Generation f’d

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness

Whenever I read the first phrase of Howl, the most famous poem of the second half of the 20th century, a crazily over-dramatic thought pops into my head.  

I think of some of the best minds of my generation of musical theatre writers, what happened to them, and how we all got screwed.  Royally.

Wow, that is over-dramatic.  But consider this:

When we were starting out, watching Franklin Shepherd meet Charlie Kringas, audiences still embraced the new.  They preferred seeing new musicals to old ones.  They didn’t need to have a title they’d heard before, or a very familiar plot from an oft-viewed movie.  They accepted that they’d be walking into a theatre and encountering a new score – a set of songs previously unheard.  Might be good numbers; might be bad: but certainly worth risking the price of a ticket.

Oh, those idyllic salad days!  Sure, I’m like any oldster looking back and waxing nostalgic when I say it seemed a world filled with possibility.  And it’s certainly possible that everybody feels this way about the era in which they were just starting out.  But consider what happened:

1. Invaders from foreign shores.  It will make me unpopular with my many international readers to admit this, but in those days we thought of musical theatre as a particularly American art form.  Sure, in the sixties, the globe-trotting David Merrick managed to sneak over a handful of West End hits, but people referred to “the Broadway musical” as if a good show could spring up nowhere else.  In the eighties, we were besieged by London imports, and, to my ears, none of these were nearly as good as our home-grown product.  I happen to be staring at the 1987 Tony nominations for Best Score.  French-written Les Miserables, with its endless procession of masculine couplets and power ballad chords, won out over Lloyd Webber’s horribly banal Starlight Express, Me and My Girl (an English show that had been written and produced in the 1930s; can’t fathom how it was deemed eligible) and the one American entry, a score I’m rather fond of, Strouse and Schwartz’s stirring Rags.  I’m not really arguing that Les Miserables didn’t deserve the nod; just pointing out the three-to-one ratio of foreign scores.

2. Revivals got mounted with exponentially increasing frequency.  And when that happens, a lot of resources – talent, money, theatre space – that might have otherwise gone to creating something new get squandered on recreating something old.  When people say “They sure don’t write them like they did in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s day” I want to yell at them “In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s day, writers didn’t have to compete with revivals of fondly-remembered shows.”  Remember, audiences back them clamored to see what they hadn’t seen before.

3. Jukeboxes.  I can distinctly recall my horror at seeing a Broadway musical with unoriginal music.  It was called The 1940s Radio Hour and its single set included a huge clock.  The hands seemed to move so slowly, I could swear it was rigged to make every minute 90 seconds or something like that.  I’d never seen anything quite so boring.  But let’s admit one thing: “I’ll Be Seeing You” is a marvelous song – I’m not so confident I could write a better ballad.

You see, all of a sudden it was fair game to produce a show, and call it “new” and fill it with great numbers from the past.  So, the truly new musicals had to vie for sales with ersatz new musicals that served up old hit after old hit.  Songwriters now faced a kind of competition that Rodgers and Hammerstein never had to deal with and couldn’t have dreamed of.  Seem unfair?  It got worse.

But let’s digress for a moment.  Recently, I was momentarily excited to learn that the esteemed Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota was doing a musical of Roman Holiday.  Thinking that’s a fairly fun idea for a show, I was eager to learn who was writing the songs.  Some fellow named Cole Porter.  He’s been dead about fifty years and various numbers he wrote for other musicals are here being repurposed to tell a different story.  Learning this, what seemed like a good idea at first glance now seems like a terrible one.  Repurposing songs, to me, is a bit like grave-robbing.  Since Cole Porter wrote them for other characters in other situations, shoehorning them into the Roman Holiday plot isn’t going to do his reputation any favors.  Could be a new generation will hear these songs for the first time and not get what’s so wonderful about him, because there’s a disconnect between what the songs are doing and what the book is doing.  They could have avoided this disconnect with an original score.

But, mamma mia, did things take an awful turn!  Producers discovered that you could sell the public on a musical using a score of old pop hits that were never meant to be heard inside a theatre, never meant to tell a linear story.  Mamma Mia, using the catchy but brainless oeuvre of the Swedish sensation known as ABBA, sometimes tries to make fun of its own deficiency.  It’s supposed to be funny how the songs don’t fit the situation, such as a character singing Knowing You Knowing Me to someone he’s just met.  Of course, I didn’t find it funny at all.  And, as I never tire of pointing out, the exact same plot, of a young woman inviting three of her mother’s old lovers to a Mediterranean paradise in hopes of discovering which is her father, had been used in a previous musical, Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s Carmelina.

4. And then there’s the epidemic of movie adaptations.  Shows come to Broadway (Ghost, anyone?) on the hopes that they’ll succeed just because ticket-buyers already have a fondness for the films on which they’re based.  For about sixty years, there have been shows wrought of flicks.  Some of my favorites: The King and I, Fanny, Sweet Charity and Nine.  Certainly, a lot of screenplays contain the sort of plot, and maybe even dialogue that could work well on the musical stage.  But none of the four shows I mentioned in admiration really traded on their titles.  The French film, Fanny, wasn’t widely known.  The others didn’t use the titles of the cinematic versions.  Nowhere on the poster for Nine could you discover that it was based on .  Might lead one to joke that they merely added ½.

More broadly, what it really leads to is a scrambling to purchase adaptation rights.  Just about any film you can name that could be a musical has already been optioned.  The laws of supply and demand are such that the options are prohibitively expensive.  In many cases, it’s the film studios themselves who are initiating the projects, going out and hiring the writers who’ll adapt their material for the stage.

5. And who do they hire?  Professional musical theatre writers?  The best minds of my generation?  Nah: over-the-hill rock stars.  (See previous post.)


One Response to Generation f’d

  1. Daniel Borson says:

    Noel, you are spot-on correct. Thankfully, there are still local and regional theater companies that are willing to take a chance on new material. Here in bucolic Eugene, we have two good ones that would be interested in good new original musicals. Someday, I hope to write the book and lyrics to one myself. Keep up the rant!

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