As we’re living through a volatile and crazy political period, we’re likewise experiencing a certain all-bets-are-off period in the American musical theatre, at least with regard to what’s getting produced in New York City’s major venues. The difference is, while there’s lots of spirited debate, there’s no apparent toxicity of spirit among the contenders; just a lot of different viewpoints competing for the patron’s theatrical dollar. All the musicals seem to be by people of good will doing good work—with, just for this paragraph, “good” limited to meaning industrious, professional-minded, well-intended, sharply delivered, respectable and eminently watchable. None of which is to be confused or automatically equated with work that actually works. There, mileage varies. We’ll discuss other qualities in a bit.
But now there’s a falloff. After the crunch of openings and high expectations, some musicals are (for now) left running and looking healthy. Others, not so much.
Now, before I continue, I need to say something unequivocally and emphatically: the development of musical theatre absolutely thrives on experimentation. Shows that are fundamentally (if unwittingly) built not to be commercial hits can prove hugely influential as far as style and technique and how narrative is delivered. (The late Martin Gottfried once posited that Pacific Overtures had more ripple effect upon the craft than the megahit A Chorus Line, which opened the same season. With the hindsight of 40 years, I think he had a point; A Chorus Line could only be a “group therapy” distillation; but Pacific Overtures demonstrated how a cinematic sweep of multiple storylines might be handled. You tell me what’s more useful to have in the tool kit.)
But with that established, there are certain universal verities common to most musicals that enter the repertoire of shows that endure. Among them is having a larger-than-life, pro-active central figure on a quest, like John Adams or Mama Rose; or at the very least, like Tevye, trying to hold to a code forspiritual survival in the face of change that is forcing him to constantly adjust.
Once in a while, a show can effect a variation: in the aforementioned A Chorus Line, the gestalt of the group becomes a collective larger-than-life hero because everybody wants the same thing, which is central to why you get thematic unity and avoid narrative sprawl. But basically it honors the essential parameters.
Another quality that it helps to have in a musical is command of traditional craft. Understanding of song forms, of subtext, of how theatre songs work—of the importance of perfect rhyme. (Aside from all the things perfect rhyme can add to character and tone, there’s this: when it’s absent, the audience subconsciously understands that verbal wit—which I distinguish from clever lines, here and there, and don’t define as only wordplay, but rather as a tool for character revelation and insight—will not be a component of the evening, and they simply stop listening carefully. Because of course, when the edge of the tool is blunted, they don’t have to. 95% of the time, and that’s conservative, when wit is absent, subtext is absent, which means characters just sing baldly about what they’re feeling; there are no deeper levels of human experience, and the audience never gets to engage and discover. Almost always, the song that makes the audience realize as it progresses, is more effective than the song that simply tells. (Traditional song-craft and subtext, however, are the features that can most be removed from the equation. I’ll get back to that.)
You also need to know where the songs go and what they’re doing for a living, in terms of revealing character, amplifying theme and moving story forward. You can’t be rigidly formulaic about this, there’s often much experimentation in process (hence the existence of trunk songs), although craft gives you some guidelines, and experience sharpens your sensitivity. But when all is said and done, the score should reflect the tentpole moments of the journey.
Finally, there’s breeding. Training. Study. Analysis. Deconstruction. Entering the field knowing the classics, knowing the scores, knowing what came before. Periodically, either because the powers-that-be assemble them, or because writers from other disciplines are inspired to moonlight, shows are produced with scores by writers who have none of this in their command. At best, the score-writers like and admire musicals, but haven’t really “cracked the books” and done the homework. These folks just bring their native talent to the party, and their producers/enablers revel in the glory of new voices that haven’t been culled from the same old watering holes. And—up to a point—fair enough. But if there’s not someone else in a key position on the team, whose experience and authority can take up the slack—say, the librettist or the director—well, I’ll get back to that too.
Okay; let’s tick off the season’s new musicals (I’m not including the Broadway transfer of Hamilton, even though it’ll likely clean up at the Tonys, because that show actually debuted last season at the Public).
School of Rock, the slacker’s answer to The Music Man. It hits all the requirements, from the hero to the well-structured story to the songs in exactly the right spots doing exactly the right work. Boom: a hit.
Dear Evan Hansen—through a series of unforeseeable circumstances, a pathologically shy high school kid finds himself in the center of a social media phenomenon; and the deeper he gets, with the best of intentions, the harder it becomes to tell the truth: that the basis for his popularity is a lie. Story beautifully crafted, score right on point with a confluence of theatrical craft and contemporary pop styling appropriate to the narrative, a hero who grows into his larger-than-lifeness. A sellout before it opened on at Second Stage and instantly announced as a Broadway transfer for next season. Boom: a hit.
Bright Star, a southern style family drama. Country songs in a score that makes a simplistic, frontal push-ahead; but the characters seem not to need the extra layering; and there was veteran director Walter Bobbie, telling the songwriter-dramatists what they had to solve, how a later moment had to be prepared for earlier, how to make what they did well hang together in a theatrical context. Main character you care to invest in, check; well-structured story, check. Boom: a hit.
Waitress: To my taste, this one’s “on the bubble” just a bit. It comes with the publicity cache of being the first Broadway musical ever with a completely female creative team, and it musicalizes a chick-flick whose story has a lot of appeal for an audience of women yearning for that kind of story in their musical theatre fare. But the source screenplay is fairly sound, the adaptation is skilled, the songs (although they mostly amplify points of emotional arrival rather than take the story forward) are in the right spots, director Diane Paulus’ track record seems to indicate that she’s a dab hand at structure; another main character with enough drive and uniqueness to carry a musical narrative and give it muscle…Boom. A (probable) hit.
Now let’s examine what’s fallen by the wayside.
I hasten to add here, this has nothing to do with whether or not you may have happened to like these, or even whether or not you were in an audience that seemed highly appreciative. (That can be deceptive in subtle ways that are fodder for a whole other article.) It doesn’t even have to do with reviews; there were enough positive ones. This has to do with the general perspective that forms the premise of this article. Because that perspective informs the general audience “takeaway”—communicated via word of mouth and social media—that either inspires or discourages attendance by others.
American Psycho. Story of an upscale, trendy executive in the late 80s, whose boredom, disaffection and jealousy releases a homicidal rage. Opening moments start out very effectively. We get the tone, the gist, the satirical bent, the theme, it’s all delivered very efficiently, and Benjamin Walker in the title role nails it very efficiently.
And then the show can’t sustain its promise.
The creative team are musical theatre renegades purposefully eschewing the traditional, without quite understanding that the traditional isn’t a chain to the past, it’s a tool kit (perhaps without even understanding what the traditional, literally, is, although not knowing the team, I can only wonder, not assert).
In any event, many of the songs of American Psycho are not in places where they would do the most dramatic good; some are used as commentary and underscoring; and often, popular songs of the period are interpolated, so in addition to an original score that seems randomly applied, there’s a jukebox score helping to dilute whatever the point is, adding only to the intended overview of cynicism…with the result that you’re not only at arm’s length emotionally, but given the sensation of watching something that is less a musical than an ever-expanding music video.
Tuck Everlasting is a somewhat sadder case. It’s a sweet adaptation of a sweet, popular fantasy novel; but it doesn’t come off as a purposeful adaptation. Too many main characters have equal weight; the purported main character (an 11 year old girl who discovers an immortal family, and the secret of their longevity, living in the nearby woods) doesn’t sufficiently drive the story; whatever the theme of the evening is, doesn’t get cleanly articulated or implied at the start; and the very magic that we’re told is part of the story seems to be missing. It all feels simultaneously too slight and too earthbound; the score is craftsmanlike and attractive, but doesn’t, on aggregate, seem to be in pursuit of anything. As if nobody made the creative team answer some essential questions at the start, and everybody got used to “pleasant” and “good enough to hold stage.”
There’s no way these shows were not going to close early. Shows that miss this many marks always close early, no matter how good the production values and how talented the people involved. What’s frustrating is that this didn’t have to be their fate. Both were eminently transformable, but only before irrevocably committing to their final path; and possibly only at the beginning of development. Those first steps are the crucial ones. How a musical defines the territory it’ll stake out as its own is vitally important. And once you commit to an under-informed path, unless you’re willing (and able, show-budget-wise) to recognize the wall before you hit it, regroup, blow your baby up, and start again from a revised foundation, you’re done. Because in a musical, everything built upon an insecure foundation can only amplify what’s missing.
And I tell you this from the trenches. From having done it terrifically right and horribly wrong (within the idiosyncratic context of my midlist career). And right was always conscientious and considered and focused and thorough, even through debate and disagreement that may have happened along the way (as it always does, and even must, at least a little, as new ideas are proposed and tested); and wrong was always somewhere negligent or victimized by the corrosive influence of dysfunction, political or personal.
For all that Hamilton is being heralded as new and revolutionary, and for all that it gets right, and for all that you can argue about, shall I tell you why it succeeds where the season’s early closers didn’t?
Lin-Manuel Miranda loves musicals. I mean, freaking loves them. And knows them. And has studied them. He has an intimate familiarity with the classic and revered shows in the literature, their scores, the styles of the librettists and songwriters, he honors tradition and he’s a walking repository of the lore. Of the hits and the flops and middlers in-between. When he strays from convention, it’s not random; it’s not without a clear understanding of what he’s doing; nor is it without the willingness and ability to walk-it-back and reconsider. Oh, I’m not saying it’s all clinically thought out and that he’s immune to the muse of inspiration; no one of any value is. But he’s all about the homework.
And yes of course, theatrical history has its fair share of shows by classic, innovative writers that didn’t succeed. And very often, those shows and their teams were about the homework too. But the difference, and it’s a vital difference, is that those experiments happened during a period when the craft was still being codified. Which is why we keep returning to those. In concert, in recordings, in revival, for second, third and fourth looks. Not because the shows can be transformed into hits (rarely happens); but because they better help us understand how the craft gestated into the beautiful, complex, astonishing construct it is; because when the masters go astray, or even deliberately veer into territory and presentation that was destined not to receive populist embrace, they teach us much what’s at the soul of the art that we would never otherwise have learned. And that they would never otherwise have learned.
No form moves ahead without experiments that fail. But for goodness’ sake, what a sad waste to re-make classic mistakes.