Musicals in Transit


Aeons ago, when Broadway was dominated by giant, numbing, Euro-rock-pop megaliths—astonishing how far away that time now seems—I suggested that new musicals, like medical students, should be made to swear to a Hippocratic Oath. “First do no harm” was to be the musical theater’s rule. But I had barely begun my agitation when, in a flash, the taste of the times changed, The Producers took the town by storm, and seemingly overnight, the musical had become as brainlessly cheerful and flimsy as if Miss Saigon and its helicopter had never existed.

Like all new trends, this one immediately produced its own disadvantages. The style, topicality, and in-depth performance quality that had made the flimsiness of the pre–Rodgers & Hammerstein musical attractive had vanished, and in any case there would have been no place for them in the overpriced, over-miked, tourist-centered Broadway of the 21st century. Appealing to an audience bred mainly on electronic media, largely remote from both the experience of theatergoing and the reality of New York, the new flimsiness drew its source material from recent movies (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, High Fidelity, etc.), its taste from television, and its musical idiom from the range of modes that had, since the 1960s, replaced the show tune as the standard of popular music. That the stories such sources supplied were mostly dreary as well as thin; that such taste was inimical, or even debilitating, to stage performance; that the old-style show tune had been the standard of quality in its own realm, while the new Broadway styles were mainly pallid imitations of modes that had achieved their high points elsewhere, and didn’t function particularly well in the theater—these shortcomings were charitably overlooked by big spenders in search of a good time for themselves or their children. The more proficiently glitzy of these lame shows, or those with a glossier pop pedigree and heavier corporate backing, have reaped the benefit of this misplaced tourist generosity.

But no city’s theater can survive merely as a tourist trap. Sooner or later, the tourists wise up; sooner or later, the locals have to indicate their approval, which means that shows have to become more knowing (though not necessarily more intelligent) and more strongly linked to the reality outside the lobby doors. Hence the problem we face: Already living uncertainly on puzzling new ground, the musical now has to smarten up, and find places to put down new roots, without losing its rediscovered sense of fun, and without junking its traditions. Two new Off-Broadway arrivals and one concert staging of an old favorite supply some clues to where we stand in the general puzzlement.

In the Heights is a new version of an old phenomenon—a very good, not great, new show, full of the qualities that caused “young” musicals of the past to be hailed as breakthroughs in the past: fresh energy, fresh faces, a fresh sound, a fresh angle on the old situations. These are all enjoyable assets, and the show ladles them on enthusiastically but knowingly, always keeping its salsa-drenched hip-hop score audience-friendly for the older Anglo patrons, never lapsing into Spanish for long without translating. If life among the Dominicans and Boricuans of Washington Heights seems, in Quiara Alegria Hudes’s script, surprisingly mild-mannered, its conflicts resolved with abrupt ease, well, life has almost always seemed that way in the musical theater. Crime here is petty or peripheral; the scariest presence onstage is a graffiti artist, the worst damage a smashed store window. The influx of white gentrifiers, bringing upheaval to the area’s economy and its streetscape, rates only passing mention.

But neither In the Heights‘s arbitrariness nor its somewhat willed niceness detracts from its vitality. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the show’s songs and plays its central figure, balances zest and geniality nicely in both departments, displaying showbiz canniness by giving his colleagues, including his elders, plenty of opportunities to steal the show from him—which Olga Merediz, as an abuela who hits the lottery, does handily. The production has its problems: Much of the singing is less than first-quality; some of Thomas Kail’s direction is blurry; Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which sometimes uses dance-club and breakdance moves inventively, too often settles for generalized hullabaloo. And the wonderful Priscilla Lopez is wasted on a wisp of a role. Still, the freshness is real. The young leads—Miranda, Mandy Gonzalez, Christopher Jackson, and Karen Olivo—are all genuine discoveries. Add a droll performance by Robin deJesus as the inevitable smart-aleck younger brother, and some gorgeous singing by Eliseo Roman as a street vendor, and you have a show that might prove popular enough to spawn an entire new genre—hip-hop zarzuela.

Nothing so fresh emerges from Christopher Durang’s Adrift in Macao, a film-noir spoof with an Asian setting that’s just mildly funny enough for you to bear its 90 minutes without pain, though the laughs are never big enough to smooth away the wrinkles in this most over-parodied of old genres. For a writer who’s achieved what Durang has, both the easy jokes and the perfunctory approach to the target seem oddly unenterprising; Sheryl Kaller’s direction seems to follow the scripted jokes dutifully rather than building on them. Most of the cast offer good looks rather than strong comic flair (a throat ailment hampered Rachel de Benedet at the matinee I attended); Michelle Ragusa and Orville Mendoza win the bigger laughs, but often only by trying too hard. A modest redeeming factor is Peter Melnick’s lively pastiche music; if he can turn out tunes that are now stuck, maddeningly, in my head to lyrics like this, he deserves a chance with a better lyricist.

And then there’s Follies, Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s monumental, bifurcated, permanently unworkable masterpiece from 1969. Both a textbook case of what’s wrong with the modern musical and a one-evening textbook of the form’s history, Follies is either the story of four unhappy people whose misery comes from believing that old-style musicals conveyed reality, or the story of how much more fun reality can be when you let old-style musicals convey it. These two stories can never be told together in a way that makes sense, especially since Sondheim, the musical theater’s master ironist, finds ways in the show’s final segment of doing exactly what the mature characters keep insisting is impossible: He dramatizes their mature dilemmas of the present in the lighthearted, funny, razzmatazz terms of the past.

With its twin stories demanding two differently enormous outlays of emotional effort, imagination, and expense, Follies calls for grand-scale-theater thinking of a kind not much available now. A physically abbreviated concert staging of the kind City Center Encores! offered is probably the only way today’s cost-conscious Broadway could dream of approaching the work. Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s rendering was stylish enough, in evoking the spectacle a concert staging necessarily has to eschew, to reveal the Roundabout’s seedy, shameful attempt at a
Follies revival a few years ago as the embarrassment it was. The Encores! cast was solider all round too; I’ll go into detail if the show transfers, rumors of which are rife.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 13, 2007

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