It was interesting being in New York this past week. Not just because I saw five really brilliant musicals and hung out with some of my favorite theatre people, but also because I can see so clearly the world of musical theatre fundamentally changing in front of me (mirroring, I think, our sociopolitical world), and that's so exciting to watch! We are at a historical turning point. It's part of what my last book is about. And I see these arguably massive changes happening in two areas -- the transition from the world that venerates Rodgers and Hammerstein to a new world that values originality and authenticity and relevance above all; and parallel to that, the widening gap between the commercial musical theatre world and the more artsy, more ballsy nonprofit musical theatre world.
The commercial theatre apparently doesn't have room in it for the miracle that is The Blue Flower (its run is being cut short by Second Stage), and that's a shame.
After I saw Follies last Friday night, I thought a lot about the Sondheim and Prince revolution of the 1970s and the mixed reception for Follies in 1971 -- it was too dark, too sad, too nihilistic, blah, blah, blah. Yet here is this forty-year-old show feeling as fresh today as any new work on Broadway. I think it's because the musical theatre is in a very dark, sometimes nihilistic period now, reflecting (as it always does) our real world. Think Urinetown, Bat Boy, American Idiot, Jersey Boys, Taboo, The Color Purple, The Scottsboro Boys, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson...
This new Follies, under Eric Schaeffer's loving and skillful hand, is darker than any Follies I've ever seen before, darker I think than even the original. And the acting is much more raw, more naked, much closer to the bone. Heavier. If you ever want to see a Sondheim show done really right, this is it. I recently wrote a letter to Sondheim, asking him if he'd let New Line take a stab at the original version of Merrily We Roll Along, because I think its relentless darkness (not to mention its structural rebellion) is finally right at home in the contemporary musical theatre. (Sondheim said no, which I totally understand.)
Many folks will bitch and moan about how dark the musical theatre has gotten (they wouldn't like Bonnie & Clyde much) and they'll pine for the days of Damn Yankees and Mame. These are the folks who don't want our art form to keep moving forward, to stay fresh and relevant, to mirror the world around us as the musical theatre always has. They think musical theatre should have stopped evolving a few decades ago. They think the pinnacle of the art form is the Rodgers and Hammerstein model, so our rejection of that model today seems like a tragedy to them. This is the same sort who denounced the rock musical as the ruination of the art form in the 70s.
I bet it drove them crazy when Rent and Next to Normal won Pulitzer Prizes...
But "these are very difficult and dangerous times" we're living through right now. America is having a nervous breakdown of sorts (which I think is what makes Follies, Bonnie & Clyde, and The Blue Flower, not to mention Next to Normal, so potent right now) and is redefining itself in so many fundamental ways. Lysistrata Jones really struck me as a compelling exploration of this new America 2.0, a neo-musical comedy with its very racially integrated cast (mirroring the real-world "browning of America"), its strong hip-hop influences, and its joyous reclaiming of what made the American musical comedy such a cultural juggernaut a century ago -- the brashness, the aggressiveness, the vulgarity, the playfulness, and the sly cultural criticism that goes all the way back to the father of the American musical, George M. Cohan, who was literally inventing the American musical comedy exactly a century ago. Just as the classic musical comedy was once replaced by the modern musical drama, then the concept musical, then the pop opera, then the more cynical postmodern musical, now those forms are giving way to the neo-musical comedy (some of which are also postmodern musicals) and the now fully mature rock musical.
No more are musicals required to imitate the "well-made play" that came over from Europe in the nineteenth century. No more do musicals suffer their uncomfortable relationship with "the Fourth Wall," imposed on them by the disciples of the European Enlightenment; musicals don't do naturalism very well and it's silly to make them try. No more do musicals aspire to the form of grand opera, which was endowed with some faux superiority during the 20th century. No more are musicals in a choke-hold to middle-class, 20th century morality, as encoded in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon -- now characters in musicals can say fuck and shit just like real people do. Now musicals can talk about sex openly, without clumsy metaphor or awkward euphemism.
There's a whole new generation of artists creating new musicals now and they don't suffer from the hang-ups and nostalgia the Boomers inherited from the Depression Generation. I find that I can't watch Lysistrata Jones or The Blue Flower without feeling overwhelming joy and optimism for the future of my art form.
And finally, for the first time in its history, the musical theatre is no longer defined by commercial success. Now there are literally hundreds of musicals being written and produced all over our country every year (try a Google search and prepare to have your mind blown). The monopoly is broken. The requirement that a musical be inoffensive enough to appeal to the least literate tourist is dead. Today the most exciting shows to open on Broadway do not start there. Of the five shows I saw in New York last week, Follies started at the nonprofit Kennedy Center in DC; Lysistrata Jones was first produced by the nonprofit Dallas Theatre Center and then by The Transport Group in the nonprofit Gym at Judson down in Greenwich Village (where some of the coolest experiments of the 1960s and 70s happened); Bonnie & Clyde started at the nonprofit La Jolla Playhouse in California; and both The Blue Flower and Rent were playing off Broadway houses, one of which is nonprofit.
Today, commercial viability isn't always the central concern for people creating new shows. The art form itself has finally become more important than its commercial prospects. That's partly a product of history -- in the first half of the 20th century, Broadway really was the only place to produce a new musical, and for much of the second half of the century, new musicals had only Broadway and off Broadway as options. But since the "new wave" of the 1990s (with New Line Theatre at the forefront, by the way), nonprofit "art" musical theatre has steadily grown in power and influence across our country and now rivals New York's commercial theatre, offering an alternative to Broadway and touring shows for millions of theatre-goers. High Fidelity, bare, and Passing Strange were all rejected by New York's commercial theatre but are now being embraced all over America by the nonprofit theatre world.
Money no longer drives the musical theatre. Now the artists do.
Come join the Revolution!
Don't get me wrong -- Broadway does still hold some magic for me. But we're not living in the 1950s anymore, when Broadway was the only game in the country (in the world?) for a musical theatre artist. If some New York producer called me tomorrow and wanted to produce Johnny Appleweed or wanted me to direct a revival of Bat Boy (that's our 2006 production in the photo), I doubt I'd be able to say no. But until that day comes, I get to keep doing the most exciting work of my life -- working with amazing artists on amazing shows like Passing Strange, Love Kills, High Fidelity, bare, The Wild Party, The Robber Bridegroom, Forbidden Planet, the masterpiece that is Bat Boy, and so many others that the moneyed folks in New York would never let me produce there.
And that's alright, to quote Stew...
Long Live the Musical!