Aug 26, 2008

My Story, By Me, Starring Me

Has anyone else noticed this mini-trendlet among newish Broadway musicals, in which the author or authors star in a version of their own story? I'm talking about Passing Strange, In the Heights, and now [title of show], all of them hailed as form-breaking musicals in one sense of another (ITH the least so), and all starring their author in a role that's close to autobiographical, or at the very least spun from their own experience.

Two things strike me about this: the aesthetics and the economics. Obviously there's something bracing and authentic, even intimate, in the experience of sharing the story with its originators; one might uncharitably that something about our culture's current fetishization of the "real," from reality TV to the fury over unreliable memoirs, though I think it has just as much to do with the perennial difficulty of generating the otherworldliness of musical theater--the rationale for people breaking into song between stretches of dialogue is always and ever a theatrical challenge, even on Broadway, and I'd posit that the injection of the "real," the personal, is one solution to this problem (teens breaking into pop songs in the midst of a period play is another; setting a musical backstage at a theatre is another, and so on--though this is the subject for another post). People may be more likely to swallow a guy telling a story in song if it's his story, in much the same way we'll suspend disbelief and follow a solo performer as he or she recreates a world onstage.

When I spoke to Jeff Bowen recently for a TDF piece, he more or less agreed with the hunger-for-reality thesis. He also mentioned an economic angle I hadn't thought of: that it takes so long to get a musical off the ground, it's just easier (and cheaper) to get up and play the role yourself through the various workshops and readings and backers' auditions. The economic angle that had occurred to me, though, is how long can a show run when the authors are in it? Would these shows keep selling without the authors in the leads, given that their being in it seems to be a big part of the shows' hook, and presumably a draw? (This is moot with Passing Strange, of course, which never had the problem of selling too much--though Stew did have an understudy, I'm told, and was thoroughly tripped out by it.) Can these shows look forward to a rich life in the regions, or are they Broadway-boutique phenoms?

It's hard to say. A few decades ago, some wondered similarly about the future and durability of Sondheim's musicals, which seldom sold well and in many cases seemed very closely associated with their original productions and casts (including the flops). They still don't burn up the box office, exactly, but Sondheim's legacy is secure. We'll have to wait and see if the same can be said of the reps of newcomers like Stew, Miranda, and Bell/Bowen.

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