So I just finished writing the last chapter of my new book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals, which is due January 1. Up till now, I didn't have a fully formed idea of the overall point of this book. I mean, I did but I didn't. I knew the book would survey musicals that traffic in those three powerful cultural forces, and I also knew that the book would also sort of chronicle the relationship Americans have had with these forces over the course of the 20th century.
But now, having written this final chapter, I know there's something more here. I think it was always swimming around in the back of my head. There's an artistic statement inherent in what I've written, an idea I've been thinking about for a long time, so it's not a surprise that it worked its way into my book.
I've realized that the Rodgers and Hammerstein era of musical theatre writing really is over. Sure, it largely ended in 1964, but it's still been with us all these years (The Full Monty, Jekyll & Hyde, Titanic, Footloose, etc.). That (semi-) naturalistic, fourth-wall, kind of musical that operates pretty much like a "well-made play." But today, musical theatre has gone back to its roots, no longer trying to "trick" the audience into "believing" the action onstage. After decades of musical theatre trying to do what movies do best, that now seems so silly and pointless. Today, musicals do what theatre does best -- engaging the audience's imaginations, operating more in a world of metaphor and suggestion than in a never-really-successful reproduction of reality.
Many old-school musical theatre scholars and commentators are convinced that the “Golden Age” of musical theatre lasted from 1943 (Oklahoma!) to 1964 (Fiddler on the Roof), and that musical theatre has been careening downhill ever since. They talk about the “rise and fall” of musical theatre, as if the art form somehow mirrored the decadent last days of the Roman Empire. They bemoan that theatre songs no longer sound like Richard Rodgers or Jerry Herman songs. They dismiss most of the concept musicals and other experiments of the 1960s and 70s (although some will exempt Sondheim from their outrage), and they all seem to despise rock musicals.
I mean, really, what the fuck?
What these folks don’t fully understand is that their "Golden Age" is really just the Rodgers and Hammerstein era. Because that model was considered the ideal for so long, it has been mistaken by some as the only model; and so the heyday of that one model is assumed to be the Golden Age of the art form as a whole. Wrong.
This era started with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first show, Oklahoma!, which did indeed change many of the rules, and its influence reached far, spawning dozens of imitators, following in their footsteps and even surpassing them, as R&H's own work got less and less interesting over time. The era ended with the last great practitioners of the Rodgers and Hammerstein model, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, whose last hit was Fiddler on the Roof. The end of the era didn't remove this model from the stage entirely; some examples are still with us today, like Wicked and Beauty and the Beast. But that old model no longer leads the art form.
1964 was a real pivot point for the art form. That year, Broadway saw the openings of an old-school musical comedy (Hello, Dolly!), an almost pure example of the Rodgers and Hammerstein school (Fiddler on the Roof), along with several R&H revivals, two radical concept musicals (Marat/Sade and Oh, What a Lovely War), and the first of the Sondheim experiments (Anyone Can Whistle), which tinkered with structure, flirted with self-reference, comically deconstructed the musical comedy love story, and explored the kind of political content that would change the musical theatre from a passive mirror of our culture to a more conscious observer and commentator. All in that one year.
Which also happens to be the year I was born. Talk about Kismet.
From that point forward, most serious musicals, and even many musical comedies, would offer up social and political commentary on our culture.
The musical moved past the Rodgers and Hammerstein era to the concept musicals of Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and the team of Fred Ebb and John Kander; and also toward the rock musical, which quickly became its own subgenre. Those today who mourn the Golden Age really just miss Rodgers and Hammerstein’s mid-century morality and that ubiquitous Broadway foxtrot that underpinned too many Rodgers and Hammerstein scores. But arguably, the real Golden Age of musical theatre began in the mid-1990s and we’re still in the midst of it today, with brilliant, adventurous rock musicals like Spring Awakening, American Idiot, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Passing Strange, Love Kills, Next to Normal, and others.
And unlike many of the early rock musicals (with the exception of Hair), today’s shows no longer have to make musical concessions to the “Broadway sound.” Now rock musicals sing in the authentic voice of real rock and roll, not watered down, not adapted, just pure rock. And as the rock musical finally comes of age, more and more of the most interesting shows are coming from young, new writers, writing about coming of age themselves, and bringing along with them a new, re-energized audience for the American musical theatre.
How cool is that?
And New Line remains at the forefront of the art form, having already produced High Fidelity and Love Kills, about to produce bare, already scheduled Passing Strange for next season, and waiting breathlessly for the rights to both Next to Normal and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
After all, just because I'm middle-aged doesn't mean New Line has to be.
Long Live the Musical!