Those Magic Changes

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals is my sixth book about musical theatre. But it's my first in the Facebook era. The world is changing. My publisher suggested that I create a Facebook page for the book, which I had never even considered before, but it's turned out very cool. Not only have I already picked up 380 "fans" (come join the fun!), but I'm also able to do things I've never done before with any of my other books...

Pretty much every day, I post to the Facebook page additional content related to my book. I've put up YouTube videos of the shows discussed in the book, some with performance footage, some with interviews with the creative staff and cast, as well as videos related to brand new rock musicals. I've put up essays I wrote about other rock musicals that didn't fit into the book. I'm occasionally posting links to my posts on this blog about working on the shows discussed in the book. I posted the original Playboy article that inspired The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which I discuss in the book. I created a photo album of posters of all the shows in the book, another album of production shots from New Line productions of the shows in the book, and another of posters from all the movies referenced in the opening song in The Rocky Horror Show.

The only thing missing so far is conversation -- it's an important one: where are we headed?

But I think that will come. I hope that as people read my book they'll feel comfortable posting about it on the Facebook page, not only if they love the book (which I hope is the case) but also if they disagree with conclusions I draw or opinions I posit. There's no better way to learn about your art form than to disagree about it with smart, interesting people and be forced to back up your opinions. And there's no better place to interact with cool, like-minded people from all over the country than on Facebook.

My real hope with this book -- and also my last book, Strike Up the Band -- is to change the conversation about the American musical theatre, and I hope the book's Facebook page will be one piece of that puzzle. I want theatre artists to understand and accept that the Rodgers and Hammerstein model is as outdated and irrelevant as operetta is; or if they don't agree with that proposition, to decide for themselves what of value the R&H model still holds for us. Can those shows be more than just museum pieces? Can they be changed enough, re-imagined for these times, as director Barlett Sher attempted with the recent South Pacific revival? But when they are, can that re-imagining really make shows from sixty or seventy years ago relevant again merely by imposing on them more contemporary acting and staging techniques?

I'm not advocating throwing all the older shows away. It's still fun to see Gone With the Wind once in a while, so it's likewise still fun to see an old 30s or 40s musical every once in a while -- just not the same four or five old shows year after year. And really, the Rodgers and Hammerstein model is so old itself that there are a lot of (what many would now consider) relatively old musicals that totally reject the R&H conventions. The brilliant current revival of Follies (1971) is a perfect example, but there's also Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, Chicago, Hair, Godspell, Pippin, The Fantasticks, How to Succeed, Promises, Promises, A Chorus Line, Company, and so many others, all older shows that are considered classics, but they're also all post-Rodgers and Hammerstein. That's how long it's been since R&H reigned supreme. America and the world changed forever during the 1960s, in massive ways, so most shows written before that carry very little resonance today; but many shows written during and after that time still speak to us.

But my primary agenda with this book is to demand respect for the rock musical. The genre has been with us since Expresso Bongo in London in 1958 and Hair in New York in 1967. For much of its early history, rock and roll was essentially the point of the rock musical. The whole idea of Jesus Christ Superstar was to tell this very old story through rock and roll, to emphasize the rebellion, the youth, and the politics of the movement around Jesus, to bring it into the present. The point of Grease and Hair was to reject traditional notions of what theatre music sounds like, to reject strings, to reject Rodgers and Hammerstein's ubiquitous foxtrot song form, to reject what older writers had decided was acceptable musical theatre, for a more raw, more culturally authentic sound. Rock musicals aimed to turn Broadway (and the musical theatre in general) into a new Wild West, artistically speaking. And they did. Almost all the rules changed. The rock musical as a genre sputtered briefly in the 1980s, when all of Broadway sputtered, back before shows were routinely created in regional theatres like they are today. But since the mid-1990s, the rock musical has thrived.

When I turned in my manuscript for Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals, my publisher asked another author in the field to read it and comment on it. To my great amusement and annoyance, this other author was horrified that I had included a chapter on Grease, and even more horrified that it's the longest chapter in my book. He complained, "Here is a case of not just putting lipstick on a pig, but Mascara, rouge, a Dior gown, and a Gucci bag as well, but no matter how Miller tries to puff it up into something really important and significant, in the end, Grease remains, certainly for me at least, the most trivial of the musicals he has chosen to write about."

That this author (and others like him) thinks Grease is trivial and not worth examination is precisely the reason I included it in my book and one of the reasons for the book as a whole. I think I make a pretty strong, well laid-out case in my book that Grease is far more than he (and the other R&H hangers-on) thinks it is. And it's my longest chapter partly because I knew I was fighting prejudice against the show but also because Grease really is about rock and roll and how it changed America, so a detailed musical analysis here (and also in my High Fidelity chapter) is more relevant than in any other chapter in the book. I quote the song "Those Magic Changes" at length because "Magic Changes" is explicitly about living your life to rock and roll -- in this case, the chord changes of rock and roll coupling with the physical and emotional changes of puberty -- and that's one the central points of the show, not to mention an incredibly authentic cultural commentary.

This guy also wrote in his review, "It is a perfectly fine for the author to introduce his overarching theme that rock is the now and future musical mode of musical theatre music (something I don’t personally agree with, but I can’t fault him for that). But I can and do fault him for his approach to this by offhandedly dismissing as passé and irrelevant the classic non-rock musicals that filled all the decades of the twentieth century. To do so makes the author look simply foolish, a little like a guy who trashes the entire history of conventional theatre from Aeschylus to Albee simply because he digs postmodern performance art."

No, to do so makes me look like I'm living in 2011 and not 1943.

His ignorance is stunning to me. He thinks my argument that the R&H model has become irrelevant is the equivalent of "trash[ing] the entire history of conventional theatre." Really? Rodgers and Hammerstein represent the entire history of theatre?? No, they don't. They represent a period of less than twenty years in the evolution of this art form that is over a century old -- a 20-year period, it's worth mentioning, that ended about fifty years ago.

And to equate Grease, Hair, Rocky Horror, and High Fidelity with "postmodern performance art" shows how little this guy understands both the rock musical and the contemporary, 21st century American musical theatre. And that's a big reason why I wanted to write my book, once and for all to take a serious, thoughtful, analytical look at these fascinating works and present a concrete case for their value as serious theatre. You'd think by now, with the Boomers nearing retirement age, that rock and roll would no longer be so casually disrespected. But it is.

I've noticed lately that almost every show New Line produces now is a rock musical. And even the shows that aren't full-blooded rock musicals use a fair amount of rock and roll, like The Wild Party and I Love My Wife. Why? Because that's where the art form is now in its evolution. I dearly love Hello, Dolly! but what does it have to do with America in 2011?  Nothing.  In contrast, Lysistrata Jones has everything to do with America in 2011.

There's a longstanding bias against musical theatre among theatre people who don't do musicals. And there's also a bias within the musical theatre community against rock musicals, even today after forty-three years of rock musicals on Broadway. And it all boils down to ignorance, often willful ignorance. That other author who reviewed my book read my chapter about Grease and still couldn't accept that there's anything of value there. It's like people on the far political Right in America today -- no amount of facts or evidence can change their mind because they're not interested in changing their mind.

Luckily, those who fetishize Rodgers and Hammerstein and denigrate rock musicals are almost uniformly older, with less and less influence over the art form as time goes on. Just as I'm on the cusp between the Baby Boomers and Generation X, I'm also on the cusp between those who grew up with Rodgers and Hammerstein and those who grew up with Hair and Grease and Rocky Horror (as I've discussed in another recent blog post). It's a cool vantage point from which to watch our amazing art form evolve. As we navigate this moment of massive change in American politics and culture, our art form will change and evolve with the country, recording and responding to each moment as it comes.

I've spent my life defending musical theatre, demanding of people that they take it seriously as an art form. Now my crusade shifts somewhat, with Facebook as a powerful ally, to battle against the ostrich-like nostalgia for an antiquated model and instead to stand up for the vigorous, adventurous, and relevant form of the rock musical.

When I see exciting new shows like Lysistrata Jones and The Blue Flower -- two shows that could not be more different from each other -- I know that my new crusade is worth it. Our art form is absolutely thriving and I honestly believe we're in the middle of a true Golden Age for the musical theatre. But we're not going to keep moving forward if people keep trying to hold us back...

Long Live the Rock Musical!