What I did on my summer vacation: A family trip to Disney World got me to relive a couple of childhood experiences. And, along the journey, I had a couple of thoughts about musical comedy’s past, present, and where it’s going (far too slowly).
The part of Disneyland that literally filled my dreams, as a boy, was Tomorrowland. With a great deal of frequency, I dreamt about wandering into some behind-the-scenes area; I pictured ugly warehouses and random vehicles, but enjoyed seeing what regular park visitors never see. Awake, of course, I liked the rides as well as the feel of the place, a vision of how life might be like in the not-too-distant future.
A particular favorite was Trip Through Inner Space, where you shrink smaller and smaller until electrons whirl around you. At one point, you look up at a giant blinking eyeball at the end of a metal tube. That’s someone looking through a microscope at you. Many major rides had corporate sponsorship, and it seemed perfectly appropriate that this one was sponsored by Monsanto: making the young me appreciative of their chemical innovations.
Well, the ride’s no longer there in Tomorrowland. (Gone, too, any regard for Monsanto.) In its stead, some comedy club where monsters tell jokes, as if our stand-ups today aren’t quasi-human enough.
Something that hasn’t changed, but now seems embarrassingly retro, is the general design of the place. The PeopleMover has exposed supports, curved and hole-punched buttresses of what looks like steel, with thick rivets. Now, I know that, mid-20th century, that was the vision of the future. Think of The Jetsons, or Forbidden Planet. And I can’t deny it’s nice to see that the wise wizards behind Walt Disney World haven’t updated. But it got me thinking of other things that seem stuck in time.
Like, for instance, musical theatre. For a little over forty years, it seemed like a great march forward:
- 1927, Rodgers, Hart and Fields hit upon the idea of adapting a classic piece of American literature into A Connecticut Yankee
- Later that same year, Kern and Hammerstein inject serious drama into musical comedy with Show Boat
- 1931, George S. Kaufman and the Gershwin brothers manage to Americanize Gilbert and Sullivan’s sense of ridiculous political satire with Of Thee I Sing. Their two other attempts at this were famous disasters, leading Kaufman to define satire as “what closes Saturday night.”
- Rodgers and Hart then went on their innovation spree, injecting narrative ballets into On Your Toes, adapting Shakespeare for the first time (The Boys From Syracuse) and presenting an anti-hero who’s hard to love in Pal Joey.
- Rodgers and Hammerstein’s revolution I’ve described in a previous post about Oklahoma!
- Their King and I choreographer, Jerome Robbins, created the apotheosis of the form, West Side Story, fully integrating dance into the storytelling process. He further refined the paradigm with Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof.
- Fiddler producer Harold Prince (do you see how there’s a many-linked chain of associations here?) became a director, and, in Cabaret, effectively imported Brecht’s idea of songs commenting on the action. The diegetic songs on the Kit Kat Klub stage all comment on the story of a naive American writer and the captivating Sally Bowles. (Which reminds me to acknowledge the passing of the first actress to play the character on stage, the great Julie Harris.)
And then… And then… And, gentlemen and then…?
Improvements came to something of a halt. Oh, sure, you can make a case for A Chorus Line and I’m not saying there were no more innovative shows. But, generally, the genre ceased to change with the times. And it’s high time I talk about Nostalgia Merchants. In the early 1970s, one counter to what was called the counter-culture was a series of revivals of really old musicals: No No Nanette, Irene, Very Good Eddie and Whoopee. (Only the last of these wasn’t a hit, and might be dubbed Not-So-Good Eddie.) Each purported to present audiences with what musicals were like back in the good old days after World War One and before the Depression. Of course, they were nothing of the kind, as the scripts and scores were vastly rewritten to match the audience’s false impression of how wonderful musicals used to be. Audiences – particularly those who didn’t like the badly-groomed and rock-infused youth (of Hair et al) – ate it up. Which led the powers-that-were to invest in depictions of Life As We Think We Knew It Years Ago. Grease, the most-performed American musical of all time, is an example of this. At least it has original book, music and lyrics! Forty Second Street doesn’t. Jersey Boys uses the hits of The Four Seasons to show how the band, The Four Seasons, was formed. Kind of like the thousands of MTV documentaries, no?
When Nostalgia Merchants are raking in the chips, there’s little investment in innovation, and a lot of brilliant people gave up on musical theatre. Not me, of course, but the brilliant people. A form of entertainment that had reinvented itself so frequently, so wonderfully, from 1927-1967, got pickled in amber.
But I can’t leave you on that note. So how about a mini-review of a mini-musical now playing at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It’s a short stage version of Finding Nemo and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Taking its cue (and its songwriter) from the impish puppet musical Avenue Q, the puppeteers hold their puppets on sticks with various controls. They sing, dance and use facial expressions while their underwater characters move and use similar facial expressions. It’s quite moving: but maybe I’m a sucker for things about being a dad.
And then… And then…?
We got to go back to the area behind the theatre, not open to the public, because Joy knew the actress playing Dory (known, to some, as the Ellen DeGeneres role)! It was all ugly warehouses and random vehicles, just like the visions in my sleeping head so many years ago. Kids! – I stepped into my childhood dream!