My answer is a lie

I’d say it’s time to clean up some loose ends, but what I really mean is that there are all these little jottings on my computer, and I was about to throw them out, in preparation (or avoidance!) of a big spate of songwriting I’m about to do. But they’re all about musicals, and I don’t think they’ve made it into the blog before:

I think I was having an on-line dialogue with someone who asked me about Sondheim & Weidman’s Assassins

Assassins is such an odd show it truly surprises me that anyone likes it.

Contrast abounds: Each assassin is different, Booth has an accomplice he contrasts with, argues with. Oswald has a conflict-full conversation with Booth, and eventually all the other assassins join in. Each scene is different – one might be tempted to call it a revue – and there’s a balance of comedy, seriousness, narrated or un-, monologue or dialogue; there’s even a tender love song.

The show expresses a point of view – that there’s something cancerous in the American character, our belief that any man can rise from rags to riches: this produces nuts who shoot at presidents with alarming regularity. (As you probably know, every president from 1820-1960 elected in a year ending in zero ended up dying in office.) It’s not that the politics offends me, it’s that, at the show’s end, I remain utterly unconvinced of anything. American assassins, viewed as a group (as the show does), are hardly a monolith. Some, like Booth, have real political grievances. Another shoots a president merely because he has a bad tummy ache. Sara Jane Moore – a nutty housewife. Samuel Byck – obsessed with celebrities. The point the show proves, without intending to, is that our assassins have nothing in common. No reasonable conclusion can be drawn.

Some of the jokes are funny; some are disturbingly juvenile. But none of it engaged my emotions in any way. There’s nobody to root for; it’s more like a pageant, an overly long parade of weirdo malcontents.

I imagine it’s pretty clear to long-time readers here that I’ve an unusual take on Sondheim. I admire his commitment to craft, sure, but his shows, as a whole – a lot of them truly leave me cold.

But it pissed me off, a while back, when there was an exploratory workshop involving changing one of his better shows, Company, into a piece about a gay man.

Imagine it’s 44 years ago, and I decide to write a musical about that incredibly common character, the commitment-phobic bachelor.

I might depict him having sex with different women. I might have scenes in which he considers marriage, but rejects it. I might have married friends urge him to settle down.

Bobby in Company is completely heterosexual. His refusal to commit to ONE woman is not indicative of homosexual tendencies. It proves he prefers to play the field (of women), as was true of MANY 30-something guys 44 years ago.

It amazes me that so many people can’t seem to accept the choices Sondheim and Furth made in writing a show about a straight man observing but not emulating married people.

In writing a serious musical about someone with sexual appetites, you make decisions and write it a certain way based on what that character’s sexuality is. If Bobby was bisexual, or bi-curious, or becoming a homosexual (like Finn’s Marvin), Company would be written in an utterly different way.

Frankly, it reminds me of that flaming Richard III in The Goodbye Girl.

I realize that one of my oft-sounded themes is that the audience for musicals has changed so much, it’s increasingly hard to produce shows with the sort of virtues the shows we all grew up loving had. (I don’t know what question had been posed, here -)

First, I’d say more musicals are being written today than ever before.

There are two more involved answers to your question. Let’s say, for purposes of this discussion, that there was a Golden Age, running roughly from Oklahoma to Hair and that we’re in a Current Age, running roughly since Mamma Mia.

In the Golden Age, shows were produced by individuals, such as David Merrick and Kermit Bloomgarten. They carefully shepherded projects to The Great White Way with lots of individual attention, such as choosing collaborative teams, and influencing casting. In the Current Age, shows are most often produced by huge corporations. The personnel involved may or may not be theatre people; some have no experience in theatre whatsoever. What the corporations do have are stockholders, people who are looking at the bottom line. The sort of individual attention that used to be common is quite rare today.

It is the thinking of many Current powers-that-be that the only way to make money on Broadway is to provide an audience with something they’re already familiar with: Songs they’ve heard (jukebox shows) or titles that are well-known from the movies. Often, the mega-corporation producing the adaptation already owns the rights to the screenplay they’re basing their shows on. A property (an old film) can be sitting around NOT making money for a studio, but you can eke more bucks out of it if fame from a musicalization revives interest.

The closing notices of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Scottsboro Boys have gotten people talking about why so few people bought tickets to these original and well-reviewed musicals, while Elf and The Addams Family post big numbers.

One likely hypothesis: The audience for Broadway has changed. Remember when Times Square was a scary place, filled with sketchy characters and the occasional mission doll? Neither do I. But during the Golden Age there were folks who frequently braved this dodgy area because they loved seeing original work. And it didn’t matter if the show had some unfamiliar name, like Brigadoon or Bye Bye Birdie – people went because they loved theatre, listened to theatre-loving friends and read reviews.

In the past quarter century, the theatre district has transformed itself. There are no horse players, whores or even mission dolls. 24 hours a day, feeling perfectly safe, there are tourists in Times Square, from across the country and around the world. Many tourists view coming to New York and seeing a Broadway show a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They’re less likely to take a risk on something they haven’t heard of. Unlike the metropolitan theatre-lovers described in the last paragraph, they’re not likely to have read reviews, or even to know other people who’ve seen a Broadway show. They don’t go on recommendations; they do go on (in a phrase from an Eddie Murphy movie) The Name You Know.

Of course, these are generalizations. We all know some out-of-towners who do inform themselves about theatre. But I doubt anyone will deny that the Current Age audience differs from the Golden Age audience in knowledge, review-reading, and the need for the familiar.

I do know what question I was responding to here. Someone asked why Ghost, a show that was a widely-panned financial flop on Broadway was on a national tour (cast by my wife – but that’s neither here nor there).

Here’s the deal: If you’re selling tickets to people who don’t read reviews, then the show based on that movie you liked (Ghost, e.g.) will outsell the show critics loved (such as A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder) every time; quality is immaterial.

Too depressing a thought to leave you with? Sorry: Just cleaning out the sad crap from the computer, and the chips fall where they may. I will report (and I hope this cheers you) that my step back from the self-imposed discipline of coming up with a new essay here every five or six days has led to markedly improved productivity on the new musical. And, as you can tell, I didn’t expend a lot of time writing this entry. If I had, I’d certainly come up with a less Business Jargon-y phrase than “markedly improved productivity.” Good tunes, man!


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