Fear of scaffolding

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.

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