String quartet

Suppose you’re attending a show because an old friend is in it. And that old friend does great, but the writers of the show screwed up somehow, marring your experience as an audience member. Now, the writers aren’t greeting you at the stage door afterwards; the performers are, and you congratulate them on their fine work. The productions – sets, staging, musicianship – may be glorious, but you’re left with an unscratched itch, the nettlesome shortcomings that, then and there, you couldn’t comment on.

Now that we’re through with 2016, on this blog that looks at how musicals are made, I hope you’ll allow me to get some things off my chest. Five seasons ago, nobody was surprised when the Tony for Best Musical went to Once. I finally caught it about a month ago. The songs, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, were mostly written for the cute little film on which it’s based. The book is by Enda Walsh. And the show starts before the house lights go down. We see an Irish pub, and people are playing their own instruments. It seems an informal entertainment, supposedly impromptu Irish songs, filled with the usual mythic narratives and humor. When the houselights dim, these same folk are now playing the show’s songs, effectively setting us up for a whimsical tale-spinning, perhaps with a bit of magic thrown in.

And what we get is: the exact opposite. We see the halting romance between a Guy and a Girl (that’s what the Playbill calls them) and it’s notably lacking in myth and magic. They communicate in a true-to-life way that I might have found admirable if I hadn’t been set up for just the opposite. For long stretches, Once plays like a solid two-character play, well grounded in contemporary reality. When a song comes in, it’s passionate pop. One of the things that struck me is that the Guy’s unusual singing voice is a big part of what’s entertaining about this musical. That’s impressive; so’s the hard strumming on guitars that seems an emotional expression by a character. Once is rather innovative in this.

But I was reminded of one of Lehman Engel’s Key Components: Subplot. In Engel’s view, the audience needs a distraction from the main characters and what they’re doing. (I worry about this, because I’m now writing a show with no subplot; it’s half as long as Once, though.) Guy and Girl take their realistic relationship baby steps, and the trouble is, there isn’t enough interesting plot for a whole musical. We get tired of watching them. I’ve never seen something that cried out more for a subplot.

There is also no subplot, and a songwriting central figure, in Tick Tick…Boom. The librettist is David Auburn, who, like Enda Walsh, is a major playwright with no musical theatre experience. The music and lyrics – and, in a sense, the first draft of the book – are by Jonathan Larson. It’s a posthumous work; he and Auburn didn’t work together. But back when Larson was a little-known musical theatre writer, he had the idea of depicting his life and struggles in the field. So, for readers of this blog, Tick Tick…Boom is something of a must-see. It is unusual in that Auburn expects the audience to know that Larson went on to write the biggest hit musical of the 1990s but died on the eve of its first performance. Poignantly, he didn’t live to see Rent succeed – the raves, the Tony, the Pulitzer. We watch Jonathan apply himself to writing musicals with no acclaim or recompense. Given that emotional backdrop, Auburn structures a plot (sans subplot) that we invest in, to an extent, because we know what will happen after the curtain drops.

You can’t say that about a lot of shows, although I’m just remembering seeing, as a small boy, a musical set in Illinois called Young Abe Lincoln – something of the same thing. In Tick Tick…Boom, Jonathan rewrites Come To Your Senses “over and over and over till I get it right.” It’s supposed to be the emotional climax when we finally hear the full song, but every time I hear it, I find its message hard to grasp. The concepts in the lyric come at the ear too quickly:

The fences inside are not for real
If we feel as we did, and I do
Can’t you recall when this all began
It was only you and me
It was only me and you
But now the air is
Filled with confusion

I’ll say it is.

In Jonathan Larson’s masterpiece, Rent, we also meet a songwriter, Roger, struggling to write the perfect song about his relationship. Turns out to be one of the weakest numbers in the score.

There’s something I should’ve have told you
When I looked into your eyes
Why does distance make us wise?
You were the song all along

This is, as another character in the show says, “less than brilliant.” Is the point supposed to be that Roger isn’t a particularly good writer? (I ask the same question about Mr. Holland’s Opus, when I hear that awful symphonic piece at the end.)

So, on my recent re-visit to Rent, I was most struck by how overly-rhymed it is. Larson famously bridged the rock and musical theatre worlds, but, even twenty-one years ago, good musicals no longer were littered with showy rhymes that call attention to themselves. Lesbians I knew at the time didn’t call each other “Pookie” but hey, a rhyme for “spooky” was needed and what are you going to do? At one point, the whole problem is summed up when a character says, of what he’s just said “That’s poetic. That’s pathetic.”

Any writing error in Rent, though, is one I suspect Larson would have fixed had he lived to shepherd it to Broadway. We don’t go to edgy musicals about East Village squatters in order to hear “control freak” paired with “droll geek” (I kid you not). We might go to children’s theatre for such alleged cleverness, but that’s a genre in which we can’t expect a plot to hold our attention for long. Which brings me to Seussical, by Eric Idle, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. This is, I believe, the most-performed show of the new century, and everything that happens in it is so silly, so lacking in import, the show becomes a mere pageant of fanciful design. What Happens Next is so frequently arbitrary, you give up caring What Happens Next rather quickly. An elephant interacts with a tiny town smaller than a clover, then can’t find the clover on which it’s located, then a bird who loves him finds it off-stage. My four-year-old kept whispering in my ear “When is this going to be over?” which – don’t tell my friends in the cast! – was exactly what was on my mind, too.

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