Thinking some Deep Thoughts about musicals, with due thanks to God's Goofy Green Goodness for setting the psychic stage for me...
I'm thinking about "meta-musicals." According to Wikipedia, meta-theatre is theatre that "comments on itself, drawing attention to the literal circumstances of its own production, such as the presence of the audience or the fact that the actors are actors, and/or the making explicit the literary artifice behind the production." A meta-musical is one that goes beyond (the Greek meaning of meta) the normal confines and rules of the stage to comment more broadly on the experience of theatre itself. It's theatre about theatre. We do that a lot at New Line.
When New Line produced The Cradle Will Rock, we recreated the show's historic opening night in 1937 when it was performed from the audience because the union wouldn't allow the actors to appear onstage. We could have just produced Cradle as a regular show, but in creating that historical moment around that first performance, by making the audience itself part of the performance, our production went beyond the normal performance experience to create a larger "meta" event. The audience's presence and their watching of the show became part of the show -- they literally played the part of the original 1937 audience -- and our actors were playing actors in 1937 who were playing roles in The Cradle Will Rock.
The most obvious recent examples of meta-musicals are [title of show] and Silence!, neither of which really worked for me. Jeremy McCarter did a great job of explaining [title of show]'s misfires and shortcomings in his New York magazine review. The other recent show which is an on-again-off-again meta-musical is the excessively lauded The Book of Mormon, which is funny, but not as funny as it thinks it is, or as smart as we know its creators are. One blogger's review gets exactly right why Mormon doesn't totally work...
But not all meta-musicals are just about the cheap, easy laughs that come from repeated self-reference. Some meta-musicals are rich, complex, smart, thrilling pieces of theatre written by artists at the height of their powers, like Bat Boy and Urinetown. And that's what I've been thinking about...
Exhibit A. Passing Strange the musical is itself the thing the Youth in Passing Strange is seeking. The unusual force and power of the show comes from the fact the performance of the show itself, the sharing of it, is what the show is about. In the story, the Youth -- the younger self of the writer Stew -- is seeking The Real, in other words, authenticity, his own personal Great Truth, his place in the universe, his path. And what he discovers is that his Real is the expression of himself through art. And the art he (Stew/Youth) makes is Passing Strange. So through the entire story, we're going on this journey to find the experience we're in the midst of experiencing. Because art is expression, art needs an audience. So not only are we watching Passing Strange, we're necessary to its existence. We are of it.
The same is true of Chicago. It's a story about how the press and the public turn crime into entertainment and criminals into celebrities. The most brilliant moment in this brilliant show is at the end when Velma and Roxie thank us -- the audience -- and tell us, "We could not have done it without you." And we realize suddenly that we've gone along with it all night. We are complicit. We sat and watched murderers and we laughed with them, applauded them, got to like them, even root for them to get acquitted. They can't turn crime into entertainment without a public to sell it to, and we suddenly realize we're the public they just sold it to. The show becomes about us as much as the actors onstage. (To a lesser extent, the same thing happens at the end of Pippin.)
But let me digress for a moment. This analysis doesn't apply to the long-running Broadway revival of Chicago. Unfortunately, the producers of the revival stripped it of two of its most essential ingredients, its time period and its central metaphor. Setting the show in the 1920s is important because it lets the audience feel distance between them and these murderers. They can laugh at them because they're safely locked away in the past (and yes, Velma and Roxie are based on two real women murderers) -- until the end of the show when they spring the trap on us. When we get to those thank-yous in the last few moments of the show, Velma and Roxie aren't thanking an audience in the 1920s. They're thanking us, now. We're the problem.
When the producers discarded the show's 1920s period, they lost that amazing trap and a potent expression of the show's central point.
Likewise, Chicago was written so that every scene and every song are in the style of a common or famous vaudeville act -- the sister act, the ventriloquist act, the opera singer, the tableau vivant, the flash act, the exotic dance, the comedy sketch, the torch singer, the specialty dance acts, the comedian, the kid act... So literally, in front of our eyes, every moment in the story of these crimes is transformed into popular entertainment. We aren't watching a story about turning crime into entertainment; we are actually watching it happen. The show itself is what the show criticizes. (The same thing is at work in Oliver Stone's film Natural Born Killers.) This all pays off so strongly at the end when that trap is sprung. When the revival discarded the vaudeville metaphor, the show lost even more of its original power.
There's a good rule of storytelling -- the more specific the details, the more universal the appeal. It's the reason why Fiddler on the Roof was such a massive hit in Japan. The Japanese saw their culture portrayed so vividly in this Jewish-American musical. But the revival producers took away the specifics from Chicago and made it less universal and less powerful.
Like Passing Strange and Chicago, Cabaret also becomes the thing it's about. We watch this story and slowly understand its point over the course of the evening, that there is a cost to doing nothing in the face of evil. Being passive is as much a choice as taking action, the show argues. And we watch as Fraulein Schneider does nothing in the face of evil and perhaps we judge her for a moment, but then after her searing anthem "What Would You Do?" we wonder if maybe we'd do the same. It's a powerful message. But at the end of the show, when the freaky Emcee returns to end the story, we are brought back to the creepy cabaret, and we realize we've just spent an evening watching evil and doing nothing. Some of us may go further and think about all the evil we see on the evening news every night, and the trivial evils we see committed in the world every day. And we do nothing. And as we realize that, we become part of Cabaret. That's why the Emcee talks directly to us at the beginning and end of the show. The story may be set in Berlin in the 30s but this show, this performance of Cabaret, is here and now and tonight. We are part of what's going on and part of what's to be judged. After all, you can't sit and watch and do nothing, unless you're sitting and watching to begin with...
So I guess my point is that all meta-musicals are not created equal. When the meta-theatricality is the point, when the writers are lazy or bereft of any real ideas beyond mere self-reference, the joke wears thin pretty fast. When meta-theatricality is a tool to better illuminate an idea or central theme, that's smart, rich, interesting theatre. Even in 2011, people still tell me they don't like musicals (what most of them mean, of course, is that they don't like Rodgers and Hammerstein), and that musicals are dumb and trivial. Sure, [title of show] is, but Passing Strange, Chicago, Cabaret, Bat Boy, and Urinetown aren't.
Long Live the Musical!