Faithful readers will recall that in my last column I was lamenting the current state of Movies, TV and Broadway. I criticized the obscurity and downright weirdness of the Best Picture nominees and how mainstream hits were always excluded from the Oscars, the dismaying trend of recycling television programs, and the runaway ticket costs in New York. With nothing much to celebrate in our Performing Arts, I hoped I might find a silver lining or two before I filed my next essay.
And I have.
I’m writing this in the wake of this year’s Tony Award nominations, and I was heartened by the vitality reflected in the musical categories. The four shows in the “New” slot—Equal to the Best Picture portion of the Academy Awards—were uber-original, if (as is often the case) derived from other mediums: Mean Girls, Frozen and SpongeBob SquarePants adapted two films and a cable TV series respectively, but they stretch the boundaries of the genre. The fourth nominee, The Band’s Visit, was a traditional, original musical, written exclusively for the Theatre.
It and this season’s revivals are proof-positive that our country’s most enduring contribution to the World Stage, the Book Musical, is alive and well. It really is an American art-form, taking the European model of light opera (or operettas) and weaving a new pastiche of songs, dances and dialogue, all in the service of a unified story with vivid characters. A Book Musical has a playscript attached to a score, as opposed to a Jukebox Musical, which is a compilation of one songwriter’s work, e.g. Smokey Joe’s Café, a collection of Leiber & Stoller tunes.
Recently, there have been hybrids of these two formats, like Jersey Boys, which sprinkled Four Seasons’ hits amid a biographical narrative, and Beautiful, the Carole King story.
I prefer traditional musicals with librettos. Two of the nominated revivals are all-time greats, My Fair Lady (considered by many the greatest musical ever produced) and Carousel. Both were written by celebrated teams—Lerner & Lowe, Rogers and Hammerstein—both had noble antecedents—Shaw’s Pygmalion and Molnar’s Liliom—and both have been performed for generations.
I have an especially deep attachment to the latter: Carousel was the very first show I ever did, and hence as responsible as anything for my career choice.
I was a sophomore at New Providence High School when it was scheduled as our spring musical. In my era, a big book show was only done every other year (I don’t know why—perhaps budgetary issues), which meant a student only got to do two between being a freshman and a senior. I’d have preferred an annual production, but with just a pair of chances the novelty was enhanced and the experiences were even more cherished.
As one of only a few tenors in the concert choir, I was drafted for the chorus; I didn’t even audition. Little did I know what a touchstone Carousel would become.
It’s not surprising that it struck such a chord in me and my peers. The story was of a tragic love affair, and the child of that union being rejected by her classmates. In other words, red meat for a hormonal teen who wanted to fit in.
And then there was the ravishing score, filled with standards like If I Loved You and You’ll Never Walk Alone. This is the greatest legacy of the Golden Age shows: they filled and defined the Great American Songbook. Prior to the Rock & Roll revolution, Broadway tunes dominated the radio and the Top 40, with original cast albums frequent best-sellers.
It’s wonderful that evergreen musicals are constantly revived, and even with the huge financial risks of mounting new ones, the canon continues to grow and evolve.
That’s probably the best thing I can cite about today’s artistic landscape.