Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Give Them What They Want / Za Ba Zoovee

My favorite entry in The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings has to be David Barbour’s summary of the plot of Aida.

After subduing the nation of Nubia, Radames brings back the Princess Aida (Heather Headley), with whom he promptly falls in love. The three of them proceed to scream their heads off for two acts—lamenting cruel fate, etc., etc.

Perhaps Al Hirschfeld, who was alive to see so much of American theatre in the past century, said it best in the great PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical when he observed that the “form changes, and that’s difficult for a lot of people to accept. They’re stuck on one period, and they think that’s the period that’s important . . . It changes, and you have to roll with the punches, I think.”

What led to Broadway’s need for life support, as Elaine Stritch called it in the Rick McKay film Broadway: The Golden Age, was not because America fell out of step with the Broadway musical. Instead, as Frank Rich states in the PBS documentary, “Broadway was basically trying to ignore the 60s . . . [and the] Broadway musical [fell] out of sync with pop culture.”

Yes, we need to remind ourselves, Broadway used to be part of pop culture. Broadway albums would be purchased by people all over the country and hit high on the sales charts, much like if the Grey Gardens CD was right up there with Rihanna’s latest success in today’s terms.

Not only was it popular, but some songs were often written to be pop hits. For example, “Hey, There” was intended to be heard outside of The Pajama Game. Its lyrics were made specific to the character but general enough to reach a wide audience to promote the show, and it was skillfully reprised in the second act to reinforce its sell-ability. “If I Ever I Would Leave You” was played on the radio.

Broadway was also talked about and written about. Shows and their stars made the covers of major magazines. It was not uncommon to see performances on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. And even a mildly successful show, like The Unsinkable Molly Brown or Silk Stockings, made it to Hollywood.

So what’s wrong with Broadway catching up with the times?

Let me state that I agree that there is room for all sorts of different musicals—musical comedies, musical plays, pop operas, rock musicals, deconstructed musicals, linear musicals, and whatever else may arrive on the scene. Of my first three shows I’d like to see on a Broadway stage, none of them are pop or rock or anything threatening like that. But I don’t know why Broadway critics act as if shows like The Pirate Queen can’t coincide with shows like The Drowsy Chaperone. That really annoys me.

Part of the problem is that the average theatre-goer and critic is out of touch with the times. If you grew up with A Chorus Line being the ideal musical and that musical style defining what Broadway music should be, then how can you possibly connect with other styles of music that are currently on the scene or will come on the scene in years to come?

For example, if I listen to rap music, I can probably identify 1/19 of the words; however, if I bought several rap CDs, before long I’d be in the 18/19 range. My lack of understanding or appreciation of rap music doesn’t negate its nuances any more than a rap artist’s lack of understanding or appreciation of a Broadway ballad from the 1950s doesn’t negate its nuances. It’s more to do with the listener than the artist.

In his thought-provoking book The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, Ethan Mordden laments the popification of Broadway with shows like Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Hairspray (see: Note), arguing that pop music cannot be character specific. Perhaps it’s just that some critics don’t have an ear for the sound.

Several years ago, I heard a rock band at a free concert, and I immediately fell in love with their music. I have since expanded my listening to a variety of other bands, and what was once noise to me is now music. There are rock songs of all sorts and of all emotions. Rock didn’t all of a sudden become high quality—I just caught up with that boat. Now I could appreciate a rock show much more than I could have ten years ago.

Broadway is essentially a pop art, so why it doesn’t welcome pop music forms strikes me as a discordant note. If a show like Spring Awakening could get a song on the radio—either performed by one of its stars or covered by a hot act—it wouldn’t have needed eight Tonys to stay afloat. Even a show like The Wedding Singer, if the song were made into a contemporary pop song with some more generalized lyric alterations, could get “Right in Front of Your Eyes” or “If I Told You” on the radio. Not only would the show probably still be running, but it would attract a wider audience to Broadway shows in general and to tours. Get them once, and you’ll hook them for life.

That is not to say pop forms of music shouldn’t be held to the same standards. Yes, it should be character specific. Yes, the lyrics should have exact rhymes and be poetic. Yes, it should service story, character, and plot.

When Brooklyn came on tour, I took my godson to see it. Even though it was not a great show in terms of plot, he loved it. He’s a very intelligent young man; it’s just that the music spoke to him. It sounded something like the stuff on his iPod. To David Barbour, Diana DeGarmo might have been screaming, but to my godson and to me, it was awesome, power belting much like contemporary music stars do. It’s different than Rebecca Luker stepping out and hitting high notes at the end of “My White Knight,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good. It’s just different.

Jekyll and Hyde is one of the few shows in the past decade with original scores that have found life beyond its stage origins. Perhaps the lyrics aren’t Cole Porter, but it seems like most people criticize the show’s music for its pop aspirations. Well, shame on Frank Wildhorn for trying to reach a contemporary audience. How dare he! Memo to me: Put an end to that ASAP.

Let’s get on to more important shows like The Drowsy Chaperone, with its admittedly well-deserved Tony for Best Score. I can’t wait until I see kids singing “Fancy Dress” at their school’s variety show.

A lot of people like power belting. That’s what made Kelly Clarkson a favorite, put Whitney Houston on the map, and allowed Celine Dion to sell album after album after album until she was a gazillionaire. Perhaps Michael John LaChiusa (from his Opera News article) doesn’t care for power belting, but listen to an audience cheer after an actress “hollers an incomprehensible” rendition of “Defying Gravity” at the end of Act I in Wicked. That speaks for itself.

Broadway musicals are in such a vulnerable position. A film or television show can survive disastrous reviews. If movies survived like Broadway shows, National Treasure would have been a huge disaster. But sadly, the costs of attending shows on Broadway or on tour are such that audiences have to observe the reviews. The average theatre-goer isn’t attuned to any potential bias against non-Sondheim types of music, so when they read that a show like The Scarlet Pimpernel or Jane Eyre or Side Show is bad, they don’t risk their hard-earned money to see it.

Aida survived because it was Elton John and Disney. I love Aida. For the record, between Broadway and the tour, I saw it three times, and when I took a group of students and teachers to go, they all loved every minute of it. Watch an average person talk about their fondness for Les Miserables. Ask some theatre kids in Chugwater, Texas, and they’ll sing to you five or six songs from Wicked. Too bad none of them know how incomprehensible it is.

According to Steven Suskin in his awesome book Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000, six out of ten of the major critics panned Aida. Suskin himself states that “[n]othing in Aida was quite enough to impel you toward the Palace—Amneris’s or the Nederlanders’.” Perhaps if there had been something to impel you toward the Palace—obviously the Tony-award winning score, Henry David Hwang’s revised book, Heather Headley, Adam Pascal, Sherie Rene Scott, Matt Bogart, Simone, Will Chase, Merle Dandridge for one performance, Idina Menzel, Mandy Gonzalez, Maya Days, Wayne Cilento’s choreography, Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes, and Natasha Katz’s lighting simply weren’t enough—it might actually have run, right?

Broadway Mouth
June 12, 2007

Note: For the record, I vote that a show containing pop music over forty years old should officially be labeled pastiche because nothing like “You Can’t Stop the Beat” has been popular since Johnny Angel got Peggy Sue pregnant after prom. I know Mordden would probably call me stupid for saying this (or perhaps a purveyor of stupid shows), but I don’t see how much different this is from the music of Thoroughly Modern Millie, a show he generally enjoyed, which utilizes pop music from 77+ years ago.

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