When daffodils begin to peer

March 31, 2013

Seventy years ago today was the single most revolutionary moment in the history of American theatre, the opening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!  That night, the world of musical theatre was instantly changed, in colossal ways, forever.  Seeing Oklahoma!, three major hit-writers of the previous era, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, all had the same reaction.  They felt the new-fangled musical play was not something they’d ever be able to write; they thought they were through.  Luckily, a few years later, Porter and Berlin were convinced to give the new-style show a try, and each delivered their masterpiece, Kiss Me Kate and Annie Get Your Gun.  Berlin had – and, perhaps, needed – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s help.  Lorenz Hart was not so lucky: a matter of months after the revolution, he was dead.

There are those who don’t believe Oklahoma! was as important as I think it is.  Revisionist historians point to some earlier shows, such as Show Boat (which also had book and lyrics by Hammerstein) and Porgy and Bess, as sharing some of the sea-changer’s qualities.  I can see those similarities, but think of the earlier shows as sparks that failed to light the kindling.  After Show Boat, there weren’t any other shows remotely like Show Boat, and Hammerstein went back to write frothy shows with less on their mind, as he had before.  One, The Golden Dawn, is said to have a significantly less enlightened view about prejudice, but I haven’t seen it to confirm.

No show before Oklahoma! had billed itself as a “musical play” and that’s a key designation. In order to understand this, it’s necessary to comprehend what theatre was like before 1943.  Over in “straight theatre,” in plays by the likes of O’Neill and Shaw, characters said whatever they said because they were motivated to do so, often a product of their psychological make-up.  Good playwrights delineated characters, so they didn’t sound or react like one another.  Subtext would often come into play.  Cool stuff.

In musicals of the period, characters typically sounded the same, subtext was rarely employed, and illogical plot machinations and speeches seemed to exist just to set up the next song.  Songs were the stars, then.  It didn’t matter, to the authors, which character was singing them; the reasons for singing were comparatively unimportant.  Now that audiences have experienced seventy years of well-wrought musical theatre, shows from the earlier time seem awfully flat.  It’s exceedingly rare for a musical from the previous two decades to ever get performed in its original form.  Anything Goes, for instance, has been thoroughly rewritten – one oft-performed version was co-written by one of the original librettists’ son.  As horrified as I was that the recent revival of Porgy and Bess revised the 1935 text, I wasn’t surprised that producers thought it necessary.

In Oklahoma!, you can’t possibly move a song from one character to another.  Laurie could never sing “I Cain’t Say No” and Will Parker couldn’t do “Lonely Room.”  Sounds obvious, but, just a few years earlier, in Rodgers and Hart’s Babes In Arms, virtually any character could have sung “Where Or When.”  What’s even more impressive is that the dialogue in the show’s book sounds a lot like plays of the time.  Its grittiness matches Tobacco Road, a long-running hit back then.  To some extent, Oklahoma! is about light subjects, like who’ll take a pretty girl to a dance, but Hammerstein saw to it that every line is properly motivated, grounded in reality, with psychological subtext.

In world theatre, I feel Bertolt Brecht is the last century’s most important figure.  Indulge me for a moment as I look at this musical through a Brechtian prism.  Oklahoma! is about a class conflict: there’s a rivalry between Curly, an attractive cowboy who rides up on a horse, and Jud, a hired hand who literally lives under the ground in a dug-out smokehouse.  The more comic secondary triangle pits a cowboy who’s actually visited a big city with a charlatan traveling salesman.  Class warfare, and its possible détente, is depicted in a song called “The Famer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.”

My historically-minded friend Jeffrey Sweet points out another political aspect.  The Sooners are early settlers in the Wild West who need to prove to Washington that they’re not so wild, that they can follow the rule of law.  So, in a long scene towards the end, the town elders take very seriously the procedures involved in trying a man for murder.  After a successful demonstration they can all abide the law, they celebrate becoming a brand new state with the title song.  This is more joyful than the happy resolution of either of the love triangles.

Enough talk of politics: let’s switch the subject to sex.  Now, some people don’t believe Rodgers and Hammerstein come close to deserving an R rating, but, for sex and violence, Oklahoma! is remarkably racy.  The heroine takes an hallucinogenic drug in order to make a decision.  She has a sex dream, involving dancing whores who lift their skirts – which we see, since this is acted out in ballet – the product of her dirty mind. Jud Fry possesses what appears to be a kaleidoscope but, when you look through it, you see pictures of naked women. He hatches a plan to rig it with a hidden knife on a catch-spring, so that when his rival is looking through it, he can flip the catch and stab him in the eyeball.  Yep, Rodgers and Hammerstein: all sweetness and light.

Four other qualities of Oklahoma!, alas, are no longer imitated by certain shows.  First, think again on the old musical comedies and how they always began with a splashy chorus with dancing girls.  Oklahoma! begins with an unattractive old dame churning butter in front of a flat of painted cornfields.  The orchestra stops playing, and the first song, a solo waltz, is heard, at first, coming from an off-stage character singing a cappella. Can you see how revolutionary that was? One New York wag, catching the pre-Broadway tryout, quipped “No jokes, no legs, no chance!

This new collaboration, of the incredibly successful composer Richard Rodgers and down-on-his-luck wordsmith Oscar Hammerstein, had the balls to go low-tech.  Spectacle, in the form of sexy dancing girls or flashy sets: nowhere to be seen.  Not true of a lot of shows today.

And whatever happened to subtext?  That’s the worst devolution of all.  In Oklahoma!’s principle love song, the characters don’t say “I love you.”  Their subtext says it, and the audience understands.  Writers today have characters say exactly what they’re thinking, as if subtext wasn’t valuable, wasn’t the very thing that makes theatre-going so interesting.

A word about Rodgers’ accomplishment: The situation in that first scene required the character to sing something that sounded like a folk song, and “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” succeeds in feeling like a real folk song you might have heard in the territory around 1905. Perhaps inspired by the fact that he was collaborating with Agnes DeMille, the choreographer most famous for Rodeo, Rodgers serves up an energetic vamp for “I Cain’t Say No” and “All Or Nothing” that bears some resemblance to Aaron Copland’s depictions of the Wild West.  The score is impressively free of anachronisms, and you know how I feel about composers who ignore the time and place settings of their shows.

Even closer to my heart is the belief that it’s a waste of everyone’s time to depict self-pity on stage.  If your character pities herself, I’m not going to feel anything, because someone else (her) is already doing the pitying.  For most of the years since Oklahoma! writers heeded these words from the heroine:

“Why should a woman who is healthy and strong blubber like a baby if her man goes away, a-weeping and a-wailing how he’s done her wrong?”

That’s one thing you’ll never hear me say; wish my colleagues felt the same.

Fear of scaffolding

March 26, 2013

I’m told a hot young playwright recently spoke, rather dismissively, about older audiences and “old ladies” and the power they seem to have over what theatres present.

Ah, the old scapegoating of the Blue Hairs. You hear similar sentiments every year. But when it comes to the health of musical theatre, I’m not going to be quick to dismiss that oft-uttered idea. There’s a kernel of validity worthy of consideration.

Consider this nightmare scenario: the office of an Artistic Director is crowded with belligerent biddies demanding that the plays presented in a playhouse’s season don’t contain long stretches of plotlessness. This Chekhov guy: not for them. They’re a legitimate economic force; if the A.D. picks dramas sans narrative drive, they’re not buying tickets.

The thing about nightmares is: sometimes, they’re true. It can’t be denied that there are regular customers of certain playhouses demanding more Neil Simon, less Craig Lucas.

But let us not be in a hurry to dismiss the opinions of the old. If a play just sits there, unhurriedly contemplating small moments, lacking plot or perceivable point – well, a lot of people (of all ages) might have a problem with that. And it follows that they should pipe up to the A. D., who, in a perfect world, might be responsive.

But why are we talking about plays here? Weren’t we talking musicals?

The playwrights I mentioned, while primarily playwrights, also wrote musicals. Neil Simon’s tuners, like his plays, were unchallenging, familiar, even conventional. Lucas’ shows play with time and narrative devices, and expect an audience to follow along in an unconventional journey. I admire them both.

But there seems to be an unhappy schism in our community. There are those who criticize shows that don’t slavishly replicate the great works of The Golden Era. There are others who enthusiastically embrace innovation: musicals that do what musicals haven’t done before are inherently exciting.

So, about that term, Golden Era: I like to define it as the roughly 25 years that begin with Oklahoma! (1943) and end with Hair. The shows most people agree are The Great Musicals come from this time. E.g., West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, The Fantasticks, Oliver!, Hello Dolly, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret.

I can see nodding heads out there, registering approval of some of those titles. But I hope you’re not among the troglodytes who insist that every new show that come along serve up the set of qualities those wonderful shows did. Because think of how daunting that is: We’re out here, in a competitive environment, trying to create new musical theatre, only be told, again and again, “Nah. Your show’s no My Fair Lady.”

Should it be?  Really?  Where else are works of art – or, let’s face it, mere works of entertainment – required to stand side by side with a Golden Era from more than five decades ago?

But there’s a Scylla to that Charybdis. There are those whose respect for the avant garde is such that they actually denigrate those shows that have passing similarities to Golden Era classics. Call them the New Nuts, ever-ready to denounce what they see as old-fashioned.

“Musical theatre is an inherently conservative genre,” a collaborator once told me, with a sneer.  Yes, he was a bit of an asshole and I’m kind of glad he didn’t win that Oscar last month.  What we were trying to do was something that hadn’t quite been tried before.  We couldn’t stand to let troglodyte thinking in.

But those New Nuts appear to be in denial about something.  The Golden Era hits get done again and again because there was something worthwhile about the way they were written, their construction, their keeping their eyes on the prize of a truly entertained audience. The quarter century that followed that Golden one didn’t produce nearly as many shows that get done as often. I’d maintain that Golden Era craft is something worth holding on to today.

It would be nice, and healthier for the musical theatre, if writers didn’t have to steer through Scylla and Charybdis. There are catty kibitzers abounding, and what one side likes the other’s likely to hate. As that playwright complained, many a troglodyte is in control of picking repertory for many a theatre. The New Nuts would like to see innovation, but don’t seem to appreciate such old-fashioned virtues as sequential events, full-blooded characters, perfect rhyming, and – gasp! – the hummable melody.

It is essential that the genre move forward.  The 1950s audience no longer exists, for one thing. There are times I look at the history of Broadway and think things kept improving until the year the Beatles and Bock & Harnick broke up, 1970.  Then, things didn’t regularly get better any more.  In my writing, I’m always aware of what’s been done before (not wanting to repeat things) and how things have been done before (keeping those Golden Era lessons of craft in mind).  Now, I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in ever seeming particularly innovative, but, as I struggle with this, I sure as hell won’t abandon the principles of craft that lead to a happy audience. Rejecting the very things that made Rodgers & Hammerstein or Bock & Harnick so wonderful seems utter lunacy to me.

Super temp

March 21, 2013

When I was a kid, my father took me to a Hollywood office to meet an actual Broadway producer, Norman Twain. This wasn’t viewed as an opportunity for me, but for Twain, who wanted to screen a TV movie he’d made out of a Broadway musical to see how a child (me) would react. It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman had some of my favorite actors in it: David Wayne, who’d originated Og, the leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow, and Cinderella herself, Lesley Ann Warren, from the TV musical I’d grown up with, as Lois Lane. Throw in Kenneth Mars (as so many comedies did back then) and naturally I was enthralled.

But what was Twain doing? You can’t make a TV movie geared towards musical comedy-loving kids, can you? My positive reaction presaged the networks’ negative one. They refused to air it in prime time, and I eventually saw it at 11:30, opposite Johnny Carson.

The question of tone can be a tricky one, as acknowledged by Superman’s original producer-director, Hal Prince.  How seriously do you treat a superhero?  Putting one in a musical was an untried idea back then, and the marketing department couldn’t find enough ticket buyers for such an odd bird (odd plane?) and it closed after three months.  The show’s book writers, Robert Benton and David Newman, tweaked the tone considerably when they wrote the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, a huge hit at the time, filled with state-of-the-art special effects.  On Broadway in the 1960s, all special effects looked fairly pitiful.  And the musical embraces its cheap ineptitude.

Today, one of the shows that sells the most seats is Spider Man, a superhero musical whose extremely expensive state-of-the-art special effects demand to be taken seriously.  How things have changed!

This week, Encores! is mounting the musical with a very amusing lack of high tech.  Directed by John Rando, with impressive choreography by Joshua Bergasse, the cast for the most part gets into the spirit of the thing, and the results are mostly delightful.  My favorite song in the score has long been The Strongest Man in the World, which allows the Man of Steel a bit of jelly-like pathos; it tickles me.  Too many of the Charles Strouse-Lee Adams numbers waste time describing Superman, and does anyone on earth really need an introduction?  Five times?  But the other numbers provide amusing showcases for character actors: Alli Mauzey, Will Swenson and especially David Pittu as a mad scientist, encouraged to go over the top with his usual satisfying results. Edward Watts is everything you could want in a Superman: funny, muscular, good voice and presence.  Nobody believes me when I tell them this, but his isn’t the largest role in the musical (biceps, yes; role, no).

Eddie Sauter

Wonderful as so many of these elements are, at Encores! the true treat is the chance to hear a Broadway score with impeccable fidelity to how it was heard opening night.  The orchestra, not the play, is the thing.  Superman features something highly unusual: an enormous 27-piece band with no violins.

The orchestrator was Eddie Sauter, and I can name nobody in his profession with a better reputation.  He’d been responsible, to some extent, of the sound of the Benny Goodman orchestra.  As years went by, and Big Bands went out of fashion, he continued to innovate and amuse in the area of what we might call orchestral jazz.  His sound is big, exciting, and, here, funny in and of itself.  Superman is not Strouse’s best score – not close – but what Sauter did with it is glorious.  He employs the growl of the tenor sax as a harbinger of evil – and remember, the evil characters are the most fun of all.  Notes that Strouse must have written as quarter notes are divided into four sixteenth notes.  And, in a show that couldn’t place its money in stagecraft, there are musical special effects aplenty.

Sauter’s other Broadway works include The Apple Tree and 1776 – one could hardly get more varied than these.  Superman is another fine example of Charles Strouse writing contemporary music; at times its peppy swing calls for dancing a shag.  And so, after 47 years we have a score that sounds like an artifact of its era.  It’s rock, in a way, but not the sort that features distorting electric guitars and hard drums.  Should we call it “roll?”

When I was a child, then, seeing my favorite character actors essay a musical on TV was the main event.  Today, as you can tell, I’m far more enthusiastic about the sound of the Encores! orchestra, which is made up of specialists who understand exactly how their instruments were played fifty or more years ago.  (Yes, styles of playing evolve over time.)  I guess this sounds like an odd thing to be fascinated with, but, as strange as you may think I am, I think grown-ups who are still obsessed with comic books are far weirder.  Grow up, already!  And come enjoy the enormously appealing sound of It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman.


March 16, 2013

You would not be reading this blog were it not for a composer named Mark Sutton-Smith, who died a few days ago.

Two and a half years ago, we lunched at Tom’s Diner and he gently convinced me to share my thoughts on musical theatre. Publicly. I found the technical aspects of putting up a blog daunting.  Mark didn’t.  With very little input from me, he created the look of this page, that masthead with my picture, the right column links, the colors and font. He just wanted me to write, feeling I could make a valuable contribution to the community of musical theatre creators. I don’t know how valuable it’s been to you all, but Mark was instrumental in changing my life. Used to be, random thoughts about the making of musicals would flow in and out of my head. Now, I collect them, organize them, and put out an illustrated essay every five or six days.

Mark worked for the National Basketball Association, a fact that bemused me.  I also collaborated with a guy who worked for Major League Baseball, proof that a “sport,” as Mitt Romney would call them, can also write for the theatre. I first heard Mark’s work and got to know him many years ago at the ASCAP Workshop. Stand By the River was a piece about abolitionists, with the predictable piety and earnestness. But I heard some surprising and fresh strength in the music, and knew he was one to watch.

Perseverance paid off in works like The Usual (produced in the Midwest) and Girl Detective, which is being done at a college. I don’t know whether he was healthy enough to know it was happening this month – such is the slow deterioration from cancer.

Shortly before his diagnosis, Mark lost his job with the NBA. Few could deal with such a double whammy, but Mark, amazingly, viewed it as an opportunity: to focus more fully on composing music, to become the full-time creative artist he’d always wanted to be. Of course, a cancer fight impinges significantly on one’s time, and his last songs for The Usual and a classical piano sonata were completed between rounds of chemo.

Seems it might be O.K. to share a little of an e-mail he wrote me:

All the spare time, though, has a been a boon to my creative life…I know now that I will never go back to the corporate life of technology. Somehow I have to make the creative life the center rather than a sideshow, and I believe that my life depends on it in a way…
My wife and I went to Michigan for the premiere of “The Usual” this past weekend, the biggest output of energy I had experienced since before I got sick, and my entire extended family flew there to support me. It was an amazing shot in the arm, and the theatre did a magnificent job.
So I enter a small fraternity, comparatively speaking: musical theater writers who have been professionally produced in an equity theater (with a real set and props and four week paid rehearsal time!). It feels great. I hope to do it again someday!!!

Right after I got the news of Mark’s death, I learned that New York Theatre Workshop is mounting a new revue of Burt Bacharach songs. Maybe I was transferring emotions, but this made me fly into a rage. How creative of them! The theatre that gave us Rent, Bright Lights Big City and Once is now repackaging a bunch of hit songs we all already know from childhood. Seems like a callous and low-risk attempt to make money by a theatre on the same East Village block as that citadel of the avant garde, La Mama. Why do audiences flock to hear tunes they already know? Where’s the adventure in that?

Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with New York Theatre Workshop’s history to present songs its audience hasn’t heard before? What about the work of a fine unsung songwriter like Mark Sutton-Smith? Does any audience need to be reminded, once again, of Bacharach’s greatness?
Mark Sutton-Smith was 57.  The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.

I don’t want to see the pope

March 11, 2013

I’m sincere in wishing Cyndi Lauper all the best in her new career as a Broadway songwriter. Her maiden effort, Kinky Boots, began previews March 3. I hope it’s good; I hope it’s a hit. And I hope its reception encourages her to write more.

But when a friend asked which new show to get tickets for, Matilda or Kinky Boots, my skepticism led me to endorse the former. Friends who’ve seen Matilda were enthusiastic. As I write this, I don’t know of anyone who has caught Kinky Boots.

So, this isn’t about Kinky Boots. But my skepticism doesn’t come out of thin air. For a long time I’ve watched, faintly horrified, as rock stars have tried their hands at Broadway. With the notable exception of Elton John, they’ve crashed and burned. Of course, the widely-derided first effort of U2’s Bono and The Edge, Spider Man: Turn on the Dark, is still running.  I’ve seen financial analysis estimating that the show will have to be well into its second decade before it turns a profit. So, one might say the jury’s still out on that one. But not the jury of critics, who all hated it, especially the score.

Need I drag out the usual suspects again? There’s Jimmy Buffett’s Don’t Stop the Carnival, which, promisingly, is based on a Herman Wouk novel; it died in Florida, as many do. Paul Simon’s The Capeman is a famous flop from a pop star of such artistry, you’d think, if anyone can succeed on Broadway, Ol’ Rhymin’ Simon can; but he couldn’t. Randy Newman has a great deal of experience making his songs work in movies, with Oscars to show for it. His Faust was sent to hell on the road, and never made it in town. Paul Williams has written movie musicals, but his stage musical Happy Days has been declared not good enough for New York, too. Holland, Dozier and Holland’s First Wives Club got left at the altar. Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 came and went so quickly, it’s now best known as the one Broadway show that opened with Megan Hilty in the cast.  The rocker who no longer has Cougar in his name, John Mellencamp, wrote Ghost Brothers of Darkland County with Stephen King. No one’s beating a path to their door, nor that of Sheryl Crow’s Diner (and that door never closes).

Enough! I find the act of listing bombs too dispiriting to spend another second on it. Let’s discuss, instead, the specious thinking that leads producers to believe that those who’ve been very successful in the rock realm (many decades ago, in Lauper’s case) are the least bit likely to write a hit musical. I think you know what the producers are thinking: How much they love the star’s old rock hits.  How popular they were, in their prime. And sometimes there’s a more artistic-minded thought, that there’s something in the nature of the well-loved songs that’s in some way similar to what a musical theatre piece might require.

Time out here to quote a domestic conversation.  My wife and I weren’t entirely sure whether Cyndi Lauper had written her two best-known numbers, True Colors and Girls Just Want To Have Fun. Just looked that up, and she hadn’t. Is it too cynical of me to wonder whether Kinky Boots’ producers and investors looked up this key information? Are you as confident of Kinky Boots’ success now that you know its songwriter didn’t write those wonderful 1980s classics?

My pessimism about rock star-written debut musicals has less to do with the long sad history of such things than an understanding of the myriad differences between pop songwriting and creating for narrative theatre. One has to do with voice; rockers tend to write how they feel, putting words into their own mouths. Musicals delineate different characters, giving each a distinct voice.  That’s not a thing a lot of pop writers have experience with. I’ve heard a lot of talk of grooves, and, naturally, musicals need a wide variety of those. The country idiom suited to Hilty’s 9 to 5 character hardly fit Allison Janney’s. When you get down to it, a show’s songs tell a story on a stage, using an assemblage of actors. Now and then, an ambitious rock artist might attempt to tell a tale over the course of a concept album, but that’s still not the same thing. Show tunes, generally, take a plot from one emotional place to another; this is never the requirement for a Top 40 hit.

I hate to bring up some long-forgotten dirt, but the well-documented calamitous times leading to the opening of Aida and Spider Man involved superstars who didn’t seem as involved, as fully engaged, as most show songwriters get. It seemed Bono, The Edge and Elton John before them were far too used to the cushy life, in fancy if trash-able hotel rooms, music royalty is used to. Writing musicals is, in contrast to the lives they knew, hard work. Truly, I applaud them for getting out of their comfort zone after so many years (and Grammys). So many, unfortunately, got into something they didn’t quite expect and couldn’t quite handle.

Little sister

March 5, 2013

My sister, whose birthday it is today, was once a lot like me.  Followed musicals, wanted to be up on the latest scores, see the latest shows.  Eventually, life (and living in Los Angeles) meant she couldn’t keep up, and, by her own admission, the last quarter century of musical theatre history is somewhat murky to her.  Perhaps you feel the same.  When I listed thirty Shows You Should Know a couple of weeks ago, there was nothing from the past twenty-five years.  And that’s because I had in mind an audience that knows the recent shows but not the classics.  So, if you know only the classics and not the newcomers, this should help.

City of Angels is an old school delight.  By that I mean that what it brings to the table are elements that had been entertaining audiences for the previous fifty years.  For example, David Zippel’s lyrics are the most intricately rhymed and clever set that I can think of.  Nobody writes lyrics this way anymore.  (Well, except for me.)

Closer Than Ever was a revue mostly made up of Maltby & Shire trunk songs, but, really, who writes better than Maltby & Shire? Once, they were protégés of Sondheim; I now believe the disciples have exceeded the master.

William Finn’s family-with-gay-father saga, Falsettos, is innovative in some of the ways one might have hoped the genre would evolve. It’s sung-through, but unlike a lot of Eurotrash nobody warbles “Please pass the salt.” Characters are always at a high enough emotional pitch to justify song, which is a little exhausting. The music sounds like Dixieland reflected through a fun-house mirror. The lyrics embrace what might be called a craft mistake: Finn, for the sake of a rhyme, will let his train of thought get derailed. But this serves to make many lines feel unexpected. A sense of zaniness is never far from the picture even when the subject turns serious.

Falsettos started as two Off-Broadway musicals. In the 90s, one could still look to Off-Broadway for experiments that hadn’t been tried before. Floyd Collins might be the era’s most-praised work, introducing a revolutionary composer-lyricist, Adam Guettel. Another voice-to-be-reckoned with, Andrew Lippa, did his best work in John and Jen. My old friend Jeanine Tesori made a stunning debut with Violet, my favorite of the shows in this paragraph.
William Finn wrote a very fine score to A New Brain; it’s great fun on record, a little puzzling in the theatre. And the odd fleshed-out drag act, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, was a commercially successful rock musical that – gasp! – even got a movie adaptation.

What puzzles me about the era following Hair is that there weren’t a lot of shows using rock or pop styles effectively. So, when Rent came along, it seemed the answer to many a contemporary music fan’s prayers. The best-loved of songwriters who sound like they’ve listened to more radio than Broadway is Jason Robert Brown. Some of his tunes are undeniably appealing, and The Last Five Years’ two-person cast assures it of many a production for years to come.

Perennially popular rocker Elton John tried his hand at musicals, with a great deal of success. The Lion King is a mega-hit, and Aida and Billy Elliot drew crowds for years. Clearly, he has something on the ball. But were you expecting me to mention Andrew Lloyd Webber? Post-Phantom, his shows have been such duds he’s barely a blip on the cultural radar.

I’ve also little regard for Jekyll and Hyde but it’s a popular and important score in certain ways. Frank Wildhorn, who’d penned hits for Whitney Houston and the like teamed up with a long-past-prime British lyricist and used an outside-the-box method of shepherding their Eurotrash melodrama to Broadway, recording an album (using Streisand sound-alike Linda Eder). The songs are startlingly inane (Someone Like You, This Is the Moment) but work as ear-worms.  So, the record achieved some popularity, leading to productions and, eventually, Broadway, where it lost money.  Now, it’s about to be revived on Broadway; God help us.

Some will find it surprising to see Jekyll and Hyde and The Secret Garden lumped together, but both are based on books I read in my youth, have some catchy tunes marred by lousy lyrics, and bore the hell out of me. Those who reflexively utter “They don’t write ’em like they used to” would be surprised by some of Lucy Simon’s genuinely pretty melodies.  One is Matchmaker, Matchmaker refashioned as a 4/4 ballad with an added note, so I’d argue that some write ’em exactly like they used to.

If, instead, you were looking to Broadway to be big, ambitious and emotionally stirring, like it was back in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s time, you had to have been pleased by Ragtime. It impressed me for the same reason Les Misérables did – that it manages to put so much story on stage. Yet, you’d think I’d feel more for a piano player and new father than I do.

The songwriters’ Broadway debut, Once On This Island, though, is one I’ve only good things to say about.  The young and intelligent team of Flaherty and Ahrens very creatively told a simple Caribbean love story: one of the outstanding shows of this period.

As the millennium turned, funny musicals began to appear again on Broadway. They’re Shows You Should See, for the fusillade of punchlines, but, in many cases, there’s little point bothering with the cast albums, for that’s not where the humor resides. I’m talking about The Producers, Hairspray, Spamalot, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Drowsy Chaperone and The Book of Mormon.  I give a show a lot of credit for making me laugh, and recommend two with scores by David Yazbek, The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: some truly hysterical songs in there, plus a couple of moving ones. Similarly, I’m tickled by the dirty puppet musical, Avenue Q.

Now it’s beginning to seem like I’m listing way too many. Quickly: Seussical, after bombing on Broadway, became the most produced musical in America. Wicked is, by some distance, the weakest of Stephen Schwartz’s Broadway scores, but it has its moments. Thoroughly Modern Millie is an old-fashioned trifle; one could have seen something similar fifty years earlier. In the Heights uses a wide variety of pop music styles, not commonly heard in the theatre. And I’ll close with one with music so innovative, most of the audience had never heard anything like it: The Light in the Piazza. It may require a sophisticated palette, but it sure moved me.