The State of the Art

I had a really eye-opening experience a few days ago. I'm a member of a Facebook group called Forgotten Musicals. I had spent only a little time reading the posts in this group, but I mainly visited because there are some wonderful photos and posters of obscure musicals in their photo gallery.

So a few days ago, I posted in this group a link to my last blog post, which was essentially a list of ten really cool but less mainstream musicals that I think people ought to be aware of, shows like Bat Boy, Love Kills, High Fidelity, The Blue Flower, bare, A New Brain, Andrew Lippa's Wild Party, Passing Strange, and a few others. Mostly newer shows, but some older. I thought the Forgotten Musicals group would enjoy talking about these lesser known shows.

But the responses from this group really surprised me...

It turns out the group is less about obscure musicals and more about old obscure musicals. The last time I visited the group, they were talking about Drat! The Cat! (and yes, if you must know, I do own the cast recording on vinyl!)  But because I'm around the New Liners so much, I rarely talk to anyone anymore who still loves the older shows more than what's being written now.

And that really made me stop and think. I've written several blog posts over the last year or so about the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era. (And now here's another!) And yet, I don't dislike those old shows. I just find this moment in our art form's history so exciting and so transformative, and I guess my recent blog posts are my way of working through what I think about the fading away of the kind of musical I grew up on...

I'm pretty okay with it...

There were three categories of responses to my post in the Forgotten Musicals group. Some of them already knew the shows I was writing about and really hated them. I mean, Fucking Hated Them. Some of them just weren't interested because they really only like The Classics, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Jerry Herman, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, et al. Those folks wanted to know why there weren't more "traditional" shows on my list. We all know those, don't we? And they were offended at what they perceived to be a put-down of their classics. They seemed to feel like my blog post was forbidding them to love their favorite shows anymore. Which it wasn't. But a few in the group loved reading about these newer shows; they knew some of them, hadn't heard of others, and they enjoyed the optimism I expressed for the future of our art form.

It was the first time I really understood that there's a rift in the world of musical theatre lovers and practitioners right now, which I suppose is only natural at a time of change like this. (It happened in the late 60s/early 70s too.) My personal opinion, which I've stated here more than once, is that the classics are wonderful, some of them masterpieces, but they don't really speak to our world anymore. Their content, their conventions, their values, and often their musical language trap them in mid-20th century America, when the country was still as rural as it was urban, before rock and roll, before the Sexual Revolution. America is a different place now, and we're a different people. We even look different as a nation. And we're also different as an audience from what we once were -- today, American audiences are better educated, more sophisticated, more culturally literate, more ironic, and we consume a bigger variety of entertainment than ever before in our history. So we expect more from our culture than we used to, even if we don't consciously realize it. We expect complexity and irony and an acknowledgement of the darker side of life. We expect relevance. The old conventions just don't cut it anymore. You just can't put Babes in Arms in front of a contemporary audience without putting them to sleep or annoying them or both.

It was a sobering revelation for me, when I saw the revival of Rent a few weeks ago, to realize that even the still very relevant Rent is now a period piece! I saw the original right after it moved to Broadway in 1996, and now that makes me feel old. If Rent is getting old, what does that say about Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943)? That they are irrelevant museum pieces? Oh shit, I just said it again.

I still love listening to cast albums of Mame, Hello, Dolly!, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof. (Now that I think about it, though, I don't really listen much anymore to Rodgers and Hammerstein scores.) I still love those old shows and I still know most of their lyrics by heart, but for me they're the artistic equivalent of an eight-track tape player. It might still work, might still get the job done, but if your iPhone is handy, you'll probably pass by the eight-track, right?

I referred in my last book to people who think musical theatre should have stopped evolving in 1964, right after Fiddler on the Roof opened -- that was experiment enough! When I wrote about these folks, I meant it as a bit of a caricature to make a point. But I think some of the people who were upset by my blog post really would be just as happy if Lerner and Loewe and Jerry Herman were still writing musicals in exactly the same 1950s style.

My initial reaction to that is horror. How could they not want our art form to keep living and growing and evolving? The whole point of human storytelling -- and musical theatre as a subset of that -- is to understand ourselves and the world around us, to make order out of the chaos, to get at some truth about the human experience. Not the human experience sixty years ago, but today.

I think the difference between them and me is that they're looking back while I'm looking forward. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, but it does separate us. I'm lucky because I get to keep loving those old shows even though I prefer what's happening in our art form right now. I adore My Fair Lady, but if I have a choice between that and Bat Boy, I'll take Bat Boy.

Bat Boy is about the world we live in now, and I find that a lot more interesting and exciting than sitting through The Sound of Music yet again. As someone who has studied and analyzed both old and new musicals for my books, I can say this with confidence: by a lot of measures, many of them admittedly subjective, I honestly believe that the music, the lyrics, the storytelling, and the stagecraft in the musical theatre today is much stronger, more sophisticated, and more richly emotional than it was during the less daring "Golden Age." Essentially equivalent for their respective periods, Damn Yankees is inferior in nearly every way to Bat Boy. Musical comedy has evolved. And likewise, "Light My Candle" in Rent works so much better than the "Bench Scene" ("If I Loved You") in Carousel.  Maybe the Carousel scene worked awesomely in 1945, but "Light My Candle" works awesomely now.

I ultimately deleted my original post from the Forgotten Musicals group and all the comments with it. I guess that wanting to listen to Jerry Herman and Cole Porter all the time is no different substantively from wanting to listen to Beethoven and Bach all the time, right? It's just not my thing. I'd rather listen to Tom Kitt and Bill Finn and Andrew Lippa and Larry O'Keefe.

To each his own...

My iPhone has eighty cast albums loaded onto it at present, everything from Bat Boy and bare to My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly!, The Music Man, and Gypsy. I even have High Button Shoes loaded. I enjoy listening to those old shows, but they are from another time. That doesn't make them less good, but it does make them less interesting.

I don't mean to offend those who disagree with me. All of this is only my opinion, but it is informed by thirty years of making and writing musicals and fifteen years of writing about them. I am so thrilled when I see the future of our art form laid out in front of us, and for me, the past just can't compare. A few weeks ago, I saw five incredibly different, incredibly wonderful musicals in New York and it filled me with such optimism. Young people are turning on to musical theatre like they haven't in decades. Young writers are creating incredible new work. Famous pop and rock songwriters are turning to musical theatre projects more and more. We New Liners already have a list of 10-12 really cool new shows that we'd like New Line to produce in the coming seasons.

Our art form is at the peak of its powers. It has never been more alive or more forward moving. And I think that is cause for great joy, for continual celebration, and for a big, resounding Fuck Yeah!

Long Live the Musical!