There’s something very personal about The Glass Menagerie. It’s as if Tennessee Williams opened up his soul and gently laid it on the stage. The Great Gatsby is also a very personal work. When you study the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, you can almost see him hiding behind both Gatsby and Nick Carraway, one foot in Nick’s arm-length distance and another in Gatsby’s parties, trying not to want the life that’s there. Most pieces of great literature seem to be that way—Charlotte Bronte’s hopes and ideals in her Jane Eyre, John Steinbeck’s social concerns and love of nature in The Pearl, or August Strindberg’s meditations on truth in The Father.
Compare that intense personal expression with most musicals that have been successful on Broadway. It’s hard to see that kind of personal expression conveyed in, say, Guys and Dolls or Hairspray or even Meredith Willson’s solo opus The Music Man. Perhaps one or two of the Sondheim shows feel that personal and Rent. Rent is unique, however, in that Jonathan Larson had the chops to write the book, the music, and the lyrics, so Rent is largely his own creative expression.
The problem is that musicals are, by nature, a collaborative art form. One hundred percent of Sweet Bird of Youth is Tennessee Williams; there is no lyricist to take over for part of Chance Wayne’s dialogue or a composer needed to help convey Heavenly’s psyche.
It’s also important to remember that musicals are typically adapted from another source, so Flower Drum Song is a derivation of C.Y. Lee’s vision and The Secret Garden brings to life Frances Hodgson Burnett’s unique worldview. Sometimes those works might be filtered through creators’ lenses (such as the fairy tales in Into the Woods) or re-imagined/refocused to become a personal reflection of a creative team (like Annie), but the art form is still largely a group effort.
It’s such a rare occurrence that, when it does occur, you can’t help but sit up and take notice. In listening to Bernarda Alba recently, I was reminded of the singular nature of Michael John LaChiusa’s work, for which he typically writes the book, music, and lyrics. After having CD exposure to four of his works—Hello Again, Marie Christine, The Wild Party (librettist duties shared with George C. Wolfe), and Bernarda Alba—it’s fascinating to study the unique voice that emerges from his work despite their adaptive nature. You could never watch How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and feel like you are getting an entry into Frank Loesser or Abe Burrows’ minds, but in LaChiusa’s work, you begin to see patterns, thoughts, and ideas that give entry to his soul.
If we can ever get to the place where musicals don’t have to be like The Producers or Spring Awakening to hit the cash cow, where audiences and critics welcome personal shows without requiring laughs every three minutes or broad comic caricatures, it would be interesting to see how else music can be used to express emotions.
I find Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation of In the Heights interesting. In a recent Gothamist interview with John Del Signore, Miranda discusses the origin of his show:
The first song I wrote is called “Never Give Your Heart Away.” It came out of a conversation with a Latino friend of mine. At the time I was in a long term relationship and my friend was sort of your classic player. And he was telling me what his mom told him as a kid: "Never let a woman play you; play them first!" And I remember thinking about what a f--- up life lesson that is. I wrote that song on the subway from West 4th Street, riding back to my home on 200th Street, imagining a mother imparting that lesson to her son. That character ended up becoming Benny.
In an original work, those revelations belong to the creator. In an adaptation, those revelations belong to the creator of the original work, sometimes losing something in the process of interpretation (and sometimes gaining something else). In The Scarlet Pimpernel, for example, Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton reinterpreted and refocused Baroness Orczy’s original tale. Whatever motivated Orczy to create the character is reinterpreted for the musical. Sometimes what gets adapted is pop in nature. For example, Elle’s journey in Legally Blonde is an interesting one, but it lacks the level of insight that it might have had had the characters been created by someone on the creative team. Similarly, Arthur’s final dilemma in Camelot is a fascinating one, but it is not one that seems to be a fervent concern of Alan Jay Lerner’s. It’s one that fits the story well.
This is not in any way a negative perspective of these works; it is an observation for the sake of discussion. In my musical comedy, which I would call intensely personal despite its physical humor and fun caricatures, the journey of the main character is strictly at the musical comedy level.
I loved the Alice Ripley interview with Andrew Gans on Playbill.com in which she discusses her off-Broadway musical Next to Normal. In it, he writes:
Ripley plays the mammoth role of Diana, the manic-depressive wife of Dan (Brian d'Arcy James) and mother to Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) and Gabe (Aaron Tveit). After years of a drug-induced existence, where she experiences neither life's highs nor lows, Diana tries to find happiness, at first without the aid of medication and later through more drastic methods. While researching the role, Ripley says, “I did everything that I could. I definitely did a lot of homework, reading up on the subject matter of the show — books and online research. Also, I'm drawing from my mother's side of the family. Diana's story is in me personally. Even though I don't have the same story . . . the bloodline of what she goes through is definitely in my family.”
That sort of depth of character is something the musical hasn’t seen much of; it is something that can’t be nurtured in an adaptation or in an atmosphere where only comedy is welcome.
But it’d be awfully interesting to watch.
February 27, 2008