Musical Theater's Spring Thaw

Curious productions from unexpected corners revive a once-great form

People in the far north call it "icebreak": the moment just before springtime when frozen rivers start to flow again. The theater knows its aesthetic equivalent, though a freeze in one genre or another can last a dozen springs. For nearly a decade, New York's musical theater has seemed to be frozen in an eerie holding pattern. This year, the ice broke. And suddenly, it's spring.

The eerie part was the lack of will: Having outlived the age of the Cameron Mackintosh–style rock mastodons, the musical had gone into a phase of recycling and self-conscious comment. Instead of being something in itself, it was only a replica of something else, usually a recent movie. Every moment onstage tended to be a jokey allusion to some once-famous earlier moment. For a while, going to musicals started to make you feel like you needed footnotes. Allusions can be great fun, but they're not nourishing. Whether comic or tragic, experimental or traditional, a musical should be a feast; you don't invite guests to a banquet of leftovers.

So the icebreak had to come. The rivers of imagination had to start flowing again, so that the audience once more had the chance to follow the story, feel for the characters, move to the music, rejoice in the experience. Busy commenting on itself in the jokey aftermath of the dinosaurs' reign, the musical had grown cold. Now it had to bloom again, to re-become a source of fresh experiences, fresh sounds, fresh faces. It needed to open its doors to the world from which it had been locked away. And so, springtime. We may not be in for another golden age—spring makes no guarantees—but a lot of green shoots and budding blooms are suddenly in evidence.

Mostly Off-Broadway, of course, which shouldn't surprise you: The shift in temperature that melts the river ice always begins below the surface. The shift in musicals couldn't have come from London, with its punch-drunk fixation on old American movies; nor from this country's larger resident theaters, eager to snap up the enhancement money that commercial producers dangled, with those Broadway-bound recyclings of more recent American movies attached. The change had to start in small, unexpected corners.

Take the two obvious instances, In the Heights and Passing Strange, Broadway's twin little-engines-that-could. Both began their New York journeys Off-Broadway. In the Heights won an Obie for its score last year, when it played at the new 37 Arts facility (which honored Off-Broadway tradition by provoking endless kvetches about its remote location). Passing Strange, emphatically on this year's Obie list, landed in town last May, at the Public Theater. Both came through downtown-ish developmental channels: In the Heights from the O'Neill Center's Music Theater Conference and Passing Strange via Sundance Theater Lab and Berkeley Rep.

Broadway may have been on their backers' minds, but such shows certainly weren't on Broadway's regular agenda. A streetscape of the varieties of Latino life in Washington Heights, painted in vibrant hip-hop and salsa colors? A middle-class black artist's quest for his spiritual identity, played out in zesty indie-rock storytelling? Even after the lesson of Spring Awakening (another Off-Broadway starter), the smart money thought neither show would suit Broadway's taste—and granted, fiscally speaking, the jury is still out. But the reviewers' response has already dented the smart money's smug assurance. And since those smart guys, always trying to do the time-warp again, had busied themselves with stale mishaps like The Little Mermaid and Cry-Baby, suddenly In the Heights and Passing Strange are in line for Tonys to flank their Obies.

Fresh faces and fresh sounds are keys to their success, but it's even more to the point that both shows tell stories familiar to us not from flimsy, vapid recent movies, but from deep prototype myths: the immigrants' struggle to make good; the young artist's struggle to find himself. The two shows that have made the leap uptown are linked by this love for deeper, truer human stories to the raunchier, rangier, more eccentrically risky shows that have cropped up in startling profusion this year, wearing their "experimental" status as a badge of honor.

The wonkiest of them, The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island at the Vineyard, actually trafficked in both themes, with its heroine torn between a third-world wage slave and a geekish downtown intellectual. Granted, Slug Bearers tackled this material in a soigné, comic-strip tone, but its central impulse was still to tell a true story in a fresh way. And the magical world that director Bob McGrath's designers built from Ben Katchor's drawings made it the season's freshest visual experience, matched by Mark Mulcahy's minimalist-rock score, which brought the theater another fresh sound.

Minimalism turned darker when Adding Machine tiptoed into Off-Broadway hit status from Chicago's tiny Next Theater. Here, the deep story is one of those American classics that students love and big theaters neglect. Librettist Jason Loewith and composer Joshua Schmidt boiled Elmer Rice's 1923 Expressionist odyssey down to its essence; the designers of director David Cromer's taut, smart production wove a cunning visual bridge from Rice's time to ours. Recent big-time musicals have lacked personality; how ironic that this little show—about a clueless hero named Zero confronting the cosmic machinery—could make the form seem humane and even political again.

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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