Hey Kids, the Musical Ain’t Quite Dead Yet


Are the portents for musical theater today as dire as pessimists have been caterwauling? Is Albert Innaurato, who represents a whole school of negative thought, correct when he keens in a New York Times Magazine think piece, “Let’s stop pretending that there’s any life left in the once-transcendent American musical or any way to revive its bloated corpse given the immense costs, corporate greed and reactionary old guard that now stifle all theatrical creativity”? Is Charles Isherwood onto something when he laments in Variety, “The world may survive the advent of the stage version of Saturday Night Fever, of course, but the future of the musical theater in the wake of this show’s almost assured success . . . may be irrevocably altered”?

Surprising as it might seem to audiences watching what appears to be the irreversible demise of the musical, there are those who regard the above questions as strictly rhetorical. They maintain the answer is, No, the musical is not kaput. And in saying so, they’re convinced they’re not, in the famous South Pacific phrase, cockeyed optimists. Yes, they admit that artistic, commercial, and cultural developments over the past decades have crippled the musical. They agree that, the cost of producing musicals having skyrocketed, the Broadway emphasis now is on the safe bet—revivals and musicals proven outside of New York. These mavens don’t dispute the fact that American popular songs emanate from anywhere but Broadway nowadays. (Contact, the season’s first hit and considered a musical in many quarters, has no original music and no one sings.) The last original cast album that had any impact on Billboard‘s chart was Rent, which topped out at 19 in 1996, and before that the best a show could boast was La Cage Aux Folles peaking at 65 in 1983.

In the face of the troubled discussion, however, many observers offer sunnier predictions. Asked about the current state of musical theater affairs, Ira Weitzman, perhaps the country’s foremost musical-theater talent scout, jokes, “I’m producing three [Contact, Marie Christine, Wise Guys] at the moment. As far as I’m concerned, they’re not over.” Sarah Schlesinger, chairperson of NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, agrees: “Naysayers aside, you can’t declare the death of an art form.” Helen Sneed, executive and artistic director of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, a consortium of 115 musical-presenting houses, says that “the Broadway audience is one audience, but the whole point is that there are cities and communities with audiences willing to take the risk of seeing something new.” Virginia Dajani, who coordinates the Richard Rodgers Awards, reports that every year she receives somewhere between 115 and 160 entries from writers seeking up to $100,000 as production, workshop, and staged-reading seed money. Sondra Gilman, annually involved with distributing the Gilman & Gonzales-Falla Theatre Foundation prizes (the most recent winners are Polly Pen and Douglas J. Cohen), claims, “We know the pool of talent, and we don’t see how this doesn’t forecast a great future.” Obie-winner Pen gets to the heart of the matter when she says of the gloom, “Part of it comes from people who have some sort of odd rules about what a musical is. What they’re usually talking about is they’re seeing something that has just changed, and they don’t happen to like that change.”

Noticeably participating in the shift to works where material and performance are emphasized over spectacle are the composers and lyricists writing what’s been dubbed New Theater Music. This bunch, mentioned so often their names can sound like one long name, include Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Jason Robert Brown, Lindy Robbins, Jenny Giering, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley. (All but Tesori and Crawley are represented on Audra McDonald’s Way Back to Paradise CD, a tribute to new musical theater compositions that has reportedly sold 30,000 copies.) These writers—with musicals like Parade, Floyd Collins, Violet, and Dream True popping up in smaller venues around the country—aren’t, it should be mentioned, heralded everywhere as saviors. Some critics see them as toiling more in the art-song field than in the familiar showbiz arena; with their sung-through scores, they’re thought to be unfavorably blurring the boundary between musicals and opera. Weitzman notes that the not-for-profit theaters from which the Guettels and Gordons receive their commissions don’t pay very much. As he sees it, there seems to be a widening schism between musical theater writers eking out a living shaping high-minded pieces and those (Frank Wildhorn, for example) scoring big bucks by hawking accessible but inferior product to mass audiences.

The National Alliance’s Sneed is adamantly upbeat, however, not only because she’s turned her operation into a clearinghouse for activity from around the globe and thus hears about practically everything, but also because she knows what’s happened to works introduced for the past 11 years in the annual NAMT Festival of New Musicals. Usually eight new shows are spotlighted in the September event—10 this past frame—and the resulting grab at entries for production has accelerated. Sneed points to Stephen Schwartz’s biblical Children of Eden as one of the best examples of a show seen widely around the country (at least 280 productions in the last three years) without having had Manhattan exposure. In 1998 the Festival click was Kirsten Childs’s The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, which Playwrights Horizons will present this spring; David Friedman’s King Island Christmas is also getting multiple productions. From the 1999 crop, the Jed Feuer-Boyd Graham backers-audition parody The Big Bang will be seen locally later this winter. Birth of the Boom, in which five black men rhythmically rage and reconcile, has nailed down multiple dates. Honk!, a barnyard fantasy by Englishmen Anthony Drewe and George Stiles, is the Christmas offering at London’s Royal National Theatre. None of these shows was written as your typical Broadway spectacle.

** Clearly, then, there’s no lack of promising talent, a fact that Schlesinger, who runs perhaps the country’s most comprehensive musical theater training school, confirms. And she’s been putting her convictions where her mouth is by honing a curriculum that inculcates the mechanics of musical theater collaboration. The process takes two years, during which 32 carefully selected students—16 in each year—learn the rudiments of musical theater, then go on to write a complete show as part of their graduation requirements.

Schlesinger blames the new-musical bottleneck on what she calls “the delivery system,” by which she means the expensive proposition of getting shows on. Since it’s so difficult, she insists, today’s aspirants are denied an opportunity to learn their craft doing show after show, as was once the case with Broadway writers. The program she runs—staffed by practitioners like William Finn, Sybille Pearson, Mel Marvin, Adam Guettel, Ricky Ian Gordon and Tina Landau, and with guest speakers including Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and producer Margo Lion—becomes a network of theater professionals to which newcomers, deprived of the kind of apprenticeships that once existed, have access. Graduates of the NYU program—which was started in 1981—include George C. Wolfe, Jeff Lunden and Arthur Perlman, Enid Futterman, Brad Ross, Mary Bracken Phillips, Fred Carl, Mindi Dickstein, Jenny Giering, Leon Ko and Robert Lee, and Kirsten Childs—all of whom have lauded productions to their credit.

Speaking about the reason for her foundation, Sondra Gilman says she and her husband, Celso Gonzalez-Falla, believe that “to write in the confines of your room is only half the experience.” So the pair, who began their annual giveaways by donating production money, have added showcase and reading categories. Opportunities to learn the basics are also provided by individual funders like Cameron Mackintosh and at institutions like New Dramatists—where intensive two-week composer-lyricist-librettist seminars are held regularly—and the O’Neill Festival—where, for some years, Paulette Haupt has supervised the National Music Theater Conference. Haupt blames high prices for the scant visibility of new work. “The risks are so much greater than the opportunities for trial and error,” she says, “and a second chance is almost impossible.” Haupt stresses that the success of musicals like Violet and Avenue X, both of which were unveiled at her conference, “may have to do with the fact that the cast is manageable and [a show] can be done on smaller stages.” That’s what she’s seeing more of—even if Broadway-ites haven’t yet.

To confound Cassandras, the current season is providing more evidence that the musical is on the upswing—with some of the most important entries happening off-Broadway and so far off-Broadway they’re out of town. Michael John LaChiusa is present with not one, but two efforts (Marie Christine and, with coauthor George C. Wolfe, The Wild Party). In addition to a second Wild Party by Andrew Lippa at the Manhattan Theater Club and Childs’s piece at Playwrights Horizons, Pen’s The Night Governess has a spring bow at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, and Schlesinger and Mike Reid’s The Ballad of Little Jo is to be the first musical ever at Chicago’s Steppenwolf.

Perhaps the most pertinent words on the subject are Richard Rodgers’s. Despite whatever changes in the social climate, what he said in his 1976 memoir, Musical Stages, seems just as apt today: “I am often asked where I think the musical is heading. It’s one question I always try to dodge, because I don’t think it’s heading anywhere until it’s already been there. One night a show opens and suddenly there’s a whole new concept. But it isn’t the result of a trend; it’s because one, two, three or more people sat down and sweated over an idea that somehow clicked and broke loose. It can be about anything and take off in any direction, and when it works, there’s your present and your future.”

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