When I saw Jane Eyre, I saw next to a woman who cried throughout the whole show. She had seen it seventeen times, if I recall correctly, and she was overcome with emotion because of how wonderful it was and how the show made her feel. I have a friend who made it to New York to see Aida starring Simone, and she told me how she cried at the end. I have another friend who balled at The Color Purple.
I, on the other end, almost lost it during The Wedding Singer. I’m not kidding. I had flown in on a moment’s notice to interview for a job. One day, I was sitting at home hoping for the next phase of my life to jump start, and two days later, I’m sitting in seat D115 in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre watching my first Broadway show on Broadway since my second visit to The Music Man in 2001.
I’m not even a crier. Honestly. But to be sitting there watching an awesome number like “It’s Your Wedding Day” in person on Broadway after watching it over and over from the Tony Awards, I was overcome with emotion. Even though I had seen every show that was even decent on tour, I told myself, “No matter what happens, I have to make it back here again soon. It’s been too long.”
I had a great time seeing lots of fun shows on that trip, The Wedding Singer, Tarzan, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Drowsy Chaperone, Hairspray (which I had seen once on tour), and The Color Purple.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at every single one of those shows except one. However, when all was said and done, I realized that as strong as these shows were, the only one that could really hold a candle to the great shows of the past was Hairspray. Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoyed myself at all of these shows except one. I laughed heartily at Spelling Bee and felt so bad for Celia Keenan-Bolger’s poor Olive Olstrovsky. I cheered at the turn of events in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I was glued to Sutton Foster in The Drowsy Chaperone, and so on.
On my life game of Broadway Star Bingo, I finally got to check off a number of amazing performances from people I had always wanted to see or to see again—Jose Llana, Amy Spanger, Merle Dandridge, Schuler Hensley, Sutton Foster, LaChanze, to name just a very few.
At the same time, I wouldn’t say that as a whole, the shows I saw were as good as shows from previous trips which consisted equally of revivals and new works. I don’t want to join in on the chorus of people proclaiming the death of Broadway or lamenting how it’s not like in “the good old days.” Like I said, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at almost all of those shows, and I think that is all that we can ask of a Broadway musical, to be entertained thoroughly. The rest is, as Sherie Rene Scott said, too wonderful to be true.
I don’t find this disheartening, however. I really don’t. I do think it is important to acknowledge that I didn’t see anything as hilarious and poignant as Kiss Me, Kate or as enrapturing as The Music Man or as moving as Les Miserables, but I don’t find it disheartening.
Again, I saw performances as great as any on the Broadway stage ever—look at the original casts and replacement casts in that list. As far as I’m concerned, Sutton Foster is the next Marilyn Miller but with more talent, Felicia P. Fields as sweet as Gwen Verdon, and Stephen Flaherty as charming as Robert Morse. I couldn’t have paid big bucks to see better talents.
Something we all need to remember is that rarely did the great writing talents of the previous Golden Age hit a homerun their first times at bat. For example, we are all looking forward to the revival of Guys and Dolls, but I’ve never even heard of a contemporary production of Frank Loesser’s Where’s Charley. We all love Oklahoma!, but how many of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s older shows do we see today? Other than Show Boat and Pal Joey, not many. Stephen Sondheim had Anyone Can Whistle before Company. For Kander and Ebb there was Flora, the Red Menace. Cole Porter had written a number of duds, and he was written off until Kiss Me, Kate. If I were to take a look on ibdb.com, I’m sure I could find similar early flops (or even popular hits that by modern standards aren’t very good) for librettists.
We live in a time when artists get very little chance to develop their craft before their works hit the big time. When I went through a mini-Tennessee Williams kick this past spring, I was surprised to learn that he had actually written an early shorter play that became A Streetcar Named Desire. He had had many opportunities to write and have his work seen before The Glass Menagerie, his first big hit. Composers and lyricists might have had songs here and there in revues, where they could earn money to support themselves as they developed their crafts. As a result, these people learned by doing and failing.
Today, it’s harder to break in. People have to learn by doing in college or in programs like BMI instead of in front of authentic audiences. They have to work tirelessly to get their music into anyone’s hands then pray fervently that someone will pop the CD in and actually listen. All the while, living costs in New York City have skyrocketed, and they must balance living with developing their craft. Very few people write their first produced songs in the early 20s anymore. To be produced at 22, for example, allows you a lot of time learning from your audience and learning from a creative team. These days, people are getting produced when?—often their 30s and 40s.
It is my belief that we are on the cusp of a second Golden Age. When the time comes, I doubt anyone will acknowledge it because to some, nothing will ever be as grand as the past, but our time today shares a number of key similarities with Broadway prior to the Golden Age.
We have many young talents cutting their teeth on their first shows. Listen to the scores of The Wedding Singer and The Color Purple—there’s real talent there! Look at the ingenuity of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—that’s hilarious and so fresh. Admire the boldness of Tarzan’s concept and visuals. How clever was the conceit of The Drowsy Chaperone. If Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison can write the score to The Drowsy Chaperone now, think of how great their fifth Broadway show will be. If Winnie Holzman—new to Broadway if not to writing—can produce Wicked her first time around, how great will her fifth show be? That’s real promise.
Right now, everything is in place for not only thoroughly enjoyable shows, but shows that are practically perfect in every sense—like Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game, Wonderful Town. They may be dramatic like The Color Purple, they may be rock like Spring Awakening, or they may be full of spectacle like The Pirate Queen, but if we can get these people venues for writing, support them in their success and in their learning experiences (also known as failures), Broadway won’t just post record revenue but record attendance as well.
June 14, 2007