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!


Cara | December 16, 2011 at 4:47 PM

I'm not against the old stuff either. I occasionally love to see a production of a "classic" but I agree that we can't stop evolving. I think there's a balance. If we stop having new material we'll never see anything but shows from 30, 40, or 50 (or longer) ago. And that won't work. Do they still want to be driving a '57 Chevy? With never a new vehicle in site? I think not.
There's room for an oldies station on the radio, and an 80s station on the radio, and a current hits station. Sometimes you want a classic, sometimes you want something new a fresh.
BTW, I saw a producation of Bat Boy last year. It was amazing and hilarious. My friend and I still run around saying "You can't raise cows on the side of a mountain!" and "Sweet Wounded Jesus!" randomly. :)

SamCCT | December 30, 2011 at 11:57 AM

I don't disagree with any of the objective substance of your piece, but It does seem to completely dismiss the classics as attractive, but irrelevant museum pieces. True classics (including those still viewed by millions of all ages in art museums)are always "relevant" because they have discovered, revealed, and explored something universal about the human condition. That is as true of My Fair Lady as it is of Beethoven's late string quartets, Monet's Water Lillies, Shakespeare's best plays, and surely some of the newest musicals. The issue is more complex than you allow for.

Scott Miller | December 30, 2011 at 12:24 PM

To a limited extent, I agree with you, Sam. But it's not these shows' universal themes that I'm talking about. I'm talking about the form, the musical language, the conventions, and most notably, the values system that is laid on TOP of those universal themes. All that stuff makes it harder for a contemporary audience to get at the universal themes. How many people listened to a Beethoven string quartet today? Or looked at Monet's Water Lilies? Probably close to zero. (And I'd ask, what universal human truth either of those reveals, as you suggest they do?) On the other hand, how many listened to "Rent" today...?

As for Shakespeare... which do you think a normal, contemporary audience would enjoy and connect with more -- Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story? La Boheme or Rent? Lysistrata or Lysistrata Jones? You're right that the universal themes matter, but so do the style, music, language, conventions, socio-political context, and so much more.

SamCCT | January 1, 2012 at 12:20 PM

Scott, we come at this from very different points of focus. Your main interest seems to be that works communicate easily and directly to audiences; mine is bringing audiences to understand and be affected by the intrinsic value of a work of art. Would Bat Boy (which I loved in your production) or any of your other favorites be less wonderful if there were little or no audience for them? Of course, you know that just because it is difficult or, even, impossible to put into words the meaning of a piece of music or visual art doesn’t mean it isn’t there or that people hearing or seeing them don’t or can’t get it anyway. I believe that one of the most important purposes of art is to allow the artist to communicate in his or her own medium and own time to audiences everywhere and at any time his or her unique experience(s) in perceiving life and nature. I don’t think either of us believe that popularity or fashion determines quality in art. However, you do underestimate the degree of popularity of the classics. Millions of people attend classical concerts, operas, ballets, art exhibits, etc. Last year, the Metropolitan Opera sold 2.6 million tickets for its live HD broadcasts around the world. Right here in St. Louis, in fact, Powell Hall was nearly full for the New Year’s Eve concert last night, OTSL is selling lots of tickets, and the Monet Water Lillies exhibit has been selling out at the Art Museum since October where they expect more than 100,000 to attend by the time it closes later this month. We probably will not agree about this, and we certainly won’t live to find out; but I expect Romeo and Juliet, La Boheme, and Lysistrata are much more likely to still be performed in 500 years than the more recent works you list. In fact, you already consider the Bernstein and Larson works old fashioned. We just have different philosophies about art; I think we are both right. I hope you agree that is possible.

Scott Miller | January 1, 2012 at 1:22 PM

Sam, you keep making assumptions about me that aren't true. When did I ever say that works by Bernstein or Larson are old-fashioned??? I have no idea where you got that. I actually made exactly the opposite point in regard to Rent...

And luckily, West Side Story was written without most of the musical theatre devices of its era, and with a made-up slang that also doesn't really date.

Likewise, when did I ever say theatre should be "easy"??? If I thought that, we would not produce Love Kills, The Wild Party, Jacques Brel, The Nervous Set, Passing Strange, Hedwig...

Would my favorite shows be less wonderful if there were no audience for them? Well, yes, of course they would. The point of theatre is communicating with an audience. If the audience isn't there, it's not theatre; it's masturbation.

The job of an artist is NOT to reach "audiences everywhere and at any time" -- if that's his goal, he'll fail. The job of an artist is to make order out of the chaos of our world. But the world of 1943 is not the world of 2012. Oklahoma! served its audiences well by helping them understand our country's difficult evolution from rural isolation to urban communities. That's not something America is going through now, so Oklahoma! doesn't give us much insight into what's going on in our world today.

On the other hand, Hair, West Side Story, and Rent all deal with specific circumstances that are still largely unchanged in America, so they remain relevant. If we ever solve the problems of race, war, the War on Drugs, our hang-ups about sex, etc., then Hair will no longer be relevant. If we erase urban gang violence and racial prejudice, West Side Story will no longer be relevant.

And in response to all your statistics, I'll bet more people listened to or saw Rent in 2011 then La Boheme... Just sayin'.

Will Rent be performed 500 years from now? I couldn't care less...

SamCCT | January 1, 2012 at 3:31 PM

Scott, I'm sorry to have been presumptuous. You have called Rent "a period piece," and West Side Story is certainly an example of naturalism in musical theater, which you defined as old-fashioned in your piece on R&H. There is a difference between the job of an artist and the purpose of art. I agree with your description of the job but don't feel it is at odds with my description of ONE of the purposes. I hope you don't find it presumptuous if I suggest that you value relevance over quality; that is just what I garner from what I've read of your blogs. My value is the opposite which leads me to believe that it does matter what will last and why. I know it makes me old, but I am of a generation that values the past as something as important to understand and as relevant as the present. When we experience Oklahoma, we learn something about being alive in the mid '40's and an understanding of how our culture developed from there to where we find ourselves. To me, that is highly relevant. It is the quality of R&H's work that allows it to still communicate that relevance and a production's job to make that happen.

Scott Miller | January 1, 2012 at 4:27 PM

Once again you make assumptions and once again you step right in it. I do NOT value relevance over quality.

Quality is necessary but not sufficient.

There's a lot more to art than whether it's made well. If it doesn't speak to us, it's worthless to us. Those who lived during the Rodgers and Hammerstein era may still be comfortable with their relentless foxtrots and homespun lyrics, but most of us who grew up in the post-1950s world find that music boring and old-fashioned. We find the practice of "scenes in one" to take up time during lengthy scene changes boring. We find the arch language of "People Will Say in Love" more than a bit silly...

No one sitting in a seat in a darkened theatre gives a rat's ass whether people 500 years from now will be venerating the show that's about to begin.

I agree that the past is important to understand and the events of the past can be relevant sometimes. That's why Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Love Kills are so wonderful. But irrelevant, outdated forms and conventions can really get in the way of relevant content...

Oh, one more thing... if you think West Side Story is naturalistic, you need to buy a new dictionary. I don't know many gang members who dance ballet in the streets, do you...? :)

SamCCT | January 1, 2012 at 5:17 PM

The ballets in WSS are more naturalistic than those in Oklahoma; former present what audiences are meant to accept as what is really happening in the moment while the latter are dream sequences. Then there is all the Heaven and dead-return -to-Earth stuff in Carousel. So, maybe at least some of R&H is less naturalistic than WSS.

Scott Miller | January 1, 2012 at 5:24 PM

And Gilbert and Sullivan were less rock and roll than Rodgers and Hammerstein. But that doesn't make Rodgers and Hammerstein particularly rock and roll.

There is nothing naturalistic about either dream ballet you mention. Literally nothing. Dreams and ballet are both utterly non-naturalistic to begin with, so combining them makes them doubly non-naturalistic.