Jan 14, 2011

Do Yourself a Favor...

...and enjoy this lip-smacking Sardi's meal of theater chat in which the pressing question of "greatest American musical" is weightily weighed and argued (hint: there's a three-way tie at the top). The panel includes Nora Ephron, Frank Rich, George C. Wolfe, Jonathan Tunick, and Jesse Green, moderating but hardly withholding his opinion. There are too many gems to mention them all, but I think this is a key insight, which I flatter myself I was lucky to reach at a slightly earlier age (in a college class on the film musical, but I digress):
Ephron: I was thinking about why I didn’t love She Loves Me when I first saw it, but then fell so deeply in love with it later on. And its partly that at a certain point in your life you don’t have the intelligence to know that the sentimental show is also great, because you’re so busy being hip and loving the dark shows. And then you get older and you love the ones that are—whatever you want to call them—romantic.
The whole thing is Grade-A show-queen catnip.


cinco said...

Loved this. What's interesting to me is the disconnect between great shows of the past and what are considered the great shows of the last couple of decades. Most of the great shows of the past were also big commercial successes. But the modern shows mentioned, like Floyd Collins and Caroline, are not mass appeal shows at all (most of the Sondheim shows also qualify, I think). It seems like the only exception mentioned is Light in the Piazza. What happened? Is it impossible to create a great show with mass appeal? Are all the truly gifted writers determined not to write for the general public? I think Floyd Collins is brilliant, but I have to admit I'm a bit annoyed by this "artistic musical" genre that has erupted. What say you, Rob?

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

I've been thinking about this a lot in relation to both the Sondheim book and another book I just read, "The Hammersteins," by Oscar II's grandson, which tells the story of how Oscar II's grandfather basically created the Broadway theater district and, by hiring a bunch of European opera/operetta composers but failing as an opera producer, helped seed the ground from which musical theater sprang. And it mentions the "Princess Theatre" shows, which Kern and Berlin and Rodgers and Oscar II all wrote for, and where they shed all the spectacle--all the "legs and laughs"--of the day to focus on music, lyrics, and story. This is basically the lab where American musical theater was brewed; it seated an audience of 299 and an orchestra of 11.

Now, inarguably, at its best a "Broadway musical" plays on a larger scale than that. When it finds a story that demands or can accommodate a big canvas, a big sound, primary colors, great. I'm not sure why "Hairspray" is never on these lists; maybe I haven't listened closely enough to the score, but I saw it twice and would happily see it again. Many of today's blockbuster musicals are like arena rock shows, with about as much emphasis on nuance and intelligibility. Though I doubt that "Spring Awakening" will actually be on these lists in 20 years, and I wouldn't love to see "Rent" on them, I do think there still may be musicals to be written that can reach a larger audience than the "chamber" musicals, but the folks who are writing them aren't doing it well (Elton John, I'm sorry, you need to spend more than two weeks, and dudes who wrote "Memphis"? nice try). Bill Finn might still write one. But if I only ever see good "Princess" musicals for the rest of my life, I'll take that over crappy arena spectacles.