Seems like, by now, there’s enough perspective on the aughts to say a little something about the decade where zero was the third digit of every year. I’m trying to avoid over-complicating, here: Folks discuss the 70s, the 80s, and the 90s and it only makes sense to follow those up with something called the “aughts” and refer to the years 2000-2009. Of course we could call them something besides the “aughts” but I don’t thing we oughtta; naught but the “aughts” will do for me.
And I guess we’re only talking Broadway musicals. In part, this is because off-Broadway kind of dried up. It’s a place new musicals aren’t often done anymore. That’s due to an unfortunate array of economic issues. It’s no longer profitable to play beyond The Boulevard. The Adding Machine didn’t tot up a positive figure. Sadder still, shows that don’t really belong on Broadway fizzle after fiscal vicissitudes force them to move on up. Passing Strange, indeed.
The late eighties, speaking of money, were a time when a weak dollar made New York an attractive place for Europeans and Japanese to visit. Playing to an audience that, to an increasing extent, spoke little or no English, had a profound effect on the types of shows that were produced. For instance, musical comedy – the type with jokes based on verbal wit – became a rarity. I think of the 90s as That Mirthless Decade. The supposition was being made that a show with funny lyrics would not be understood by enough of the paying customers.
Hooray and Hallelujah, the new century saw the restoration of the second part of the genre’s name, musical comedy. The mega-tragedies, mostly from Europe, that had dominated The Main Stem for years began to seem like old hat, and faded from view. In their stead were shows that, even if I don’t admire their craft, I admire what they attempted to do: make ‘em laugh.
Terrence McNally and David Yazbek took a depressing tale of laid-off blue collar workers stripping for cash and filled it with so many solid jokes, it seemed like a cloudburst after years of drought. The Full Monty has two numbers that tickle me every time: Big Ass Rock, about how friends don’t let friends commit suicide alone; and Man, which contains these droll (if forced) rhymes:
When the beef comes out you do the carvin’
You hate Tom Cruise but you love Lee Marvin
You’re a man and thats a bonus
‘Cause when your swinging your cajones
You’ll show ’em what testosterone is
‘Cause you’re a boot-wearing, beer-drinking, Chevy-driving man
There was another musical soon after that I loved, A Class Act. Oops, I almost made a Freudian typo and wrote “lived” instead of “loved” for the show’s about a short, bald, neurotic New Yorker composer-lyricist with a girlfriend in Philadelphia who attends Columbia and Lehman Engel’s workshop. This was a show that truly belonged off-Broadway, another casualty of the drive to transfer. A remarkably similar show that didn’t transfer, Tick Tick Boom, gets done more often and is considered more of a success. I recommend them both.
Around that time came the musical comedy that was such a huge hit, it, more often than any other show, is credited with bringing back mirth. The Producers managed to pack more yuk-yuks per minute than any show since City of Angels. There was one performer in it I particularly loved, Brad Oscar, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when he originated a role in my musical Such Good Friends five years ago.
Urinetown and Hairspray are two shows that attempted to bring the funny, and while I didn’t chuckle much at either, I truly appreciate that attempt. I had fun musical directing Urinetown a few years ago, as its more complex numbers are cagily done. We were at the Westside, on the main floor, a theatre with support columns that are on the stage. So, as a scene in which various characters are scared was being staged, I suggested one try to escape by shimmying up the pole. And it got incorporated, a sign of a good collaboration in which employable ideas can come from any corner.
Another show that was sized just right for off-Broadway was Avenue Q, which has a unique concept: what if the cuss-filled frustrations of 20-somethings were depicted in the style of Sesame Street? Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez’s songs are so hysterical, the show managed to run many many years on Broadway, and then switched back to off-Broadway for many more.
At Spamalot, I actually laughed more at the Playbill than the show itself. Some of the jokes (on stage) were familiar from the film source, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Another asset was the choreography by Casey Nicholaw, who later directed two of the musicals I’m about to mention.
But first a hand for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a show close to my heart because improvisation was part of its development and it ran at The Circle in the Square. The songs are by William Finn, whom I greatly admire, but the book’s even funnier. The same season came Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with more hysterical songs by David Yazbek. Another show where the book far outshines the score is The Drowsy Chaperone; there, the songs are intentionally bad, but the Casey Nicholaw staging and book writer/star Bob Martin’s performance kept things hysterical.
Even more dear to my heart, but definitely dwarfed by its Broadway house was [title of show] about guys writing a show, applying to NYMF and transferring to Broadway. If you’re writing musicals, it’s a good idea to sit down and listen to its Die Vampire Die every day.
It saddens me to note that you can’t see any of the above musicals on Broadway right now, but of course it’s way to soon to discuss the teens. (But bookmark this blog; I’ll get to it!) What you can see is The Book of Mormon, a brilliantly funny confection whipped up by the men behind South Park and the aforementioned Bobby Lopez and Casey Nicholaw. (Great; it’s beginning to sound like his agent is paying me to write this.)