Playing It Again


This year, there are no new Broadway musicals. The only thing on the 1999 Tony ballot that could arguably count as a new musical is Parade, a “serious” work, wan and misguided (albeit by gifted artists), produced in a nonprofit subscription theater linked to Broadway only by its size and its union contracts. Parade‘s somber subject matter sent the high-priced-ticket buyers dashing in the opposite direction, and it expired after a startlingly short run, not helped by its nonprofit producer’s commercial partner on this problematic venture, Livent, filing for bankruptcy just as the show opened.

But Livent isn’t the only bankrupt entity on Broadway. Really the musical is, too, in that neck of the theatrical woods, despite all the input it can muster from the nonprofit sector, and all the needy tourists clogging Times Square in search of a “Broadway show” to tell the folks back home about. Broadway’s anticipated them: This year’s dubiously “new” musicals could have been produced anywhere at any time; the dearth of new music is so extreme that, for the first time, the Tony nominators have put the incidental score for a Shakespeare play on the ballot. Jeanine Tesori’s music for Twelfth Night— produced, like Parade, at Lincoln Center— is very attractive, and the play does hold more than Shakespeare’s usual quotient of songs, but if that makes it a Broadway musical, Irving Berlin is a town in Germany.

Instead, Broadway’s musical
houses— those not occupied by either Frank Wildhorn’s recycled pop-glop or by long-run Brit blockbusters grown cobwebby with age— thrive on a kind of reverse vampirism, drawing their lifeblood from the body of long-buried musicals created during the six decades (roughly 1915­1975) when Broadway and the American theater were essentially synonomous. During this era, the Broadway musical actually was an art form unlike any other. It had its own conventions, and its own dialectic alternately challenging and reinforcing them. It was a popular art, reflecting the taste and speaking the vernacular of its time, but not hesitating to stand on its dignity and challenge both when it felt the need. Its idiom could pull a classically trained composer like Kurt Weill down into easy conversation with the mob in the street, or tempt an unlettered saloon pianist like Berlin to broaden his formal horizons. Its waning over the last two decades has spawned a subset of idiot commentators who confuse Broadway with Tin Pan Alley; they couldn’t be more mistaken: The pop-music manufacturers of what we now call Chelsea would churn out anything salable, and never mind the quality. The score for a Broadway show, it was understood, demanded better stuff: songs that would still (hopefully) be salable as single items, but could also advance the story, fit the tone of the moment where they were “spotted,” and be true to the characters who sang them.

What broke Broadway’s long winning streak is too complex to explain here. The curious problem is that the musical’s successor form, the imported pop-sludge spectacle, has now also died, leaving Broadway with no sense of the way back to its previous mode of work. Revues, like the repellent (but mercifully closed) The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm, dice the old songs into hash or weigh them down with untenable subtexts. Revivals of old book shows, like the unfocused and lusterless Annie Get Your Gun, dissipate their energy searching, absurdly, for new takes on material so long unseen it would be fresher left alone. Desperate to presell tourist parties, producers raid the composer’s catalogue for hit tunes to cram in irrelevantly (so much for the “integrated” musical), while dropping the less familiar numbers that are frequently the source of a show’s charm, as well as the grease that keeps its wheels in motion.

The old musical, of course, is alive and well, if a little shaky on its pins, in the same venues as the new musical— Off-Broadway, in subsidized theaters and concert halls. Written on a larger scale than most new works, the old shows tend to be seen most often in concert stagings. The York Theatre Company rakes up three Broadway curios every summer for its “Musicals in Mufti” series; even more obscure items are the provenance of the newer Musicals Tonight! series, about to start on its second event, Arthur Schwartz’s 1954 period piece, By the Beautiful Sea.

Glitteriest of all is the “Encores!” series, which gives three shows every spring a packed weekend apiece at City Center. These days, they’re the only musical events for which friends come out of the woodwork to pester me about getting them tickets. Though amplified— we all have to move with the times— “Encores!” concerts use the original orchestrations, as accurately reconstructed as possible. The original script is boiled down for concert purposes, usually by a working playwright— John Guare and David Ives are recurring contributors— who will at times glue the loose ends together with a sly transitional line of his own. The casts are a mixture of currently familiar New York faces with visitors from opera, cabaret, London, or some other tangential planet. Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall and conductor Rob Fisher, who run the series, reserve primo assignments for themselves without being excessively selfish: The most recent event, Jule Styne’s 1960 gangster farce Do Re Mi, was staged jovially by John Rando and conducted, with fine flair and subtlety, by Paul Gemignani.

Because these are, officially, staged readings, the actors must carry their scripts while speaking or singing, a setup from which the series gets some of its funniest business. Another is the orchestra’s presence on stage, which often, perhaps too often, lures Fisher
into batonic byplay with a show’s comics. The audience, by now addicted (the series is in its fifth year), loves such foolery, which, though hardly relevant to the work at hand, does evoke the free spirit, the sense of fun shared with the spectators, that used to be one of the Broadway musical’s most vital elements, a key to its spontaneity.

In dealing with the substance that once moved through the spontaneous life stream, “Encores!” inevitably has a less even record. With shows that demand big, classically trained voices it can make you wonder about the quality of today’s Broadway singing. On other
occasions, the singing’s solid, but the comedy or the story may be messily treated. And at times you must face the fact that certain phenomena are unrecapturable: Wonderful as Mary Testa or Randy Graff may be (and are), there will never be another Fanny Brice or Nancy Walker. Luckily, there are many miracle moments in which the old material and the new performer are a perfect match: Testa moaning a mock torch song, Melissa Rain Anderson belting “Way Out West,” Nathan Lane zipping off a number that requires him to mimic an entire studio full of ’30s film stars, Graff socking out the hilarious “Adventure,” Karen Ziemba and the Walton brothers hurtling through a bone-rattling dance— after five years, the list is a long one. What links these items? Each is a match of equals, of performer meeting material; direction and choreography are only the marriage brokers, while design— necessarily minimal— is only accesory to the event. In other words, “Encores!” and its offspring get the theater’s priorities right, while Broadway no longer does. Directing can make lovely images appear onstage, but images hang in art galleries; a great personality singing a great song can make you laugh or cry or think, or even all three at once. When the musical was at its best, its songs were intended to be great, and were written for great personalities to perform. As “Encores!” keeps proving, we have plenty of such personalities among us. All we need is a few good songs, and a script with some reasonably good excuses to sing them. Then rescuing Broadway is only a matter of clearing away all the visual and sonic sludge.

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