Composer MICHAEL JOHN LaCHIUSA wonders what the new Broadway season will bring.
Composer Michael John LaChiusa
© Gregory Downer 2014
The new season for musicals is here! Smell the hope and expectation in the airshafts and grungy corners along Shubert Alley! Feel the giddy excitement of Broadway stagehands and musicians as they contemplate whether to strike or not! How can one not wonder what the new season will bring?
My mother said I worry too much. Wondering is more fun. I wonder if the critics and anonymous chat-board amateurs will be carping that too many musicals are based on movie screenplays. That was a hot topic last season, albeit a ridiculous complaint. Broadway producer Margo Lion offers a smart defense of the use of movies as source material: movies long ago supplanted literature as our country's — if not the world's — favorite means of storytelling. She's right. Considering that two of the best-selling books of the past year were Paula Deen's cookbook and 50 Shades of Grey, you can't claim America is experiencing any sort of literary renaissance. Lion's point deflates the argument that a musical based on a screenplay is pandering and less worthy than a musical based on a literary source, or one that calls itself "original." Furthermore, save for Rocky and Disney's Aladdin, the movies adapted for the stage have not necessarily been mainstream. Last season's stage versions of Bullets Over Broadway, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (based on Kind Hearts and Coronets) and Big Fish were not based on blockbuster films. But each was ripe for musical adaptation, at least on paper. Each has an accessible dramatic narrative, and each compelled some of our best writers and directors to make those stories sing and dance. Whether or not these musicals are any good is not for me to judge. (I lie. I've judged. But I'll keep my opinions to myself.) Screenplays are perfectly acceptable source materials; who cares whether one or twenty are on the boards? The trick lies in breaking down the three-act convention of a screenplay into the two-act convention of a musical. Very few writers succeed in doing so. To those who have, I say, kudos.
I wonder — no, I worry — whether there's a place on the Great White Way for more original, challenging and provocative work. The critics (what's left of them) seem suspicious of musicals that tinker with the form or actually strive to connect emotionally with an audience. Two musicals last season did that — If/Then and Bridges of Madison County. Critics weren't happy with them, which is too bad. I wonder if that sort of response makes producers leery of similar fare. I'm not sold on the idea that there's a "dumbed-down" audience that must be catered to. Tune in to HBO or AMC, and you'll be engaged in some of the best dramatic writing and story-telling around. I can't believe that the vast audiences for Mad Men or Breaking Bad or even Game of Thrones are made up of troglodytes. A market for original, challenging and provocative work can be created and nurtured even on the gaudy playground of Broadway; but that needs producers and critics who support and want to make this pipe dream happen.
On the subject of critics, I wonder how many more will get the boot because of economic crackdowns at their newspapers and magazines. I worry that none will give me a reason to care. To lose our best professional critics is to endanger all the arts. The good ones, with taste, skill and experience, can share new insight into a familiar work or offer constructive dramaturgy for a work that's new. However, giving the crummy ones the pink slip isn't such a bad thing. When much of a critic's review is spent talking about his or her personal habits or sexual preferences, it makes me want to scream, "Get a blog!" I'm not interested in what a critic feels; I'm interested in what a critic knows.
I wonder if our producers will be willing to risk more. I worry that they'll continue to play things safe. There is a younger generation of producers bucking the odds these days. They've a way to go before acquiring the taste and experience of veteran producers such as Margo Lion, Roger Berlind, Elizabeth Williams and Daryl Roth. But what the new generation may lack in experience, it makes up for in enthusiasm. Jordan Roth and Barbara Whitman, for instance, seem to know where the party is, and it looks like they've got staying power. I hope so. More than ever, commercial theater needs producers who will consistently bring new talent to the stage and are willing to experiment with current business models while battling an increasingly hostile economic climate.
I wonder which trends will continue and which ones won't. The catalogue musical still seems to be thriving. I find the genre annoying. The familiar songs from the repertoires of famous pop and rock stars never seem to rise organically from the story at hand, and the music does little to advance action, much less explore character. But audiences and some critics apparently enjoy these concerts masquerading as musicals. They can go into the theater humming the tunes. What drama there is seems to come from the moment when the audience recognizes a familiar song. That's not to say none of these sing-alongs are worth the ticket price. Beautiful, featuring a beloved roster of songs by Carole King, has Jessie Mueller portraying singer/songwriter King to marvelous effect. But the clunky books for these affairs, many of them "bio" musicals chronicling the lives of such famous folk as King, Berry Gordy and Fela Kuti, leave me hungry. I expect we'll see more of the same, so maybe it's a good thing food and drink are being allowed into more theaters during performances. When I'm bored, I eat.
Speaking of food and drink, last season's trendiest of trends, "immersive" theater, seems to have hit a peak. Here Lies Love and Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 have made disco and dinner theater popular again. I liked those events for their fun quotient. But the concept might be getting stale, like some of the grub served at these occasions. I find myself being kept so busy doing things during these shows that I lose all sense of anything I'm supposed to be watching. Maybe that's the whole point, but if the trend continues, I'd like to be paid Equity scale as a participant.
I don't wonder or worry about how many revivals, or revivals of revivals we'll be seeing. Lots, I'm sure.
I do wonder if our Off-Broadway and regional theaters can afford to continue to experiment and produce more exciting fare such as Fun Home at the Public Theater or Witness Uganda at A.R.T. I worry that I'll have to listen to hundreds of young women yelping songs from Frozen at auditions. I wonder how many eighty-fifth-birthday celebrations for Stephen Sondheim there will be. I worry that.... Oh, but what's the use of wondering (thank you, Mr. Hammerstein) or worrying (thank you, Mom)? The new season for musicals is here.
MICHAEL JOHN LACHIUSA is a composer, lyricist and librettist whose works include Giant, The Wild Party and Marie Christine.
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