But Unseriously . . .

The Musical’s a Joke Again—But Is It a Good Joke?

Some recent phenomena—among them The Producers, Urinetown, Bat Boy—have been making me ponder again the future of the musical theater. Yes, this is another think piece—the last, I hope—about The Producers and the meaning of its success. Which is silly, since what's being thought about is the propriety of not thinking in the musical theater. And that question's a no-brainer. Let's face facts—nobody goes to the musical theater to think; not-thinking is its basic condition. The alternative, traditionally smuggled in by way of wit, is supposed to be the pleasant surprise.

How and why did people start expecting the musical theater to be serious? The answer is too long and too complex for this article. Let me just remark that there's no objection to seriousness per se, which has always been threaded through the dense weave that we call the musical. The objections are to fake seriousness, and even more to the ponderous version of it that leaves no breathing room for fun, which is what people go to musicals for in the first place.

Rodgers and Hammerstein, who are often mistakenly credited with having invented the "integrated" musical, are worth scrutinizing in this context. First, they always set their musical dramas in an exotic locale that would bring the stage color, variety, and travelogue appeal. Next, they made sure the story left space for a broad range of musical and theatrical activities, including some that reflected the "exotic" atmosphere. Hammerstein's delvings into the dark side of his characters, and his tendency to preach, were carefully kept to a minimum. And they're offset by his glittery, often playful skill at versification: The stereotype image of Hammerstein as a simple, clumsily sincere man is contradicted by self-mockingly ornate passages like "I'm bromidic and bright/as the moon-happy night/pouring light on the dew."

Gary Beach, Matthew Broderick, and Nathan Lane, in The Producers: trope chest
photo: Paul Kolnik
Gary Beach, Matthew Broderick, and Nathan Lane, in The Producers: trope chest

R&H, with their tilt toward earnestness and "music drama," may have stretched the form's loose weave, but hardly destroyed its fun. Nor could the blame fairly be put on Hammerstein's sometime disciple, Stephen Sondheim, whose name is probably the first one you'd associate with the phrase "serious musical." No one would deny that Sondheim, too, has a preachy streak, as well as occasional seizures of clench-jawed earnestness. Even more than his mentor, though, Sondheim compensates lavishly with wit and passion, wide-ranging perception and uncanny specificity.

Clearly, such artists make the musical serious without making it burdensome; the form's difficulties must have come from elsewhere. Not every writer is as theatrically canny as Hammerstein or as exacting as Sondheim. The genre's horizons having been expanded to take in formerly inadmissible topics, many of those who rush to the now widened borders have little sense of what they're doing there. Rodgers and Hammerstein, writing melodramatic romances that jerked audience tears from deathbed scenes, were following a time-honored theatrical tradition. Musicals that deal with topics like lynching or the torture of political prisoners, on the other hand, move into the realm of heavy drama and opera. It's the difference between Sweeney Todd, the lighthearted gore of which fits cozily in the trashy melodrama mode the story came from, and Michael John LaChiusa's Marie Christine, which, borrowing the grimmer gory myth of Medea, must acquire tragic stature to have any standing at all.

I don't mean that musicals can't be tragic, but that no one wants them to be. The audience that wants tragedy can find it elsewhere. The most ludicrous aspect of the musical's decline, over the last 20 years, has been the spectacle of the pop-rock pseudo-opera, struggling desperately to conquer serious territory for itself, on behalf of a public that only wants to be blown away by noise and visual effects. It's a safe bet that fans of Les Miz neither know nor care what revolution the characters are fighting (July 1830); they just love watching the two giant Louise Nevelson knockoffs on the set transform from tenements into barricades. Not every mock-rock monolith is as aggressively inane as Aida, but the subform has repeatedly proven itself unable to carry any of the virtues normally associated with theater. Ineffective at storytelling and blurry in delineating character, it tends to be either vapid or secondhand in the tune department; as for verbal wit, Tim Rice and his ilk make Harry B. Smith sound like Oscar Wilde.

Rock's first enabler on Broadway, Tom O'Horgan, had the right idea when he staged the original productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar essentially as updated Ziegfeld revues: Every set was a new excess, every number a new extravaganza. But the perpetrators of rock had come to Broadway to acquire legitimacy. Divesting themselves of O'Horgan's '60s visions, which were fun, they armored their work with the cultural prestige of Victor Hugo, T.S. Eliot, opera plots, political icons. Each drove another nail into the coffin of the musical theater, suffocating its pleasure along with its credibility. Thinking that Perle Mesta or Annie Oakley sounded like Ethel Merman singing Irving Berlin had been jolly—and, after all, nobody cared particularly about Perle Mesta or Annie Oakley. But thinking that Eva Perón or Jane Eyre sounded like the recycled whine of some third-rate AM station did nothing to raise anyone's spirits.

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