Saturday, August 20, 2005

It's Just a Broadway Battle...

Via 42nd Street Moon, a New York Times article, "Two Broadway Composers Do Inharmonious Battle."

In brief: Michael John LaChiusa, composer-lyricist of a series of ambitious but short-lived musicals, wrote an article in "Opera News" magazine ripping current musicals for being unambitious and forgettable. Marc Shaiman, composer of one of said unambitious and forgettable musicals, Hairspray, responded to the article on the "All That Chat" message board.

I'd be more interested in the feud if I really had any fondness for the works on either side of this particular divide, but I'm afraid I have a killjoy perspective on the whole thing. LaChiusa -- and even Adam Guettel, who has achieved somewhat more success -- does a kind of musical-theatre writing I don't care for, replacing the concise, efficient writing of the best "serious" musicals with long, rambling songs that are full of musical and lyrical redundancies, and don't sit well with stage action.

To get off the subject of LaChiusa -- though if I attack him, I'll be guaranteed a counterattack in another one of his articles, since he writes articles like this every year or so -- only the other day I was comparing the writing in Guettel's Light in the Piazza to the writing in another musical about Americans in Italy, Do I Hear a Waltz?, with music by his grandfather Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

I respect Guettel's work in the newer show, though he is not as gifted lyrically as musically (Rodgers was a better lyricist than Guettel is, and yet he usually sought a Hart or a Hammerstein or a Sondheim to write lyrics for him). But it's long-winded writing that takes, to my mind, too much time to make its musical and lyrical points. Listening to the score of Do I Hear a Waltz? gives us a different world: character, setting and even theme summed up in broad musical strokes and short, instantly-readable musical hooks, and in songs that are written to lend themselves to fast-paced physical staging so that the show never stops moving, even in the songs. Sondheim, later to move toward a style of longer and more rambling songs, seems uncomfortable with the Rodgers precision and concision -- he has trouble fitting his lyrical thoughts into such short musical structures -- but even he gets into the act sometimes, finding ways to express character, setting and stage action in very few words:

Here we are again,
Sharing things together,
See the pretty people,
Feel the pretty weather.
We don't have to say much,
We're so much of a kind.
Isn't it a marvel
How we read each other's mind?
Here we are again,
What'll we do later?
See the pretty people,
Shall we call the waiter?
Pretty people, two by two,
That's as it ought to be.
And here we are as usual:
I and me.

My point -- ironically, a rambling one -- is that the "serious" musical used to possess all the virtues of the musical comedy: swift pace, punchiness, lack of pretention. You would even have "Serious musical comedies" like Cabaret and Fiorello!, serious subjects presented in a musical-comedy style. They would use all the hoary old showbiz devices -- dancing instead of choreography, "tune-positioning" to put the eleven o'clock number in just exactly the right place -- in the service of a serious story.

That's pretty much gone now, and in its place is the idea that LaChiusa sometimes seems to be advocating: that to be serious works, musicals must distance themselves as far as possible from musical comedy and all that goes with it, including all that showbiz "tune-positioning" and commercialism. As far as I'm concerned, that's precisely backwards: the best serious musicals are those that apply the stylistic lessons of musical comedy, and the showbiz lessons of commercially-oriented directors like George Abbott, to weightier matters.

But if I can't be enthusiastic about the current crop of "serious" musicals, I can't be any more enthusiastic about today's musical comedies. Let's face it, much of what LaChiusa says about the new musical comedies is true: they are synthetic, unmemorable, a big overblown simulation of what musical comedy is supposed to be. (And let's not even get into the self-hating musicals, like the unspeakable Spamalot, a musical entirely dedicated to the proposition that musicals are stupid and people shouldn't sing.) Real musical comedy is brash and wild and unsentimental, filled with corny jokes, opportunities for schtick, sexy costumes, and great songs -- something like Of Thee I Sing or How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or Little Me. Or even Chicago, which is either the last great musical comedy or the last great serious musical comedy (and perhaps the last truly great musical, either way).

A musical comedy that seems calculated, sentimental, or in any way ashamed of its own status as a musical is hardly a musical comedy at all, just something a little more fun than the self-consciously serious stuff. But since real musical comedies historically don't run very long, it's the synthetic type that we're likely to get for a while.

Incidentally, I think The Producers was the closest of the recent musical comedies to "real" musical comedy -- including the fact that it can't really work without its original stars -- but was prevented from being a really good musical comedy by the usual weakness of today's musicals: no great songs. If Brooks had hired his old colleague John Morris to write the music, and fixed some rather obvious structural flaws like the anticlimactic first-act curtain and the succession of nearly-identical scenes in the first act, then he might have had something great.

So the choice, as things stand, is between ascetic, eat-your-vegetables "serious" musicals and "musical comedies" that aren't particularly distinguished for music or comedy. I'm not the type to go into full-on nostalgia mode -- there are lots of things I think are better today than they ever have been. But musicals? Sorry, I'm going to have to be the prematurely old coot droning on about the Good Old Days.

Incidentally, if bloggers can use the inaccurate and stupid acronym "MSM" for "Mainstream Media," can I use the acronym "GOD" for "Good Old Days?" Let's see if that catches on.

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