Last week, we were watching the movie version of HAIRSPRAY, the wonderful musical adaptation of John Waters’s film. The vivacious Nikki Blonsky was belting out the opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” when she was almost hit by a garbage truck. One smash cut later, and she was riding on top of it. See, nothing could dull her buzz at being alive in Baltimore: not a flasher (a cameo appearance by Waters himself), not a near-death experience, nothing. My niece, already a seasoned chorus member in several musicals at age 12, was entranced. But something was bothering my 14-year-old nephew: “How’d she get on top of that garbage truck?”
As a theatre major and lifelong fan, I’ve found that musical “reality” separates the men from the boys (or sometimes the boys from the boys, but that’s another story). I have more than one friend who enjoys and appreciates the theatre, but has to draw the line at Broadway musicals, that essential American art form. The complaint is always the same: we have to artificially take ourselves out of the story to give somebody a chance to sing. It’s so unrealistic! I can point out that they have no problem when a “hobbit” puts on a “magic ring” to turn frickin’ invisible, but “that’s different – that’s a fantasy.” As the obligatory “dream ballets” of Forties and Fifties musicals attest, so are they, but forget it: you’ll never get anywhere. Some people just don’t like ‘em, with very few exceptions (HAIR is a very popular exception).
Musicals were fairly silly in the early days of the 20th century. They were usually unconnected revues: dancers, singers, slapstick comics, above all gals with gams, and some of them were even captured on film: BROADWAY MELODY of thus-and-so, GOLDDIGGERS of whatever. My skeptical friends would have had every right to scorn the early Broadway musical.
Then came Rodgers & Hammerstein’s masterpiece in 1943. It was called OKLAHOMA!
My first boss in advertising, the brilliant Gordon Marks, assured me that the exclamation point was the key to the show’s success: it made it look like something special! I was able to look Mr. Marks in the eye because I had appeared in a college revival of the show some six years before, and when you’re in the show, you learn all about the show. Guess what: he may have been right!
OKLAHOMA! broke the mold. Based on Lynn Riggs’s 1931 play “Green Grow The Lilacs,” it was the first Broadway musical in which all the songs directly related to the story being counter-told. The actors didn’t sing because it was time for a song; they sang because they had to! Not all the songs were cheery and happy, either. Watch Act II of OKLAHOMA! and tell me you don’t feel for poor Jud Fry, even as the rest of the Okies are making fun of him. The songs were part of the drama, for the first time ever! No wonder there was an exclamation point!
I mentioned the “dream ballet,” which OKLAHOMA!’s success made so popular that it became part of the copycat rhythm for years to come. (You can see it in full flower in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN…”Gotta dance!”) It helped story-bound musicals blossom. While Rodgers & Hammerstein were exploring this fecund new form, so were Lerner and Loewe, etc., right down to Stephen Sondheim, the Tiger Woods of the genre. THE SOUND OF MUSIC. SOUTH PACIFIC. Even CAMELOT. Then they tumble on down: A CHORUS LINE, CHICAGO, RENT, AVENUE Q, IN THE HEIGHTS. See? FLOYD COLLINS: ever heard of that one? I didn’t think so. BAT BOY? They’re just too clever.
I know, musical productions are very fragile. I saw a musical version of Durrenmatt’s THE VISIT at the Signature Theatre Company in D.C. last year that rocked me back in my seat. If it ever got to Broadway, it would play about two nights, because it’s too dark, but they’d be talking about it for years. Yet Signature received a Tony this year because of what they’re trying to do, which is to preserve the original American musical. Go for it, dudes. We’ll wait for the next work of genius.
5/25/15: THE VISIT finally made it to Broadway this season but, except for the sublime pleasure of seeing the immortal Chita Rivera on stage, it failed to impress the Tony voters, who awarded it ZERO nominations. It is not long for this world. I still say it’s too dark.