Simple

I was watching one of the videos on our YouTube channel the other day, a song called "Simple."

Way back in 2001, New Line Theatre produced Stephen Sondheim's flawed but awesome 1964 musical Anyone Can Whistle. It's a show with a lot of problems, but that's not necessarily a disqualifier for us. If a show is significantly more interesting than it is flawed, we'll consider it. After all, we also produced The Nervous Set, probably the the most flawed show we've done, but also a really interesting one.

The basic story of Anyone Can Whistle, if you don't know it, is pretty crazy. We're in a town that has gone bankrupt because its only industry is manufacturing something that never wears out. In order to revive her town, the corrupt Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper and her town council fake a miracle -- water flowing from a rock -- to attract tourists. When patients at the local mental hospital, the Cookie Jar, escape and mix with the townspeople and pilgrims, chaos and hilarity ensue. Somehow, Sondheim and bookwriter Arthur Laurents also managed to shoehorn a love story in as well (their biggest mistake, I think), between J. Bowden Hapgood, a psychiatrist who nobody knows is actually a new patient, and Fay Apple, a nurse at the Cookie Jar who disguises herself as a miracle verifier sent from Lourdes -- and we find out Fay can only make love when she's in costume. Okay. Can they save the town? Will anyone care?

Whistle was not just breaking the rules of traditional musical comedy, it was thumbing its nose at them -- and, unfortunately, also at its audience. I think today's audiences would accept it much more willingly, though maybe still not on Broadway (we saw the fate of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). This was a neo musical comedy, decades before anyone was ready for it.

But as I said, the love story still needs to go. In 1964, everyone thought a musical had to have a love story. Now we know better.

In addition to the outrageous subject matter and razor sharp political satire, the three-act show also included a ground-breaking, thirteen-minute integrated musical sequence, ironically called "Simple," that ended the first act, in which Hapgood is tasked at figuring out who in the line of pilgrims is sane and insane. We figure out pretty quickly that he has no intention of actually doing that. Hapgood isn't the preserver of order; he's an agent of chaos. My favorite.

Here is New Line's 2001 cast performing "Simple." Make sure you watch all the way to the end...


It's not so hard to imagine an audience in 2013 accepting this, even loving it. But in 1964, audiences weren't used to being so directly challenged in this way. Today, this scene and much of the show would sit comfortably next to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Spring Awakening, Bat Boy, Urinetown, American Idiot, and even Sondheim's much later show Assassins.

Part of what's so unusual about this scene -- and the show -- is that it's absurdist. The song plays very much like Ionesco's iconic absurdist masterpiece Rhinoceros, but with a pronounced self-aware, meta-layer that gives everything a sly, smartass hint of irony. Just think about the song's title, after watching that crazy, eighteen-minute number. This song is anything but simple, and its content is anything but simple. And Hapgood's straight-faced promises that all this (race, politics, the Sexual Revolution) is simple, even as he demonstrates that it's not, makes it all even funnier. At the same time, 1964 audiences would probably have a cynical distrust of psychiatry, and this song subliminally confirmed their assumptions that it was all bullshit. Though the title is a joke, it's also got layers of meaning. Surely this is Broadway's most ironic song title ever.

... at least until "A Call from the Vatican."

Very few musicals have ever been absurdist. The only other exceptions I can think of are Promenade, Urinetown, Bukowsical, and my own musical, Johnny Appleweed. Because absurdism is such an intellectual form and musical theatre is such an emotional form, they don't usually fit together very well. So Whistle and the shows I just mentioned all have essentially unemotional scores. Music is used differently here, not for emotional texture. Whistle tries to "fix" that with its love story and some gorgeous Sondheim ballads, but in the end, we just get a Frankenstein's monster, neither emotionally fulfilling or intellectually coherent. The same might have been true of Cabaret, two years later, but that show found a way to better integrate its disparate parts, and the recent revivals have solved that problem even more fully.

Another part of what's so groundbreaking about "Simple" is its length and structure. It's a full scene, created back in 1964 when musical scenes were almost all Rodgers & Hammerstein love songs, almost always between the two leads. (Remember, this is also the year Fiddler on the Roof, the last of the R&H-style hits, opened.) "Simple" is something fundamentally different. Not only does the scene move the action forward in a big way, and tackle some Really Big Ideas (racism, gender roles, psychiatry, war, taxation, you name it), but it also uses music to a degree that few scores do. A big part of the comedy here comes from the music itself.

As groundbreaking as it was, its influence was minimal at the time because the show was such a flop. But we have learned its lessons today, and you can see scenes just like this -- and every bit as good -- in Bat Boy, A New Brain, Urinetown, Rent, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, Next to Normal, Lippa's Wild Party, and all throughout bare. Part of the reason we've learned all this is because Sondheim kept working at these ideas, and continued to explore them in Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park, and Passion. And other artists did too, in shows like Grand Hotel and Dreamgirls.

Here's another New Line clip, the act one finale of Cry-Baby, an arguable companion piece to "Simple," the hilarious but subtextually very serious (and very political) "You Can't Beat the System."



The writers accomplish so much storytelling in this scene, along with some foreshadowing, some killer jokes, a great plot cliffhanger, and a whole shitload of social satire.

And here's "You Don't Know" and "I Am the One" from New Line's Next to Normal. This is a more serious scene than "Simple," but notice how fully realized this storytelling is. Like "Simple," there's so much going on here. This isn't two lovers shyly working up to saying I love you; this is much more complicated. This is about parallels, relationships, textual and musical themes, foreshadowing, revelations, choices. This scene is a descendant of R&H but by way of Sondheim.


Can anyone doubt that we're in a new Golden Age of American musical theatre?

I don't think so.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

0 comments: