Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Happened to That Hummable Showtune?

It's surprising to me that I've now written two posts about musicals- I'm generally more of a fan of straight plays- but I've noticed an interesting trend in terms of musicals that I've been wanting to discuss- the evolution of the musical.

In the recent musical "The Drowsy Chaperone," the main character, Man in Chair, opens the show by speaking to the audience in pitch black, discussing what it used to mean to go to a Broadway musical, mentioning that it used to be exciting- an escape into a new world. You left the theater humming a song from the show. These have become instant classics that any theater buff knows, at least by name. I'm talking about "A Chorus Line," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Chicago" etc. Man in Chair goes on to compare these days of musical yore to the present, where he says the main thought of any theatergoer is "Dear God, Elton John, must we continue this charade?"

This comment is funny because of its truth- it seems like Broadway has become a breeding ground for commercialization. This means that very few original musicals are actually original. "Billy Elliot," the Tony winner for best musical and practically everything else as well, is inspired by a movie of the same name. The same goes for the cavalcade of musicals produced by Disney ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Mary Poppins.") Even the undisputed best of these Disney shows, "The Lion King," leaves a feeling of remorse. Yes, it's beautiful (thanks to Julie Taymor) but it's still Disney. And this trend of Disney musicals has expanded outside of Disney now. Other producers have jumped on the idea- hence "Shrek the Musical" has come into existence, and "Coraline" has started an off-broadway run. For the grown-ups, most of the choices may have original stories, but unoriginal music. "Mamma Mia," "9 to 5," and "All Shook Up" are just examples of the many shows based on the music written by popular musicians. While these can be fun, especially for the fans of that music, these often come across as disjointed in plot, as their sole purpose is to showcase the music. This makes the shows feel more like concerts than actual theatre, certainly not original, and usually not good (as evidenced by the recent atrocity "Rock of Ages.")

The only original musicals in recent years have also been unconventional. For example, you'd never have seen "Avenue Q" back in Broadway's glory days. This past year, the only really original musical (under my qualifications) nominated for best new musical was "Next to Normal," featuring an all rock score and pretty bleak subject matter. "Next to Normal" is about SPOILER ALERT a woman with a mental illness who believes her dead son is still alive. The whole musical is bleak- the mother undergoes electroshock therapy, the daughter develops a drug addiction, etc. This is a far cry from the day when "Oklahoma" premiered and was thought to be too dark because a character was killed (the first time in theater history.) That's right- audiences thought "Oklahoma" was too bleak. With its fucking fields of wheat.

All of this is fine, but there is one real problem, and that's the real point of this article (finally.) These "new Broadway musical" conditions will never produce a classic, like the ones mentioned earlier in the post. The hottest show of the past few years was undoubtedly "Spring Awakening," which, while hated by many, was absolutelt idolized by even more- and managed to create the closest Broadway has come to a sensation in quite some time. Even "Spring Awakening," with its centuries old text may not be considered new, but with the score, cast, and overall energy of the production, I feel it can't help but be indicative of this wave of "new musical." Despite "Spring Awakening"'s immense popularity, I highly doubt we will ever see this show revived. The script and music are simply not appealing enough to justify it. In these new musicals, what everyone goes to see is the production itself, and that is something that can't be recreated in years to come. The shows that we now see as fun and spoofy, such as "Avenue Q" and "Urinetown" will also possibly lose their edge and originality if they were to be revived on Broadway too many years into the future. "Rent," for example, was being referred to as dated only five years after its premiere. Compare these to "Guys and Dolls," which has been revived just this past year. Granted, the production has received very poor reviews, but nobody really cares. They go to it to see a Broadway classic, and that's what they get.

This age of the Broadway musical is not really a bad thing, but I worry that it's not something that will ever live on as previous musicals have. I long for those hummable showtunes we used to have- the kind that people will want to see and hear again and again, many years into the future.

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