Musical theater by, for and about grown-ups; there’s little room for that on Broadway these days.
So reads the last line of the Times rave of one of my favorite musicals, currently playing in Connecticut. And it got me thinking. For one thing, I was instantly reminded of a line from the Backstage rave for my Such Good Friends a few years back:
Katz has created a show that, despite his tuneful, toe-tapping music, derives its primary entertainment value from verbal humor. This is the kind of musical that’s not been made for Broadway in a long time. With its witty references to literary figures and historical events, Such Good Friends not only emulates the creative techniques of musical makers of the past but seems written for Broadway audiences of a bygone era — those more homogenous, midcentury New York theatre audiences who possessed a common body of knowledge, a certain level of education, and shared cultural backgrounds and attitudes.
The critical and audience reception that Such Good Friends met with might lead one to wonder why nobody brought it to Broadway. This opinion that’s fit to print in the Times suggests something disturbing: that The Main Stem, as it operates today, is not the right place for shows geared towards adults (and I don’t mean in the x-rated sense).
There’s an old musical, you know, that’s getting mentioned in a lot of blogs here in late November. It’s Camelot. And I’ll use it as a point of departure not to talk about President Kennedy, but rather a whole type of Broadway musical that died far too early. Lerner and Loewe’s final stage original is full of wit, word-play, and, to a very large extent, is a play about ideas and ideals. In a wild anachronism that only bothers pedants, King Arthur dreams up a government based on some of those great inventions of the Enlightenment. His Knights of the Round Table will get a say in how he rules, there’s going to be trials by jury, and military strength used as a force of good. Then, due to Queen Guinevere’s inability to prioritize duty over lust, all of Arthur’s fine notions get shattered. None of this is kid stuff. The audience must have a certain level of intellect in order to feel Arthur’s pain. Not to mention understanding Lerner’s linguistic twists, such as “You’ll never find a virtue unstatusing my quo.” It’s heady stuff, as well as very romantic.
And, being all of that, it could never get produced today. Theatre’s powers-that-be don’t believe there’s an audience for seriously-felt tempestuous romances that reference political philosophies, and use English cleverly. It’s not that nobody is writing shows like Lerner and Loewe did any more – I am, for one – it’s that there’s a pervasive and wide-spread belief that there’s no audience for this kind of thing any more.
And don’t you bring up Sondheim to me. Sure, he can be heady, and play with words as well as Lerner. (He’s wholly unable to depict real romance, but that’s beside the point.) This is the twentieth Broadway season in a row with no new Sondheim show. Perhaps he shares this frustration. Way too many of The Great White Way’s offerings today involve music the audience is previously familiar with. Those who aren’t interested in songs they haven’t heard before can catch A Night With Janis Joplin, Motown, Beautiful (Carole King hits), After Midnight or Bullets Over Broadway. Seems to me I’ve decried unoriginal scores before. But there’s a parallel problem with shows being, well, dumbed down to a sub-adult level. The long-running Mamma Mia doesn’t have a thought in its head. Newsies? Spider-Man?
That show in Connecticut is the best romantic musical I know, The Most Happy Fella, by Frank Loesser. It follows a hash-house waitress who’s “helped a few fellows prove they were fellows” through an epistolary courtship. There’s an ill-considered one-night stand, as well as a plea for post-marital sex from a wife, amazingly explicit when you consider the show premiered in 1956. Fella never fails to move its audience (it’s at Goodspeed now, and Dicapo Opera did it off-Broadway last year) because it’s written with such passion, we feel all the powerful emotions the characters feel. You’ve heard the phrase “bring lots of Kleenex.” Well, I suggest carrying buckets for all the tears you’ll shed.
I should mention that the leading lady up in Connecticut is Mamie Parris, who was so delightful in my Area 51 several years ago. That’s what led me to read a regional review (the critic loved her, too).
What can be done about the scourge of silly and juvenile fare? I’ve a modest proposal: Vote with your pocketbooks. If enough people run out and purchase tickets to the smarter shows, and avoid seeing the stupid ones, Broadway will eventually wise up and produce the kind of work the Lerners and Loewes of today are creating. It’s a common canard to say “Nobody writes shows the way they used to” but the reality is, some do: we’re just not getting them produced in the big houses near Times Square.