There are a lot of people working in the musical theatre today who don't respect the musical theatre.
I can't count how many productions of musicals I've seen over the years for which the director has clearly not even tried to find truthfulness or insight in the show, much less textual themes, in-depth characters and relationships, social and historical context, and all that other great stuff that makes a great musical a great musical. It's like a peanut M&M that's nothin' but the candy coating. Even the more lightweight shows like Hello, Dolly!, No, No, Nanette, and Anything Goes have interesting subtext and cultural context worth exploring. Too many directors (and designers and actors) think working on a musical is a vacation; they can turn their brains off because they're sure their audience will turn theirs off as well. These theatre artists will never give The Music Man or Cabaret or Rent the same effort or the same thought they would give to Death of a Salesman or August: Osage County.
And that makes me crazy. Audiences deserve better.
Actor Larry Luckinbill once wrote to me (I know I quote this all the time, but bear with me), "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it." And you know, he's right. Audiences aren't idiots. And, as I often argue, people don't want "escape;" that's just a lazy assumption. They want connection. And real connection can only come from Truth. When will theatre artists learn that?
Sometimes it's hard for me to see productions of musicals because I have high expectations, and quite often, I already know the show and love it and have thought about it, maybe even written about it. So when directors or actors take a show I know is great and treat it like it's nothing more than a mediocre sitcom, it genuinely upsets me. It hurts me. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it's true.
I've seen directors add whole new scenes and sometimes songs from movie versions to musicals -- without permission of course, since they could never get permission to do that -- and also without any regard for what they're doing to the material. I've seen productions in which the director has literally written in new jokes -- yes, new dialogue. I want to ask these presumptuous directors, Do you really think you know better than Stephen Sondheim -- or Lerner and Loewe, or Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Kander and Ebb -- how to make a piece of musical theatre?
And then there are the productions that are crammed full of comic schtick that has nothing to do with the characters, the story, the dialogue, or the themes, but they shoehorn it in anyway because they think it'll get a laugh. You know what else will get a laugh? That cat trapped in the hamster ball on YouTube. Surely, the bar's not that low, is it? Anything for a laugh? Once in a while, when I disagree with a piece of business an actor wants to add in a show, their response will be, "But it's funny!" And I'll reply, "Yes it is. If we were doing a sketch comedy show, you could keep it. But we're not."
Because you know what's funniest of all...? The Truth. Think about it -- the funniest jokes, shows, movies are built on the two commandments of good comedy. It has to be a surprise, and it has to reveal something truthful. Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. That's a joke about the human predilection to complicate the world. The obvious answer doesn't occur to us because we immediately search for a more complicated answer. And then we hear the punchline and we laugh because we notice ourselves caught in that bad habit. It's truthful. And we recognize that on a subconscious level so we laugh.
Now, none of this musical theatre molestation I'm complaining about is malicious. In fact, I think most of these directors never even think about subtextual character detail or the story's socio-political context when they're working on a musical. Which, I believe, is the problem. (For example, Hello, Dolly!, No, No, Nanette, and Anything Goes all have relevant cultural contexts that shape both the characters and the narrative.) And even though these "offenses" I cite make a production inferior in my eyes, there will always be people who still think the show is wonderful for whatever reasons. But I genuinely believe that those people would think it was even more wonderful if it was done more authentically.
Here's a case in point. There's a local production of Godspell going on right now that everybody is raving about. The reviews are great and word-of-mouth is great. Everybody's talking about how charming and entertaining it is. But I just can't go see it. Why? Because they tell me that the director has redistributed all the lines and songs at random. In other words, she's short-circuited all the character development in the script. Yes, Godspell is built to accommodate quite a bit of improv inside the parable stories, so each production is different and always tuned into the pop cultural zeitgeist, but the show was not meant to be rewritten. You have to wonder if this director would have randomly reassigned the lines in You Can't Take It With You or Aracdia... Probably not.
Broadway composer Charles Strouse once wrote, "Throughout history, the strongest drives in human beings are the seeking of food, shelter, sex, and the rewriting of someone else's musical."
But it shouldn't be that way. When done respectfully and intelligently, Godspell develops each character in the show very carefully and very subtly, through what they say, which songs they sing, which parables they narrate, which characters they play in the parables, etc. Just as in any well-made play, we get to know these characters by observing them and listening to them. We watch their various relationships with Jesus develop over the first act and into the second act, so that when the second act turns dark and dramatic, there's an enormous emotional payoff because we know these characters so well. When all that is set up right, the show's ending is shattering. But when all the lines and songs are scrambled together -- apparently, all the women sing "Turn Back, O Man" in this production -- then this carefully constructed collection of individuals becomes just a bunch of talented actors having fun. That's not theatre; that's show choir. In reassigning "Turn Back, O Man," the song loses its slyly ironic double-edge (the temptress warning Jesus not to give in to temptation) and the show loses its "loose woman" character (the Mary Magdalene stand-in) who tempts Jesus; and so both that temptation and the later redemption of the "loose woman" get lost.
Why would someone do this to Godspell? Either because they think it doesn't matter or they just didn't bother to notice all of that is in there. And so I can't go see it. Because I love this show, and I'm freakishly transparent, so if I hate this sliced-and-diced Godspell, everyone will know I hated it, and then I'll feel guilty about hating it... and so it goes...
And what bugs the fuck outta me is that I know this director is good; I know she directs non-musicals with sensitivity and intelligence. And she's also a playwright -- how would she feel about someone rewriting a show she had written? But I guess musicals are the Rodney Dangerfield of the theatre world. Theatre with music has been the norm for most of the history of theatre, and it's only very recently in our history that we've come to the bizarre, topsy-turvy conclusion that theatre with music is somehow less "legitimate" than theatre without music. How did that happen? I've actually had theatre artists in town tell me to my face that musical theatre isn't "real theatre." They're just lucky I'm more Zen-like than I used to be, thanks to my prodigious cannabis consumption...
So why are theatre people taught -- consciously or unconsciously -- to think less of musical theatre than of theatre that lacks music? Certainly musical theatre is harder to do well from a purely practical standpoint, and it requires more skill and training. Musical theatre has been around longer than theatre that lacks music. And while there are certainly some dumb musicals, there are just as many dumb plays. So why is there this inexplicable bias?
Now to be fair, I have not seen this particular Godspell, so it may well be very entertaining and a lot of fun. I imagine audiences will have a great time seeing it. I'm not denigrating the production or the cast, but I am saying they shouldn't have rewritten it, that it's a better, smarter piece of theatre than this director gives it credit for.
Though I didn't intend this, my life and my career in the theatre has become a never-ending campaign to get some respect for my art form. That's why I write my books, why I write essays about all our shows, why I write this blog, why I post so much to New Line's Facebook page, to prove to people that musicals are worthy of respect. And most of the time, once they see that, they're converted for life.
"One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!" -- John 9:25
It's often a very dramatic conversion for actors in their first New Line show when they see how deep we dig down into every musical we produce and how much fuller that makes their performance. It opens their eyes to how rich and complex many musicals really are -- especially shows usually looked down upon, like Grease, Rocky Horror, Hair -- in ways that most people never even considered. My new book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals, has chapters on all three of those shows. I promise you'll be amazed at what's there...
"Our eyes are open,
Our eyes are open,
Wide, wide, wide..."
-- "Walking in Space," from Hair
It's usually a pretty cool ride for an actor working with us for the first time, discovering that seriousness of purpose behind even our wackiest shows, finding that fearless but intensely truthful New Line style -- what the creators of Bat Boy call "the depth of sincerity, the height of expression" -- and discovering just what is possible in the musical theatre. I call it "jumping off the cliff," when you just let loose and go for it, and fearlessly let the work carry you wherever it goes. It's artistic hang-gliding. It's that same thrill I got last week in New York, seeing The Blue Flower, Lysistrata Jones, Bonnie & Clyde, Follies, and Rent. All of these productions take the art form seriously, understand its power and its endless possibilities, and all of them have come up with fearless, original, thrilling work.
Imagine if the Rent revival had reassigned all the lines and songs at random...
But having this deeper awareness, this richer vision of musical theatre and all its possibilities makes it harder to watch mediocre productions of musicals, even when they're well-intentioned. Once your eyes are opened, you can't close them again. You go see a mediocre show and all you can see are the missed opportunities, the lack of understanding, the timidity of the commitment.
On the flipside, when I see something really wonderful and surprising, like Next to Normal, American Idiot, The Scottsboro Boys, or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, I get twice the joy the guy next to me gets, because on top of the great show everybody else is watching, I also see all the glorious detail work, I tune in to the rich textual and musical themes the writers poured their souls into, the carefully built interior rhymes, the elegant geometry of good staging, the subtle nuances of character, the set-up and payoff of narrative themes...
It's a blessing and a curse. I'm so tuned into all that now, after years of directing shows and writing my books and essays -- and writing a few musicals myself -- that I see much more than most people sitting around me. So a mediocre show becomes even more annoyingly mediocre but a really great show becomes utterly transcendent. And that's a fair trade-off. And meanwhile, I'll do my best to show other people how to see all that wonderful stuff too.
Here endeth the rant.
Long Live the Musical!
A post-script on April 3... the production of Godspell I describe above won the 2012 Kevin Kline Award for Outstanding Direction of a Musical. And that says pretty much everything you need to know about the Kevin Kline Awards...