadway show to open in 1999, Fosse, was presented with the award – so none of the new 1998 Broadway musicals, which include Ragtime, The Capeman, High Society, Footloose and Parade, earned the highest recognition for a musical theatre production from the American Theatre Wing. The situation was similarly bleak across the pond at the Olivier Awards, which saw four 1997 West End shows nominated in 1998, with the winner being Beauty and the Beast, which had made its Broadway bow in 1994! In 1999, things looked a little better in London, although the top prize was taken home by Kat and the Kings, a show that had opened on the West End in 1998 but was first produced in South Africa in 1996 and had already had a UK debut in 1997. The other nominees included some bona fide 1998 shows, including Saturday Night Fever (a jukebox musical of the standard typically expected of such fare) and Whistle Down the Wind (which had received a kind of out-of-town tryout in Washington, where it flopped but prompted the kind of rewriting that happens when a musical is being made).

2. Most Overrated

It almost feels sacrilegious to say it, but an overrated musical will rarely be bad; by definition, it will be a beloved one. For me, the most overrated musical of the year was Parade. While there is no question that the show is impressive, with several highlights in Jason Robert Brown’s score, it’s all too – I don’t know – straightforward. Going into Parade, there’s no doubt about how it will end, which keeps everything at an emotional distance. The trajectory of Alfred Uhry’s book tells the audience what it needs to feel when it should be stirring up the audience’s emotions. We should be churning at the end of this show because of the injustices it has the power to interrogate. Instead, we’ve been led to an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back for positioning ourselves on the moral high ground in viewing this telling of the story of Leo Frank. But in a tale that features gender-based violence on the one hand and antisemitism on the other, there are layers and layers of potential narrative complexity that the show just cuts through. There’s no question that the show has been improved over time, with several revisions made for the Donmar Warehouse production in 2007, which were retained in the recent New York City Center concert presentation of the show, which will transfer to Broadway next month. Perhaps Michael Arden holds the key to unlocking more of what Parade has to offer; the word from last year’s run is that he has.

3. Most Underrated

Many of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows don’t quite get their due. While musicals like Whistle Down the Wind, The Beautiful Game and The Woman in White aren’t among the composer’s best works, each has something to offer. Whistle Down the Wind has some really memorable songs, for which Jim Steinman wrote the lyrics. The show certainly has its flaws, particularly in the way it handles its plot in the book (which is credited to Patricia Knop and Gale Edwards as well as Lloyd Webber himself), but some of the songs in the show are simply fantastic, including the devastating “Unsettled Scores,” the gloriously camp “Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts” and the utterly unpretentious title song. Even when the cheese factor amps up in something like “When Children Rule the World,” Lloyd Webber and Steinman’s work yields a fun, modern Christmas carol. Whistle Down the Wind may not be perfect, but it doesn’t deserve the sheer dismissal and even hatred that some musical theatre critics and fans have sent its way.

4. Hidden Gem 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were more to Paul Simon’s The Capeman than audiences first thought? Unfortunately, there isn’t – despite a couple of musical delights like the song, “Bernadette.” The two most worthy contenders for 1998’s hidden gem come from Off-Broadway in the form of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and A New Brain. Given its subsequent film adaptation, Broadway revival and successful international productions, the former can’t really be said to be hidden. A New Brain, written by William Finn and James Lapine, has popped up here and there, notably in a 2015 Encores! staged concert, but it still hasn’t caught fire in the way that some of Finn’s other shows, like Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, have. A New Brain is, in some ways, a tough sell, dealing as it does with a
songwriter who lives through surgery to fix an arteriovenous malformation and rediscovers his
potency as a creative being after walking through the fire of his ordeal. The style of the show is heightened as the cartoonish fever dream of Gordon’s neurosis and illness threaten the unaffected emotional truth of his “Heart and Music.” The two energies’ meeting remains the show’s greatest challenge to both theatremakers and audiences. Still, even if it had nothing else to offer – and it does – “Sailing” would make it all worth it.

5. Show of the Year

The world was a complicated place in 1998. If theatre is a response to the world around it, no show embodied the spirit of 1998 more than Ragtime, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally’s musical about America in the early 20th century. Dealing with racial tension, xenophobia and privilege, the show is as relevant now as it was a quarter century ago. Given that it dramatises a milieu from which time only a very few individuals survive today – the oldest people in our world – Ragtime reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. A society that offers equality and parity is somehow as evasive now as it was in the world of Ragtime; even though significant advances have been made, the road to be travelled remains long. In the opening number of Frank Galati and Graciela Daniele’s original Broadway production, there was a glorious moment of staging as the three social castes move around the stage like the gears of a clock, the clockwork jamming each time they face off. The image explodes, the groups mix, and no one knows where they’ve landed. That’s what Ragtime is. That’s the world Ragtime is in.

1998 was a somewhat quiet year for new, high-profile musical theatre. It was perhaps a time of transition with shows that looked to the past in terms of how they told their stories, some that captured the moment as it was, and others that looked towards the future of storytelling in his genre. What a perfect reminder that musical theatre is a living art form, ever adapting to the shifting sands of human existence.

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