I've shocked a lot of people lately, the last couple years or so, by arguing that the Rodgers and Hammerstein model is outdated, no longer relevant, that its style and content is old-fashioned, that its mid-century rural morality has very little to offer us in a world of terrorism and drug wars. People who love classic musical theatre deeply can't believe I'm saying all this. But to be fair, I'm not saying the old shows suck. I'm not saying we should never see them again. But I am saying they are no longer relevant to our culture the way they once were; and also, that the Rodgers and Hammerstein model is not the pinnacle of the art form, just one period and one style.
There are a lot of reason the Rodgers and Hammerstein model is best left to history. Its insistence on perfect rhyming and scansion seems silly in the age of rock and roll. Old-school theatre music, including the music of Stephen Sondheim, is about order and control. Rock and roll is about freedom and anarchy. If every rhyme in Rent was perfect, it wouldn't quite feel right. If every line scanned perfectly, it would seem considerably less authentic. That's just not what Rent sounds like. Same with American Idiot.
But the central problem with the Rodgers and Hammerstein model is that it's based on a deeply flawed fundamental premise, the idea that a musical can ever be naturalistic. George M. Cohan, at the turn of the last century, knew it couldn't. Kander and Ebb knew it couldn't. And the newest generation of musical theatre writers certainly know it.
Now before we go any further, let's distinguish between the word realistic, which means dealing with the world as it actually is, dark side and all; and the word naturalistic, which means imitating nature. Realistic is about content; naturalistic is about style. Robert Altman movies are naturalistic; Company and Next to Normal are realistic. Hair is both.
Rodgers and Hammerstein figured out, even before they started working together, that musicals can be realistic. Hammerstein's Show Boat dealt with alcoholism, inter-racial marriage, gambling addiction, domestic abuse, and more. Rodgers' Pal Joey was about a two-bit night club singer who uses women until they figure out he's using them. But both R&H seemed to think that musical theatre could be naturalistic too.
They were wrong.
All their shows (except Allegro) employed the Fourth Wall, and this created a dilemma when it came to solos, musical soliloquies. If a character is going to just stand there and tell us what he or she is feeling, how do you justify that in a naturalistic world with a Fourth Wall? You can call it an "interior monologue" but it still feels unnatural.
Singing in a musical is almost never naturalistic with the exception of a few shows in which singing is part of the story, like Hedwig, Cabaret, Hair, and a few others. But breaking into song when you're fighting or falling in love is entirely unnatural. Instead of struggling against that, musicals should accept it and make peace with it. George M. Cohan broke the Fourth Wall all the time. He never made any pretense at reality in his shows. Bob Fosse and Tommy Tune were the same. I think musical theatre is at its purest and most honest when it admits its obvious artifice. Thank god we have returned to that in recent years, with neo musical comedies like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Cry-Baby, Lysistrata Jones, and second wave concept musicals like Rent, Hedwig, American Idiot, The Scottsboro Boys, Passing Strange, Spring Awakening, and so many others.
It's fascinating that musical theatre today is essentially rejecting the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution in this new millennium and returning to its roots in classical musical comedy. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not all that different in its style and its relationship to its audience from Cohan's Little Johnny Jones in 1904 or Cole Porter's Anything Goes in 1934. We're embracing our roots and having a blast doing it. Even serious musicals like American Idiot, The Scottsboro Boys, Next to Normal, and Passing Strange have all rejected the R&H model. We're a much more cynical culture today than we were in the 1940s -- you might say we have a better cultural bullshit detector -- and so we require of our musicals a fundamental honesty that R&H shows always lacked, as they tried to convince us that what was happening onstage was real when we all knew it wasn't.
Today, we prefer the honesty of shows that admit their artifice. Today, musical theatre artists follow in the footsteps of George M. Cohan, Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, Kander and Ebb, and Bertolt Brecht. Not Rodgers and Hammerstein.
I'm just sayin'.
Long Live the Musical!