The American musical theatre is having a good patch, but its future is terribly tenuous. “Today I wrote something I like, so I feel sure of my talent and will probably feel that way for another two hours,” says Adam Guettel, the acclaimed composer of Floyd Collins. “Tomorrow, if I get on the phone in the morning instead of unplugging it and getting to work, I’ll end up an abject wreck with no confidence in my abilities. It’s an almost hourly fluctuation.”
So it goes in the pins-and-needles world of New York’s new generation of music-theatre composers. Guettel is among a handful of young composers credited with writing scores that have an unprecedented harmonic sophistication, stylistic eclecticism and seriousness of content in a field that has been crying out for fresh blood—fresher, certainly, than what has been served up by the something-for-everyone British megamusical and its American imitators. But if Guettel’s confidence is prone to wilt, it’s because few audiences live in the past as much as those for the Broadway musical—or even the Off-Broadway musical. Just because they say they want stories and storytelling that address their own time doesn’t mean they won’t be ambivalent, even chilly, in the face of answered prayers.
Surviving this come-closer-so-I-can-push-you-away existence has spawned a nervous individuality so fierce these new composers bridle against being positioned as some reasonably unified school, whether it be Sons of Stephen Sondheim, who opened the door to serious subjects dramatized with sophisticated musical means, or the Audra McDonald Crowd, in honor of Broadway’s youngest diva, who anthologized them on her album “Way Back to Paradise.” Indeed, the core group of five would be hard pressed to agree on even a dinner destination, as one might guess from their diverse backgrounds.
The most provocative would have to be Michael John LaChiusa, 37, a largely self-taught composer/lyricist/librettist who arrived in his late teens from upstate Jamestown, N.Y., and had a wild artistic adolescence putting Betty Ford and Fidel Castro in compromising sexual positions in the opera Tania. The more mature “Sassy Michael John” (as McDonald calls him) stingingly adapted Arthur Schnitzler’s sexual daisy chain La Ronde into the musical Hello Again in the late ’80s, but more lately has graduated to no less than the Medea legend with Marie Christine this season at Lincoln Center Theater.
Most praised among theatre-industry insiders is Guettel, 34, the grandson of Richard Rodgers, who spent his childhood singing boy soprano roles at the Metropolitan Opera and later scored documentary films. He wrote a concerto for jazz quartet and orchestra while at Yale University but found his true calling while writing the country-swing score to the 1996 musical Floyd Collins. Recorded by Nonesuch, the musical about a man trapped in a rural Kentucky cave (and the media circus that ensues) has won an international cult following. Guettel has followed up with a song cycle, Myths and Hymns (known in an earlier version staged by director Tina Landau at New York’s Public Theater as Saturn Returns).
Most eclectic is Jeanine Tesori, 38, a former rhythm player, conductor of Broadway shows and expert in music of various exotic ethnicities. Tesori considered herself a “writer in waiting” until the stormy winter of 1993 when she holed up in a rented lighthouse on the U.S.-Canadian border and wrote Violet, a musical about a disfigured woman in search of love and redemption. It won the 1997 New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and Tesori went on to write a celebrated Eastern-influenced score to the Nicholas Hytner production of Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center.
If one of them has grabbed the brass ring—assuming that means winning a Tony award—it’s Jason Robert Brown, 29, a Rockland County, N.Y., native who grew up wanting to be Billy Joel, spent two unsatisfying years as a composition student at the Eastman School of Music, then left a cushy teaching position in Florida to conquer Broadway. Some critics felt he did just that last season with the Harold Prince–directed musical Parade, about an anti-Semitic lynching in the Deep South. Other critics disagreed, and the combination of that plus a bankrupt co-producer (the scandal-ridden Livent Inc.) meant the show only had a three-month run at Lincoln Center.
Ricky Ian Gordon, 43, the most classically trained among the quintet, has the most immediately recognizable style: harmonically lush with an undercurrent one of his early composition teachers called “energetic melancholy.” That language has proven equally applicable to song cycles of Emily Dickinson poems for opera star Renee Fleming, an operatic adaptation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and last spring’s collaboration with Tina Landau at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, Dream True, about two men in a passionately telepathic relationship.
They’re all busy with intriguing new works.
Guettel is fashioning an extravagantly romantic, almost Schumannesque score for the Italian setting of Light in the Piazza, based on an Elizabeth Spencer story. Brown is working on a two-character musical about a relationship, with the man and the woman telling the story from opposite ends of its progression. Gordon is collaborating with playwright William Hoffman on an adaptation of Sylvia Regan’s 1940 play Morning Star. LaChiusa will have his second Broadway musical of the season with The Wild Party, an adaptation of a jazz-age, book-length poem by Joseph Moncure March. And Tesori is starting a musical version of the 1995 Jeremy Leven film Don Juan DeMarco, with lyrics by Tony Kushner and libretto by Craig Lucas.
In addition, there are any number of other similar-minded composers at work, often in other cities, often across the invisible line that divides musical theatre from opera. Diedre Murray wrote the jazz opera Running Man, which recently played at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia and was under consideration for a Pulitzer Prize. Mark Adamo’s musicalization of Little Women is being revived this spring by the Houston Grand Opera, and Jake Heggie’s operatic version of Dead Man Walking—written to a libretto by Terrence McNally—will debut next fall at the San Francisco Opera.
Thus, it would seem that all audiences need do is sit back and enjoy the musical riches about to pour forth. Hardly. Often trapped in workshop hell, these composers’ pieces emerge fitfully; LaChiusa, for example, has two premieres this season, but they come at the end of a long dry spell. The complexity and unpredictability of the musical-theatre development process plays havoc with their financial lives and does even worse things for their emotional lives as they wait in a long line for productions from nonprofit organizations like Playwrights Horizons, the Vineyard and LCT—productions that, once realized, must compete for public attention with big, glitzy revivals.
Unlike most arts, musical theatre experienced little of the radical experimentation that rocked the 1960s and ’70s, leaving classical music circles grateful for Sondheim and others that conservative Broadway audiences consider over their heads. “Everybody talks about branding as the key to corporate success, and the branding identity of the Broadway musical is looking more and more like Guys and Dolls,” says Brown, whose Parade deals unsentimentally with anti-Semitism and corruption of the legal system. “You can wean people away from the Guys and Dolls image, but it has to be done carefully and respectfully. Parade had fewer money notes, fewer applause points. At the end of the day, I regard Parade as an anomalous experience. There’s a limited audience for a show that heavy. That’s not to say such shows shouldn’t be written, and I certainly plan on writing them. But there’s a danger in thinking that this is a mission. It’s not. In fact, I would like nothing better than to write Guys and Dolls, but it’s not my experience and my life—I can’t write that show.”
You hear a similar refrain from Brown’s peers: In an era when tales of parents killing their children are splashed across the tabloids, is it any wonder that LaChiusa would be drawn to the Medea legend for Marie Christine rather than the Wilderesque Americana of Hello, Dolly!? In a time when cosmetic beauty is given a monumental importance in our culture, how could Tesori resist writing about the scar-faced Violet? “I guess I could fake it and look for inspiration in more conventional subject matter,” she says, “but I’m not interested in doing that.”
Subject matter, however, isn’t the half of it. These composers also share common ground in their insistence on allowing content to dictate form. This is hardly a new notion—Sondheim has done it for decades—but what is new is the extent to which they’re taking it. While Sondheim has always absorbed whatever musical genre his subject matter suggested (whether 1920s pop songs in Follies or kabuki drumming in Pacific Overtures), he has usually done so within the basic outlines of the Broadway song form. These composers arguably absorb their genres with greater depth and respect (Guettel learned to play guitar in the process of exploring the country forms he utilized in Floyd Collins) and depart from Broadway song forms more readily.
That means greater freedom of key modulations and lack of conventional melodic symmetry, musical gestures that break the most basic unwritten rules of Broadway. Classical composers from Morton Gould to Kurt Weill minded those rules when composing for Broadway. And when the classical melodies of Grieg and Rachmaninoff were adapted for Broadway by Wright & Forrest in shows such as Song of Norway and Anya, key modulations tended to be ironed out and harmonies simplified. Nothing is ironed out in the work of these new composers—which may be why those in some quarters of the theatre world go so far as to demonize them.
That happened most vociferously in New York Post theatre reporter Michael Riedel’s coverage of Parade, a show he admitted to disliking intensely, wherein he accused these composers of collectively eschewing the most essential element of American music theatre: melody. British producer Cameron Mackintosh, who has long been interested in developing new talent, has no plans to hire any of the five—it’s one thing to write great music, he has said of their accomplishments, but another to find a subject the public can care about.
In the face of such complaints, Guettel is the least compromising. “I would make the distinction between writing about what people care about, and writing about something that can be distilled into a marketable handle or sound bite and sold to any number of demographic groups. It’s difficult to distill the story of Floyd Collins into a charismatic sentence. I’ve also encountered a lot of resistance to the perceived complexities of my work. I don’t really mind. For me, it’s about creating a convincing world—and when there are crunchy harmonies, I generally have arrived at them for dramatic reasons.”
Others face criticism with more resignation. “I had thought before Parade opened that you could get away without the long lines of a song if you just made the music big enough and excellent enough. That was a fault on my part,” says Brown. “One thing that’s difficult for a Broadway audience is when something never soars. A song may jump and scream and yell, but it’s not quite satisfying to people who want ‘Always True to You in My Fashion.’”
Tesori freely admits that Violet had a fundamental flaw that was only obvious to her after she’d written the show and spent a good deal of her own money recording and issuing the original-cast album: The plot—in which the title character sets out on a cross-country journey to be healed, but finds romance instead—has no conflict. Tesori wonders if the talents she and her contemporaries exhibit may seem complex and hard to read because many haven’t progressed beyond the “late spring” of their creativity. “When you begin to write, more often than not you write in a complicated way. I’m still learning to be simpler, which happens as your craft gets stronger.”
Sadly, creative development nowadays seems to exist in the reverse of dog years: During the 1930s, shows came and went so quickly that Guettel’s grandfather Richard Rodgers had written 25 scores with Lorenz Hart before the age of 35. Now, a three-year gestation is considered speedy. “Part of the problem is that everybody takes the form so seriously you can’t just write it, get it up onstage and move on with it,” says Brown. “I spent five years of my life on a show that lasted less than three months on Broadway. That’s a waste of my time.”
Not surprisingly, some in the group wonder if the opera world might be more hospitable. Gordon is an old hand at that. Both Guettel and LaChiusa entered into relationships with Lyric Opera of Chicago to develop new works (though Guettel eventually took Light in the Piazza elsewhere for fear his two-year option on the property would expire before completion). LaChiusa’s Enigma Variations, inspired by the Edward Elgar orchestral work with musical portraits of his loved ones, was workshopped successfully earlier this season and will eventually be produced by Lyric Opera. “I was nervous about it at first,” LaChiusa says. “I was afraid the singers would only have three gestures, one to the forehead, one to the heart and such. But many opera singers are great actors, and they motivated me to write challenging music and not be afraid to do complex characters. If I have something to say, the place to say it and the people to say it for me, I’m in writer’s heaven.”
The irony is that opera could take them all further away from where they want to be. Most are writers because they need to communicate with their peers, hopefully more than 50 of them in a given performance. Even Gordon, who might be considered the highbrow among the group, proudly admits that his agent sent some of his songs to Whitney Houston. Guettel says he would love to compose music for an animated film, and adds that when doing so he’d craft traditionally hummable tunes, since that would be the appropriate forum for them. Tesori recently finished new music for a stage version of Thoroughly Modern Millie, genuinely inspired by the plot concerning girls from rural America reinventing themselves in the cities of the 1920s. All of the composers express interest in writing some ultra-romantic bodice-ripper, maybe even something as mainstream as Phantom of the Opera. (“Has it been done? Maybe I should!” declares Guettel with a twinkle in his eye.)
After all, they wouldn’t mind being free of economic worries. Tesori, who is married and has a two-year-old daughter, watched her checking account dwindle down to $100 last summer, no doubt a side effect from having to shoulder much of the financial burden of recording Violet piecemeal over many months. After LaChiusa finished Marie Christine, he had to hock his piano, and he says when all is said and done that he won’t make much from the show. Gordon suffered a serious leg injury over the summer and had to face medical expenses without insurance. Brown does guest teaching stints to bring in money and talks longingly about writing industrial shows, which have a relatively simple exchange of songs for sizeable quantities of money.
“Where do we belong?” sings LaChiusa in the soulful ballad “People Like Us” on a demonstration tape for The Wild Party. Though the song is written for soul-impaired denizens of the 1920s Jazz Age, he could be speaking for himself and his fellow composers. One possibility might be the Overture Theater Company, the working name for a composers’ collective formed by actor-director Lonny Price as a program of New York’s Theaterworks USA. Designed specifically as a development workshop for these and other like-minded composers, Overture might be a place where the vagaries and pressures of musical-theatre production could be sidestepped. Several of the composers have entire “trunk musicals” they’re eager to air, and this would be the place to do it. How resigned these composers are to their present circumstances seems to be a matter of age. Brown, the youngest, is pretty frustrated: “I’m certainly consumed by the idea that anything Adam gets leaves a little bit less for me. It’s hard not to feel that if they’re writing articles about Michael John this year, then they’ve forgotten about me, and I have to get back up there. It’s very tricky like that. A lot of my ability to survive in this business is based on my presumably mistaken assumption that I’m the best there is.”
Guettel, who inherited enough of his grandfather’s money to live unostentatiously in a Soho loft, wonders if notions of success must be redefined away from the Broadway standard. Floyd Collins has had twelve productions over the past four years in six cities, including London, and has now been released for stock and amateur productions. He’s grateful and pleased at what appears to be a growing, healthy grassroots following.
Clearly, he sees success more in the long term. “I want to contribute something that will last,” Guettel says, “and it may not hit its stride until after I’m dead.”
Gordon, the oldest, may be the most at peace: “Late in life, Leonard Bernstein said that every time he sat down at the piano, he had to be Leonard Bernstein. But none of us have too far to fall. We’re still fledgling. Maybe my whole life is going to be that way. I’ve always been ready to accept that. Where do you really arrive? I don’t expect to arrive somewhere. Each piece takes me farther forward so that more people answer my calls and more people want to do my work. Though I know what it’s like to be hurt every time you put something out into the world, I’m in a better position than Bernstein was to just do my work, enjoy myself and be a little carefree about it.”
The fact is, none of these Sons of Sondheim, these Friends of Audra, would be in musical theatre if they could stand doing anything else. “I know how to do it. I get it on every level,” says Brown. “It comes closest to satisfying that burning sensation we all have as writers that says you have to get this out.”
“I can’t help being in love with this form,” avows Tesori. “It’s like the color of my hair. I’m hooked, and I kind of wish I wasn’t hooked.”
Gordon recalls that he had lunch with John Kander in the wake of the mixed reviews that greeted Dream True, and his conversation with the veteran composer produced an epiphany of sorts. “He said that most people get their two hours of the show and their opinion of it. ‘But you get the life that created Dream True, and that’s important to remember,’ he told me. And he’s right. That and other shows were all amazing chunks of my life. I think that alone is worth the price of admission.”
Diedre Murray: Serious Fusion
Cellist, performance artist, recording producer, jazz-opera composer—Diedre Murray cuts across more borders than some composers know exist. The Pulitzer Prize finalist for her acclaimed musical-theatre work Running Man offers no apologies: “I was always a maverick. I started playing cello as an improviser at age 10 and then took lessons—later.”
It figures. In Running Man, Murray’s brand of jazz/opera fusion sounds utterly natural—if nobody has written anything like it before, you begin to think, it’s only because that blend of genres hadn’t been imagined. And Murray seems in a position to imagine the previously unimaginable. In addition to working with numerous varieties of African-American music, she has spent a fair amount of time on the cutting edge, having been a performance artist, a music curator at New York’s avant-garde haven P.S. 122 and a dabbler in things perhaps more conceptual than musical: “I’ve had my John Cage moments,” she avows.
At age 48, Murray seems to be intersecting in equal measure with two different worlds: the jazz-based musical narratives of Wynton Marsalis and Hannibal Lokumbe, and the “smart musicals” of the contemporary theatre’s young composers, Adam Guettel in particular. “Adam has a different vocabulary, but he’s trying to do the same things I’m doing,” Murray says. “None of us feel we have to adhere to the rules.”
Born in New York and educated at the Manhattan School of Music and Hunter College, Murray has been on the progressive jazz scene for years and has been heard on some 50 recordings. But her road to Running Man started in earnest about 10 years ago with the composition of a major choral work titled Unending Pain, commissioned by the Manhattan-based experimental troupe the Wooster Group. It consists of a jazz-based music ceremony with a demented character named Dr. Doom. “I thought I was writing one thing,” Murray says of the experience, “but people said, ‘You need to go into the theatre.’”
In another major work, the a cappella piece The Voice Within, she addressed the problem of long-term thematic development—rather than the more common short tune form—in popular genres. When another venerable New York company, the Music-Theatre Group, hired Murray to write music for a book of poetry, You Don’t Miss the Water by poet/dramatist Cornelius Eady, the impulse toward theatre burst into full bloom. The pair went on to collaborate on Running Man, a moving parable that tells the all-too-familiar story of a promising black man who falls victim to drug addiction at a young age.
Running Man was seen briefly at the downtown presenting space Here last spring, but not so briefly that it wasn’t noticed by two New York Times drama critics who stunned the New York Drama Critics Circle by nominating it for best musical (few others had heard it). The runner-up Pulitzer recognition was announced prior to a subsequent production by the Prince Music Theatre in Philadelphia. It should’ve been a heady moment for Murray, but she felt strangely disconnected, partly because it was one thing she hadn’t imagined: “The Pulitzers are like Santa Claus, you know?”
Currently she’s working in collaboration with hip-hop group the Roots. “I’m trying to show things about the human experience from an African-American perspective by tracing it through all kinds of different genres of music. That’s why I write music you’d call spirituals, but also avant-garde jazz, salsa and roots music. I’m not trying to make it like a documentary but present all these genres of music in a theatrical way. The idea is to take that musical vocabulary seriously.”
David Patrick Stearns is the theatre and classical music critic for USA Today.