But Unseriously . . .

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

The pendulum inevitably had to swing back, and it has. The musical can now be an unassuming human-scale story with a pop-rock beat, like The Full Monty, in which the characters express themselves through the sound you'd expect to find them listening to. Or the new musical can be a kind of catchall meta-parody: The Producers, Urinetown, Bat Boy. Each, in its peculiar way, is a set of burlesques on the musical theater's accumulated tropes. Moving from the Brecht-Weill end of the spectrum, Urinetown simultaneously subverts the old song-and-dance forms and mocks the idea of subverting them. It's a Structuralist musical, whose real subject is its own architecture; its moral, in effect, is that the musical theater can still function but that civilization, which is destroying the planet, can't. Its central joke is that it carries this piece of news nobody wants to hear with a smile and a shrug, like a tragic messenger anticipating his own death sentence.

The only news in Bat Boy's intermittently amusing manic irrelevancy is the supermarket-tabloid variety; its central joke, you might say, is that anything can now make a musical. Hence its parodies tend to be more specific than Urinetown's. It's a bundle of absurdities and parodic allusions, suggesting that the formative musical of the last two decades was Forbidden Broadway. Its sole function is to mock everything, hopping recklessly from My Fair Lady to The Lion King without ever pausing in reality.

Nor does The Producers pause there, particularly. Its joke is a closed system, like Urinetown's, only three decades older. Even more aggressively and systematically, it goes back to pre-rock styles: It's essentially a self-deprecating Jewish joke on the Jewish willingness to turn everything—even the Nazis—into showbiz. Any danger, of course, has been carefully removed: Mel Brooks eschews the kind of death jokes found in both Bat Boy and Urinetown. Liebkind, The Producers' resident Nazi, has been carefully turned into a stock Bavarian yokel with showbiz ambitions that mesh handily with Max Bialystock's; he's no more Nazi than the hero of Kern and Hammerstein's Music in the Air (1932)—a country boy who nearly gets rooked by Viennese theatrical sharpies.

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

But, of course, The Producers knows that Liebkind's Nazism is only a joke, part of a tradition that once ignored everything it couldn't reduce to a joke. The Producers wasn't turned into a musical to shock anybody, but to celebrate and reaffirm that tradition. Its other "shocking" targets—effeminate gays, lubricious old ladies—have been stock objects of ridicule since Aristophanes (who spoofed Euripides the way Brooks spoofs famous musicals).

For all its limitations—no one would accuse Brooks of high lyrical wit or great melodic invention—the show has the integrity of being at one with its subject. Instead of trying to impose something else on you, or turn the form into something it innately isn't, The Producers is a musical about being a musical. Bemoaning its success in comparison to the tepid reception of the Follies revival, the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn wrote, rather plaintively, in The New York Review of Books, "Follies may be all-singing and all-dancing, but it's about something." In fact, the shoe's on the other foot: The big flaw in Follies is the gap between its conceptual grandeur and the banal smallness of its blighted love quadrangle, which is regrettably not explored "all-singing all-dancing," but in acres of less than memorable dialogue. Whereas The Producers, like it or not, knows that singing and dancing are what the musical theater is about; telling stories, at best, is only what it's for. If the stories make sense, and have meaning, we're that much luckier. But to put meaning first, story second, and singing and dancing last, as much of Broadway has done for the last 20 years, is to run the machinery backward, with the result that it has now collapsed into an inchoate heap of jokes, interspersed with song and dance. If this seems like a setback, remember that all great comic theaters began as inchoate heaps of jokes interspersed with song and dance. The American musical itself began that way, a century ago.

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