Monday, 16 July 2012
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BROADWAY MUSICAL?
Warning -- this is a curmudgeonly entry.
As I look at the coming New York theater season, I see three musicals that look intriguing, even though they are all based on movies: musical versions of Edna Ferber's GIANT, a best-selling novel before Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean appeared in the film, of Todd Haynes's film, FAR FROM HEAVEN, and the delightful British indie, KINKY BOOTS. There's lots of talent associated with these shows and they are musicals geared to an adult audience, as is the excellent DOGFIGHT, now playing at Second Stage. Like DOGFIGHT, GIANT and FAR FROM HEAVEN will be produced by small, non-profit theaters. What is the next musical to open on Broadway? BRING IT ON, a show about a high-school cheerleading competition. There's lots of first-class talent associated with BRING IT ON. Tom Kitt, the composer of the score for Pulitzer Prize winning NEXT TO NORMAL and LIN MANUEL MIRANDA, the composer-lyricist of the Pulitzer finalist IN THE HEIGHTS share composing credits, and Jeff Witty, who is one of the creators of AVENUE Q, wrote the book. Here are three of the best talents now working in musical theater and the creators of three brilliant adult musicals. Why bring these people together to write a show for kids? NEXT TO NORMAL, IN THE HEIGHTS and AVENUE Q were original musicals. BRING IT ON is yet another adaptation of a movie. This project seems a waste of the talents of these gifted artists, yet it's clear why they bothered with it. If one looks at what sells out on Broadway now (LION KING, WICKED, NEWSIES), one can see that the Broadway musical is now geared to kids. Even the hyper-kinetic revival of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING was turned into something resembling children's theater or at best adolescent's theater. Miranda, Kitt and Witty want to make a living in the commercial theater. So they write a kid's musical. Much as I admire their work (and even though I can get in to a preview cheaply via tdf), I have no desire to see BRING IT ON.
When I look back on the musicals I saw as a teenager at the end of the Golden Age, my friends and I went to PAJAMA GAME, DAMN YANKEES, WEST SIDE STORY, PLAIN AND FANCY, LIL' ABNER, NEW GIRL IN TOWN (now playing Off-Broadway). I wasn't damaged by seeing shows designed for grown-ups. Quite the contrary, my outlook on life was expanded. I would have been as bored then with THE LION KING as I was when I saw it as an adult. Would it really hurt kids to sit through a grown-up musical? Or is it that grown-ups also have no desire to see a musical about mature people with grown-up problems and conflicts?
I thought about all this yesterday after I saw the entertaining revival of Cole Porter's brilliant NYMPH ERRANT. Now NYMPH ERRANT is about the education in love and sex of an eighteen-year-old girl, but it is definitely an adult musical. Porter's score is witty, urbane, sophisticated. The production could have been a bit more witty, urbane and sophisticated, but it was obviously a labor of love and musically did justice to Porter's favorite of his scores. I did't see any teenagers in the audience. Frankly, I didn't see anyone under sixty in the audience other than my spouse. Yet there is no reason young people wouldn't relate to and relish this show. If I were still working in educational theater I would think seriously of mounting a student production of NYMPH ERRANT.
It is interesting that NBC's SMASH, the show all of us love to hate but wouldn't miss, is about the production of an adult musical. Now MARILYN is a terrible idea for a musical (there was a musical, MARILYN, that was a legendary Broadway flop) and everything the show presents from this fictional musical is really quite dreadful, but SMASH presents a commercial theater in which producers are committed to writing an adult show. This television saga would be more accurate if the musical being produced were HARRY POTTER or perhaps something by Dr. Seuss.
As in London, almost all of the interesting theater, musical or otherwise, is being produced by non-profit theaters. The problem with this is that nobody's making any money and playwrights and composers have to hope they can write something that can get to Broadway, which usually means writing a kiddie show -- or they have to move on to television. Well, those of us old enough can remember sitting through GYPSY and WEST SIDE STORY as teenagers and lament the current state of the commercial theater.