For many of us who grew up outside of major urban centers, our first exposure to professional theatre came through the original Broadway cast album. I still cannot listen to “Wonderful Guy” without hearing Mary Martin, “If I Were a Rich Man” without remembering Zero Mostel or “Ribbons Down My Back” without being haunted by Eileen Brennan. (Yes, Eileen Brennan.) I eagerly anticipated my first trip to New York less because of the Statue of Liberty than because of Broadway; the first show I saw was Follies. In essence, professional theatre to me originally meant musical theatre, and long before Chekhov, Shakespeare and Ibsen found their way into my heart, my affections were ruled by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe and Kander and Ebb.
It strikes me as one of the curiosities of my present occupation that I find myself frequently defending my love of the musical. The presumption that TCG is somehow anti-musical is one I vehemently deny. While relatively few of our members devote themselves exclusively or predominantly to musical theatre (Goodspeed Opera in Connecticut, Music-Theatre Group in New York and Nautilus Music-Theatre in Minnesota being three wildly different and notable exceptions), more and more of our members are undertaking musical projects—a wealth of activity that this month’s American Theatre begins to highlight.
In a New York theatre season that within a month saw the openings of both Kiss Me, Kate and Lincoln Center Theater Company’s Marie Christine, the New York Times has devoted significant space to discussing the American musical. In Albert Innaurato’s pronouncement of the death of the musical, Michael John LaChiusa’s defense of eclecticism and atonality, and a raft of letters from passionate audience members, many old arguments have been aired, revolving around two basic, recurring questions: “Can the musical be art, or is it merely glorified entertainment?” and “Why should we have a musical that lacks memorable (read ‘hummable’) melodies and tunes?”
Frankly, I am finding the assumed distinction between “art” and “entertainment” less and less useful. Adherents of “art” are perceived as elitist, remote, out of touch; those who extol the virtues of “entertainment” are reduced to philistines, simpletons, panderers to the marketplace. Discussions of musicals especially tend to reinforce this dichotomy, (the “art” camp claiming Sondheim, Guettel, Finn, etc., and the “entertainment” laying claim to Jerry Herman, the armada of films refashioned into musicals, and Disney projects). It is little wonder that tempers fly and scant common ground can be found.
In a recent issue of Harper’s, however, I ran across an article by Lee Siegel dealing with the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut. Siegel drew a valuable distinction between the “pleasures of diversion” and the “pleasures of attention.” The former presumably invite a sense of comfort, familiarity, affection, the aesthetic equivalent of finding an old friend once again. The latter are altogether different: here, affection for a piece is irrelevant and there may be little or no sense of familiarity—it is perhaps more like a first encounter with a stranger than a reunion with a friend. But pleasure is derived from rigor, discipline, the concentrated focus of energy.
In this light, the level of invective and rancor that characterizes much discussion of the “new musical” strikes me as curious. Why do we assume that admiration for Floyd Collins necessitates dismissal of Funny Girl, that praise for Rent implies disregard for La Bohème or that “classic” musicals are without intellectual dimension while “modern” music is without tonal merit? Some of the most exciting work I have seen in the last decade has involved rigorous re-examination of older, presumambly unchallenging works, unearthing newfound power in Nicholas Hytner’s Carousel or Sam Mendes’s Cabaret. With time, even the apparently elusive melodies of newer forms become increasingly impossible to forget. I, for one, can hum or even sing (if you’re brave enough to hear me out) virtually all of Sondheim and major chunks of LaChiusa (not to mention the entire scores of the operas Salome and Elektra—scores that were described on their first appearance by terms such as “shrieking,” “cacophony” and “sheer noise”). Indeed, the delightful truth is that works that originally demanded our attention over time become those works that compel our affection. Challenging works often anticipate our sensibilities, but, with familiarity, become pleasures of diversion for future generations.
With the growth of interdisciplinary exploration and audience expectations of multisensory experience, music becomes more important than ever to theatre. The emergence of the sound designer, the notion of theatre scoring, the integral presence of music in “straight” plays are all indications that music has become a basic part of our vocabulary. At the biennial TCG National Conference, we offered a showcase of performance pieces by artists under the age of 20— groups wildly different in style, politics and aesthetics, but all of whom began their presentations with musical excerpts. Rather than seeing the field as antagonistic “musical” and “nonmusical” camps, we must see one another as collaborators in a continuum, using music in differing degrees but with common power and purpose. Whether we’re listening to the otherworldly underscoring of Tina Landau’s Space, the hip-hop rhythms of Stomp or motifs that literally form the text of William Finn’s New Brain, we must recognize music as a key element of the theatre of the future.