Finishing the Fucking Hat

When I was in seventh grade, we had to write a paper describing a process. It could be about anything, building a birdhouse, washing a car, making dinner. I was a smartass at the time (but only at the time!) so I wrote a paper about writing a paper describing a process. I was pretty proud of myself and my teacher thought it was funny enough to accept my stunt. It probably wasn't as funny or clever as I thought at the time (I'm sure thousands of other kids have done the same), but I was only twelve.

Unfortunately, that's become one of the new models for writing musicals, and I hate it.

When I go to the theatre, I want to laugh because a show has gotten at some unexpected truth or because a character has revealed an unexpected side, not because the writers keep repeating the word cunt in a song or because of random self-reference. We laugh at the crazy people in Bat Boy because they are so desperately, freakishly human. We see real-world behavior in them, and we recognize our own darker selves in their absurdity. People laugh at the new musical Silence! (from whence comes the cunt song) because someone's saying dirty words in a musical.

Big fuckin' deal. Maybe that was "edgy" in the 1960s, but now that four-letter words are relatively commonplace in contemporary musical theatre, a potty mouth is hardly worth the price of a Broadway or off Broadway ticket.

The people laughing at Silence! should've seen Johnny Appleweed. Fifty-two occasions of the word fuck and its various forms. (Suck on that, Silence!) But in Appleweed I was consciously trying to make the word fuck mundane, to use it so much that the audience would stop noticing, to take away its power and its scariness. And it actually worked. It wasn't just about shock or cheap laughs; it was about exploring our hang-ups surrounding language.

And then there's self-reference. I love Urinetown and I like very much The Producers, but those shows were both far more than just self-reference. Urinetown satirizes the simplistic, Rodgers-and-Hammerstein, black-and-white morality of old-fashioned musicals to demonstrate how inadequate it is in a complex real world. It mocks the way too many old-fashioned musicals ignore the complexities of the real world (because it's a lot easier to write that way), and it also mocks political theatre like The Threepenny Opera, with a strong political point of view that, in this case, gets totally subverted in the last few minutes of the show. The Producers is a story about subverting the creative process for selfish gains, and it's told by subverting the devices of the genre which is both the form and content of the story. Bialystock and Bloom violated the theatre and so did their story. In both cases, the self-reference grew out of the story rather than out of an inability to write good comedy.

Content dictates form, as Sondheim says.

I've dabbled in self-reference myself as a writer. During my freshman year in college, I wrote a musical called Musical, in which the central character (and narrator) confesses midway through Act II that he's writing this show as we're watching it and he doesn't know how it ends because it hasn't happened yet. It brought up all kinds of questions about reality, authorship, etc., though the ideas behind it were only half-formed.

Then in 1992, I finished writing a show called Attempting the Absurd about a guy named Jason who has figured out that he doesn't actually exist and is only a character in a musical. (He knows this partly because he has only a sketchy memory of his past and he never goes to the bathroom.) The action of the show follows Jason's mother and the girl who's dumped him, trying to have him declared insane for believing he only exists inside a musical. At the end, he's arrested and taken to court where he produces the script for Attempting the Absurd, proving that he's right, that none of them actually exist, and his case is dismissed. The show was an exploration of perception, sanity, and belief, none of which were what they seemed to be in this world. The characters who knew they were sane were ultimately proved wrong -- they all only existed in this musical. Just because they believed something didn't make it true, and for those looking for it, that was a subtle message about religion.

My point is that self-reference can be funny, it can be interesting, and it can be a great device for exploring other ideas. But that's just it -- it's a device, a tool. Unfortunately, self-reference has become an end unto itself. There are so many shows now that are nothing but evenings of self-reference, for no discernible reason other than it makes the writers laugh. But animals on YouTube make us laugh. Is that the best these writers can aim for? That's not a very high bar and hardly the foundation for a piece of theatre. Seeing someone slip on a banana peel can be funny, but that doesn't make it good storytelling and it doesn't make it a two-hour musical. At least, not a good one.

But self-reference is all the rage right now. So we get musicals like [title of show] which would have made a great 10-minute piece of sketch comedy but was unfortunately a full-length musical. And then there was Gutenberg the Musical which was far worse, and the godawful, cynically shallow Broadway musicals Spamalot and Young Frankenstein. There was The Musical of Musicals, which was smarter but still unsatisfying and a bit too masturbatory for my taste. Even the uneven Book of Moromon has several pointless moments of self-reference, alongside a running gag about scrotum maggots.

And now we have Silence!, complete with an ironic exclamation point that might have been funny twenty years ago. (Yes, it's true that some musicals used to try to inject energy into their shows merely by adding an exclamation point to the title, but that doesn't happen anymore, it never happened much, and now it's nothing but an old joke.) Like the equally dimwitted Evil Dead the Musical, Silence! gets the majority of its laughs from self-reference, from its self-consciously low-budget production, and from more pointless vulgarity than even The Book of Mormom. Which is saying a lot.

It could have been so much more. Imagine the guys who wrote Bat Boy tackling The Silence of the Lambs.

Bat Boy referenced itself and its own limited budget from time to time, but it did so in the service of questioning whether big sets and lavish costumes are necessary to good storytelling. Bat Boy's cast changed costumes onstage to switch characters, and it exposed every "trick" of its stagecraft, admitting its own artifice but also fully engaging us emotionally in the story, so that by the end of the evening, we're stunned at how much we care about these characters and how deeply we're moved by the show's ending. Bat Boy and Urinetown didn't use self-reference because it was the trendy (and easy) way to write a show; they did it as a statement of belief in the power of the actor, and in protest against the mega-musicals of the 1990s, to return to Grotwoski's "poor theatre," where the power comes from the actors, rather than from stuff.

What are these new writers protesting? Intelligence? Structure? Character development?

It all comes down to telling the truth. Humans tell stories to understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Shows like Silence! and [title of show] bother me because they don't respect the incredible power of storytelling and the incredible responsibility we storytellers have to our fellow humans. I think they also bother me because I know how outrageously funny -- and truthful -- shows like Urinetown, Bat Boy, Spelling Bee, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson can be, all of which are waaaaay funnier than their shallower cousins.

William Ball writes in his brilliant book A Sense of Direction, "The director" -- or writer or actor -- "who approaches the script with the intention of making it funny will be seen by the audience in the very way we see a spoiled child who leaps about, flops on the floor, stretches his eyes, pulls his lips, waves peculiar objects -- one may feel impelled to slap him silly as an arrogant, insensitive, nonparticipating, egotistical boor, whose interest lies merely in capturing our attention with no intent to fulfill our needs. We must never get caught trying to be funny!"

I know sometimes I will be in the minority on this but I will keep up the fight for smart, truthful musical theatre. There's so much of it being written now -- American Idiot, The Scottsboro Boys, Next to Normal, Love Kills, bare, Spring Awakening, Taboo, In the Heights, Passing Strange -- and there's no excuse for giving us crap instead.

Just my opinion, of course.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

6 comments: