Saturday, February 23, 2008

Defining a Golden Age

I don’t know if you can actually identify a golden age while you’re in it. It’s one of those phenomena that only become apparent after some distance and reflection.

Yet I have written about (and others have been considering) the possibility of there being another Golden Age for musicals on Broadway, perhaps something akin, if not replicating, the great Golden Age spurned on by the revolutionary Oklahoma! in 1943.

But before the question of a Second Golden Age of musicals can be answered, the term must be defined.

First of all, it’s important to remember that, while a critical element of theatre, a Golden Age is not defined by financial success alone. Financial success is extremely important in the world of Broadway because it is an arena of the arts that is still largely financed by individual investors as a means of earning a profit. Success breeds interest and more success. Historically, great shows that have now been identified as brilliant and ground-breaking are shows that have had a measure of success. No one stands and takes notice of the revolution made by a flop.

However, the definition of a Golden Age must take into account something other than financial success. In terms of financial success, Broadway has never matched the heights of the 1920s, particularly in the 1927-1928 season in which, according to Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon in the book Broadway: The American Musical, an astounding 264 new productions opened. Broadway was tremendously successful in the 1920s; however, the era has never been defined as a Golden Age. The shows of that era are products of their time, and while many of the songs live on, the shows themselves tend to be footnotes to greater shows from the Golden Age or have only survived by falling victim to post-Oklahoma! sensibilities as their books have been reshaped to be palatable to new generations.

Compared to the plethora of quick-closing shows of the 1980s (Rags, Starmites, Wind in the Willows, Smile), Broadway is indeed in “great shape” as Elaine Stritch says in Rick McKay’s Broadway: The Golden Age. We still have our fair share of shows that close in the red (The Civil War, Jane Eyre, Urban Cowboy, High Fidelity, Brooklyn, The Pirate Queen, Sweet Smell of Success, to name a few), but the shows we’ve had with great runs are also very impressive. For original shows, there are fourteen new shows from previous seasons (non-revivals) still running on Broadway, not to include recent closers The Drowsy Chaperone and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

However one may bemoan the state of musicals on Broadway, the reality is that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a modest show, ran 1136 performances on Broadway, compared to the original Carousel at 890, Damn Yankees at 1019, Guys and Dolls at 1200, and Hello, Dolly! at 2844. Yes, the theatre was smaller, but what’s important is that it was financially feasible for a comparative number of performances (in other words, profit is profit). A few other impressive runs of late: The Color Purple at 910, Hairspray at 2274 and counting, Thoroughly Modern Millie at 903, Avenue Q at 1878 and counting, The Full Monty at 770, and Rent at 5,012 when it closes in June. Other shows with impressive runs include Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Drowsy Chaperone, Tarzan, and The Light in the Piazza.

It is, indeed, an exciting time to love Broadway. While we have few of the big name-recognized stars of the Golden Age (like Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, John Raitt, Gwen Verdon, Alfred Drake, Mary Martin), we do have a growing number of names that are becoming recognizable to the outside world—Audra McDonald, Nathan Lane, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Patrick Wilson, and Anika Noni Rose. Almost as important, we also have a growing number of stars who have been able to make a career on the Broadway stage, people who have managed to parlay one or two successes into reoccurring roles—Sutton Foster, Hunter Foster, Donna Murphy, Marin Mazzie, Rebecca Luker, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Norbert Leo Butz, Karen Ziemba, Christine Ebersole, Kerry Butler, Christopher Sieber, and many others. That’s tremendously exciting.

We are also in a time when Broadway is getting increased visibility. No, it’s not to the same height as the Golden Age, but it’s getting there. Grease: You’re the One That I Want was not a ratings powerhouse for NBC (though enough of a hit to warrant extending the series by an episode or two) and still turned a poorly reviewed production into a hit, not to mention giving several very talented people a leg up on a Broadway career (and more than just Max and Laura). Disney’s High School Musical and the feature film adaptation of Hairspray spotlighted the magic of musical theatre and will surely create an entirely new generation of musical fans; they all already have songs from those movies on their iPods. MTV turned Legally Blonde into a teen favorite (when was the last time anyone outside New York was singing Broadway songs from a new show on such a grand scale?), and not only was it impressively successful when it aired, it has since spawned a reality television search for a woman to star in the tour, which will not only help make the tour a rousing success but will further the cause of Broadway.

Other than Hairspray, we’ve had many other Broadway film adaptations that have sparked the interest of a new generation—Chicago, Rent, The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Dreamgirls, and Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Let’s not forget, as well, that not only did Fantasia create a stir on Broadway, but she performed “I’m Here” on American Idol and at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy party, causing someone from Variety (quoted on Broadway World) to suggest that “Broadway shows could be a great source of material and there are not enough A&R execs mining this increasingly rich territory.”

Even without Fantasia, with LaChanze in the leading role, Oprah helped make The Color Purple a must-see show, generating intense interest by featuring it on her daily talk show. To top this off, there’s Idina Menzel’s new CD and Marissa Jaret Winokur on Dancing With the Stars, two great opportunities to showcase Broadway talent to the rest of the country. That’s all very exciting.

Those are all signs of a healthy theatre season.

However, there is another qualification of a Golden Age, shows must be of a certain quality. The Golden Age is the Golden Age because of Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game, My Fair Lady, and Fiddler on the Roof. We’ve had many fun shows the past five years with tremendous scores, but I’m not sure how many of them touch the great shows of the past. The greatness is present today; there’s simply something missing in the recipe—perhaps the struggles of adapting films to stage, concepts that are a stretch for a full evening, or a missing element in the creative team.

As I’ve written before, I saw seven shows on my last trip to New York in August of 2006, and the only one in the league above was Hairspray. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself very much, it’s simply that the shows didn’t leave me with that tremendous impact (as compared to, say, the trips I took in which I saw The Music Man, Follies, or Kiss Me, Kate). I think we’re on the way to getting there; our creators are building their muscles.

In looking over the selected chronology in the book Broadway: The American Musical, it’s interesting to note when shows opened. It varies from year to year, but during the Golden Age, two or three superb (or beloved/remembered) musicals would open in a year—in 1960-1961 there was Camelot, Do Re Mi, and Carnival!; in 1961-1962 there was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; in 1962-1963 there was Oliver! and She Loves Me; and in 1963-1964 there was Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl. In 1997-1998, we had Side Show, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Lion King, and Ragtime. It seems to me that those shows all make for a more interesting season than most recent years.

A third key component for a Golden Age is the road. We are no longer in a time when a young Elaine Stritch could take Call Me Madam on the road (or when road audiences would know Mary Martin and John Raitt on tour in Annie Get Your Gun). Look at how Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (one of those fun shows with a tremendous score from my last Broadway trip) struggled on the road with Norbert Leo Butz as the lead. As a person who thrives on road companies, the past five years have been pretty pathetic in terms of Broadway tours. The road never got the revivals of Gypsy, Wonderful Town, or Man of La Mancha. With non-Equity actors (and the related changes to staging and choreography), we got sacked with Oklahoma!, The Music Man, and The Wedding Singer. Many of the shows that tour from Broadway now are the shows with name or music recognition (Saturday Night Fever, All Shook Up), changes from Broadway (Seussical and Sweet Charity), and small casts that can keep costs low (Little Women and Brooklyn). Part of a Golden Age is when the energy and excitement from New York spills over into other parts of the country.

This is not to be doomsdaying, however, because there is much to be excited about in the theatre—In the Heights is giving us the first Broadway musical incorporating hip-hop, not to mention that shows like Rent and Spring Awakening are able to thrive alongside Hairspray and Curtains (a show whose staying power is very Golden Age-like). There are so many very talented people performing and auditioning, and there are folks like Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, David Yazbek, Stephen Schwartz, and Jason Robert Brown writing new music for Broadway.

Yes, I still say we are on the verge of something great.

But then . . . I don’t know if you can actually identify a golden age while you’re in it. It’s one of those phenomena that only become apparent after some distance and reflection.

the Broadway Mouth
February 23, 2008

1 comment:

MrGS said...

I kind of feel like that Broadway is in a Golden Age; many people are going to many different types of plays, old broadway musicals are catching the attention of new viewers, it seems that whatever is made in the movies or graphic novels can be converted to a broadway play and there are even many stars that are getting their feet wet in the broadway business. So things are well.