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."

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.

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.

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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