2013 was a rather extraordinary year for musical theatre. I’ve lived through plenty of lean years, so I know a fat one when I see one. Even if I haven’t seen everything I’m mentioning here, there’s something revivifying about activity, about shows getting raves, about a seemingly-widening cadre of people talking about the world of musical comedy.
When you’re enduring an awful year (1994, for instance), you long for a season in which there will be a certain number of new works by writers you respect, and if a new creator should pop up out of the blue, with an intriguing voice, that’s good, too. When musicals seem to be an ever-diminishing pinpoint blip on the cultural landscape, you might even pine for the added exposure only television can bring. If you follow composers who’ve impressed you in the past, and it seems like many years since their last outing, it can feel like your ship has come in.
April brought the American premiere of Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s Matilda, based on a Roald Dahl story. I remember reading the reviews and thinking, “There’s no way this doesn’t win the Tony.” (And I was wrong: Kinky Boots did.) First-time theatre songwriter Minchin is just the sort of neophyte I get skeptical about, someone who’s been successful in another, wholly unrelated field. But, as those go, he’s certainly interesting. A stand-up comedian who, without really trying, became a figurehead for the British anti-religiosity movement, he’s always included original comedy songs in his act. Something must have clicked with the anti-establishment ethos of Dahl, because Matilda stands tall as a rebuke to those shows that sugarcoat childhood (like Annie, which also played this year).
When you hear a show described and think to yourself, that’s the sort of show I love; hell, that’s the sort of show I write! – well, isn’t it a delight to see it praised to the hilt? What I keep hearing about A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder is that the songs are well-crafted, the humor uproarious, and there’s not one, but two sopranos among its four leads. Now, I’ll admit, it took me a while before I could remember that title. But isn’t that another plague of our times? It’s easy to recall the names of shows whose names are already famous. Producers of such things, it sometimes seems, are trying to cash in the source’s fame. You loved that movie a few years back, now you’ll love the musical! Funny thing is, Ebb-honorees Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman set out to adapt a sort-of famous old movie, Kind Hearts and Coronets, but failed to hold on to the rights. Instead, they bought the rights to the novel on which the old Alec Guinness vehicle is based. That’s called Israel Rank; hence, the original title. I’ve followed the progress of this show over its many years of development, and have laughed at Lutvak’s songs for decades: how nice to witness its ecstatic critical reception at long last.
2013 was also the year that Jason Robert Brown’s musical comedy, Honeymoon In Vegas, was finally produced, to much acclaim, in Milburn, New Jersey. As I reread that last sentence, the word that jumps out at me is “comedy.” One element that has made previous Brown works so dreary to sit through is their tendency towards turgid seriousness. Oh, how depressing it is to be falsely accused of murdering a child, so let’s give voice to that for over two hours, etc. But the first half of his comedy song, A Summer In Ohio indicated that if he put his mind to it, he could get a laugh every now and then. While a different, far-more-serious Brown musical is headed to Broadway, I’m tickled to note that, in Honeymoon In Vegas, he did put his mind to it. Comedy – without it, “shits and giggles” is just “shits.”
Long-time readers of this blog know that it’s rare I find positive things to say about certain songwriters. I’ve been more than a little appalled by Sondheim-mania, for instance, and was a bit wary tuning in to James Lapine’s HBO documentary a few weeks ago. But Six By Sondheim was so informative, so helpful to what we do, that it marks this as a banner year even if other small box would-be musicals marked it in the way wolves do when they claim their turf. The man who was hailed as “the boy wonder of Broadway” soon after he turned 40 (!) lets us in to the way he thinks. The hour-and-a-half is mostly spliced-together interviews spanning fifty years. But it’s all coherent and fascinating. And Sondheim takes no pot-shots at the masters like he did in his books.
Television ended its brief affair with the idea of episodic series featuring songs woven into the plot, as Glee and Smash ended long after they should have. The bona fide hit, Glee, couldn’t recover its loopy mojo after the suicide of one of its young stars. At its best, it could be both funny and moving, unlike Smash, which rarely tried to be funny, but was often unintentionally so. In many ways, Smash was the anti-Glee: tremendously expensive, with household name producers and stars, and achieving just about the lowest Nielsen ratings of any show ever to be given a second season. It got my gourd for many reasons, but its worst sin was just being stupendously boring.
And I’ll say something positive about The Sound of Music, done live on NBC. They didn’t monkey, much, with the text and score. Painful as every minute was, the words were Lindsay, Crouse and Hammerstein’s, the music, Rodgers’. Another network broadcast the box-office-topping film, so one could observe the differences, if one could stand that much treacle.
There’s such a strong gravitational pull, when you’re a new parent, to stay home. This wonderful year, I didn’t get out as often as I did in my pre-Dad days. But I did get to experience the sort of moment I live for: when you’re seeing a new musical and hearing a song that you know is one for the ages, one that performers will love doing again and again long after the show is forgotten. It was Alexandra Socha singing Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s ballad about a lover named Joan in Fun Home. I can’t describe it; you had to have been there. And, in 2013, I was.