The musical shrank in the 1960s for two reasons. First, as most people already know, big shows became cost prohibitive. The more production costs rose, the less they were able to balance the budget. So in some shows, like Company, West Side Story, A Chorus Line, and Grease, the leads became the chorus.
But there was another reason. Big musicals were so big because they almost always had a gigantic chorus. And that chorus represented the community within which the story unfolded. But America changed in the years after World War II. More and more Americans moved from rural areas to urban areas, and with that move came a diminished sense of old-fashioned community and a revived focus on the “rugged individual” of our Frontier past. As it always does, musical theatre as an art form mirrored that shift in our culture.
Back during the heyday of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the central issue of most musicals was whether the hero would assimilate into the community or be removed from it, in some cases by death. In Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, Guys and Dolls, Hello, Dolly!, Annie Get Your Gun, and The Music Man, the hero assimilates and becomes part of the community/chorus at the end. But in Carousel, The King and I, Pal Joey, West Side Story, Hair, and Cabaret, the hero cannot assimilate and must leave or be removed. In a few shows, with more than one hero, we get both outcomes, as in South Pacific and Show Boat. In a few cases, the community actually adjusts to accommodate the hero, as in The Threepenny Opera and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
But in the later era of concept musicals and rock musicals, the stories focus on the hero, his struggle, his growth, his success or not, in shows like Company, Pippin, Dude, Jesus Christ Superstar, Follies, Chicago, Barnum, Sweeney Todd, Nine, Sunday in the Park with George, and so many others.
Still, now and then in the 60s and 70s, shows reappeared which returned to that idea of community, but now with more of a hippie sensibility. It started with Hair, and that spawned Godspell, Grease, The Me Nobody Knows, A Chorus Line, and to some extent also Working. And of course Hair’s closest cousin in its aesthetics, its humor, and its pure joy, Two Gentlemen of Verona. But once the hippie era faded at the end of the 1970s, the focus returned to the individual, even in “ensemble shows” like Dreamgirls. Luckily, several of the shows listed above still work, though now as insightful period pieces.
It’s easy to say in hindsight but maybe Two Gents was the perfect Shakespeare play for the composer of Hair. After all, this play was Shakespeare’s Rent, youthful, rowdy, messy, rude, and unquestionably flawed. But it’s those flaws that give Hair, Two Gents, and Rent -- and our June show, bare --their rawness and authenticity. They don’t feel manufactured or focus-grouped. They possess that same authenticity and unedited joy that the best, most lasting rock and roll has.
I've told the cast that our approach to Two Gents is as if our hippie tribe from Hair is putting on a Shakespeare play. Their way. That's exactly the feel we're going for. As with any piece of great art, if you don't understand the context, you don't understand the art.
Long Live the Musical!