There are so few laughs in Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Raisin in the Sun, A Doll House, and Fences. They’re so bleak, so joyless. To quote from one of my favorite theatre writers (about another work), some of them have “a bunch of characters so unappetizingly drawn that you wouldn’t especially want to go to dinner with them.”
Take Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a play that fills the stage with so many obnoxious and unappetizing figures, you even hate the kids. Is there anyone in the play you’d ever want to talk to on the phone, let alone go to dinner with them? What about Death of a Salesman? I guess Happy isn’t so bad, but he’d still not be my choice dinner companion.
But naturally, these are plays. You like what the playwrights say or how the playwrights say it, not necessarily the characters with which they express it. It’s a given (and forgiven). They are entertaining via their ability to enlighten and communicate. You enjoy Death of a Salesman even though you aren’t necessarily entertained in the traditional definition of the word.
Okay, so I really do “get” why straight plays don’t have characters with whom you’d want to sup. What I actually don’t understand is the dual standard. If a serious play, movie, or novel lacks broad comic characters or witty banter, that is acceptable. No one questions it. But let a musical do that, and it’s blasphemy, a dour and dull night at the theatre, devoid of any redeemable qualities.
It’s a curious situation.
Many of the great contemporary musical theatre pieces were ones I first experienced on CD. When I first heard Marie Christine, for example, I was a young twenty-three or so, enraptured by the story it told. I couldn’t imagine anyone not finding themselves fascinated by LaChiusa’s updating of the Medea story. It was quite the shock when I read some of the critics’ responses to the show several years later.
One of those beautiful “serious” shows I have experienced in the theatre was Parade, which I was able to catch on tour. I don’t recall laughing much during the show, but I do remember it riveting me, drawing me in with the power of its story and what it had to say. The fact that I wasn’t laughing every five minutes didn’t even occur to me.
I’ve read similar critiques of other shows whose scores I’ve loved—LaChiusa’s The Wild Party and Bernarda Alba, Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde, Bill Russell and Henry Kreiger’s Side Show, and Paul Gordon’s Jane Eyre. A few of these I’ve seen on Broadway, a few I’ve seen regionally, some I’ve only heard the score. I was never bothered by the almost solely dramatic nature of the pieces.
The problem is that the Broadway musical has developed so that, as Arthur Laurents says, it’s now okay to die or be raped in a musical and even to have a sad ending. We still haven’t gotten to the place, however, where the musical can completely sever ties with its comedic past and still be a success. Critics still enter shows with certain expectations—that musicals should entertain through comedy, that only straight plays can settle for being thought-provoking (or moving or gothic or exciting).
I love musical comedy. There’s nothing like a laugh and a song. However, if we truly believe in the power of music, and the emotional expression that can be accomplished uniquely through song and dance, then there’s no reason why a musical can’t be the equivalent of Death of a Salesman in the musical form. Some musical ideas are better suited to humor, but just because others may not be doesn’t mean that they aren’t riveting and intriguing stories worth being told filled with themes needing to be heard.
The final vote always goes to the paying audience. The problem is that to a great extent the critics act as an entryway to the more unusual or unknown shows. It is possible that the masses simply aren’t ready for Parade and won’t be for some time. Yet, it seems like shows with great critical appreciation—which non-humorous shows seem to rarely receive—can still overcome audience trepidation to achieve a level of success.
Look at the score of Parade; “The Old Red Hills of Home,” “My Child Will Forgive Me,” and “This Is Not Over Yet” are amazing songs, songs that are fitting for the show’s tone and perspective. The story of Leo Frank is one that deserves to be told even if it doesn’t allow for subplot hilarity. Willy Loman didn’t need any, so why does Leo Frank?
the Broadway Mouth
January 23, 2008