Musical Theater's Spring Thaw

Curious productions from unexpected corners revive a once-great form

Because suddenly it seems the musical can be anything, can deal with anything, can use any idiom. We could (and did) have musicals about blindfolded hostages or samurai musicals based on Shakespeare; a musical's heroine could be a wannabe artist in an all-night diner or a drug-dependent delusional housewife. With perfect timing, this was the year in which two Al Carmines musicals, Christmas Rappings and In Circles, came back to their birthplace, Judson Memorial Church. Carmines, whose try-anything aesthetic had infused Off-Off-Broadway's great early decades, now seemed to be beaming down on a new platoon of try-anything artists.

Nor was he beaming by himself. Because what is the Off-Broadway musical? Answer: everything Broadway isn't— until, like Hair or A Chorus Line or Rent, it moves up and becomes the essence of Broadway. The downtown spirit is the spirit in which the American musical theater has always thrived. The smart money's search for a sure thing freezes it to death. Then young artists crack the ice and bring it back to life again. The guy who put it best was Lorenz Hart, a Broadway innovator who never stopped looking for the fresh angle. In a number for his first hit show, the 1925 Garrick Gaieties, he gave the Off-Broadway theaters of his day a motto to sing: "We know just what we do because we always take a chance."

Let it be your motto, producers. Then watch how musicals thrive.

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