Be what I know I can be

A recent exchange on a theatre chat board brought up the subject of writers’ ambitions. What are we trying to do when we write our shows?

This may seem silly, pedantic and theoretical at first, but stick with me. There was much discussion of Merrily We Roll Along, a show that’s undergone countless revisions over the thirty years since its creation. Most agree it’s seriously flawed in all its forms. When some fan opined “Let’s just admit it, this is the best show in town.” there began a comparison with what critics, comedians and audiences seem to concur is the actual best show in town, The Book of Mormon.

Still following all this?

Chatter A: As a show, though, I agree Mormon is well crafted. They got it right the first time. Whether or not it’s a show for the ages, there won’t be production after production trying to make it work.

Chatter B: Yes, they got it right the first time. But then, the thing they were trying to do is much easier, isn’t it? They weren’t trying to make a psychologically and emotionally coherent musical out of a play that was problematic (that is, didn’t work) to begin with, and was told chronologically backwards. I have no quarrel with Book of Mormon; it’s okay. But one show was an attempt to expand the boundaries of musical theater, and one wasn’t.

So we’ve finally reached the topic I wished to discuss: If Stephen Sondheim & George Furth tried “to make a psychologically and emotionally coherent musical out of a play that was problematic (that is, didn’t work) to begin with, and was told chronologically backwards…an attempt to expand the boundaries of musical theater” they set the goal posts awfully high, and came up lacking.

Trey Parker, Matt Stone & Bobby Lopez set out to write a funny musical comedy about religious missionaries. I think that’s a pretty big ambition, too, and evidently they succeeded,  creating the biggest hit of the new century.

The trouble began way back when Sondheim & Furth set themselves such seemingly impossible goals. Why’d they have to attempt something so difficult? They ended up confusing Broadway audiences for a couple of weeks. (Or 30 years, if we want to count subsequent stagings.)

One gets the sense that Sondheim was attracted to the time-in-reverse construct because he can’t resist a good puzzle.  His two non-musical scripts, the screenplay The Last of Sheila and the stage play Getting Away With Murder are known for clever plots.  Not emotional ones.  Not ones in which you care about the characters.  One thing that impressed me about The Book of Mormon is that, amidst all that silly irreverence, I cared about these two mismatched missionaries and a Ugandan girl.

Some might counter that, after the heaviness of Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, Sondheim and director Hal Prince sought to get back to musical comedy, simpler, more palatable fare.  A little like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s return to less-serious entertainment with Me and Juliet after South Pacific and The King and I (How’d that work out for you, R & H?).  But the mopey moralizing of Merrily is more akin to Allegro, the Rodgers & Hammerstein non-hit on which young Sondheim served as gopher.  Allegro, while innovative, is fairly straightforward.  The story goes from a man’s birth to age 30, and a singing Greek chorus tells us what to observe.  Merrily‘s chorus tells us to “Never look back” before proceeding to do precisely that, and then helpfully staves off confusion by singing out the year, each one earlier than the last.  Are you following all this?

The Last Five Years, a two-actor musical, goes one step further in the wrong direction.  It’s a dialogue-free song cycle about a romance that appears to be based on events in its author’s life.  But the woman’s songs start at the end of the five years and move backwards, alternating with the man’s songs which start at the beginning and move forward.  They meet at the middle to share the show’s only duet.  Figuring out this Rubik’s cube of a format (and trying to feel something for its characters) was an excruciating experience.

As you’re setting out to write your musical, know that you’re already setting out to do something difficult.  Don’t add to your challenge by monkeying with the time continuum, exorcising personal demons through thinly-veiled auto-biography, or locking yourself into using nothing but triple meters. To do so is to risk short-changing the most important ambition of all: entertaining the audience. One could argue it’s a given. That every musical author seeks to divert the patrons in the seats.  But looking at some of these puzzlers wrapped inside an enigma served in a couple of conundrums, I gotta wonder.

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