Monday, June 25, 2007

If Musical Theatre Rocks, What Is The Next Edge?

If Musical Theatre Rocks, What Is The Next Edge?

Two weeks ago at the Tony Awards, Spring Awakening's talented tunesmith/orchestrator Duncan Sheik and winner of two honors proclaimed victoriously, "Musical theatre rocks!"

Fair enough. I can't quibble with that. Thanks to Sheik's masterful orchestrations, he positively raised the roof on the Eugene O'Neill Theatre with a great score.

But in yesterday's New York Times, Charles Isherwood affirms that "the theater establishment appears happy to be so rocked," all the while asking whether the 50+ year old musical style will finally rule the Great White Way. As my mother would say, he's a day late and a dollar short.

Coming years after repeated death notices were written for rock, primarily because it has long since ceased carrying any serious threat of danger, rebellion or outright anarchy, shouldn't Isherwood instead be considering the possibility that music that's truly at the cusp of societal evolution is the logical next step?

Let me be plain. Yesterday's edge is today's safe. What may have pushed the envelope in acceptable taste is conventional today. Certainly that is the case with rock music. On the whole, it really hasn't changed that dramatically over the past thirty years since the advent of punk.

When sexagenarians like Sirs Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger are still churning out the kind of music that once made parents nervous, it now seems practically as wholesome as a glass of milk. Rock 'n' roll -- no matter who's posturing under its aegis today -- can hardly be considered as vital as it once was.

Which leads me to ask: Isn't Isherwood just a few years too late? Shouldn't Isherwood be contemplating where musical theatre's new edge is? Shouldn't we be discussing the dearth of musicals aimed at minorities and vacuum in genres like hip-hop or rap or something completely revolutionary? What is the next next?

I'd be very curious to hear what you think.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 25 June, 2007, Anonymous Esther said...

It'll be interesting to see how the "hip-hop and salsa infused" In the Heights does when it transfers to Broadway. I know it's been attracting lots of young and Latino theatergoers off Broadway. It wasn't at the top of my list of musicals I'm most looking forward to seeing, but I'm starting to get more intrigued about it.

And that's not to say you need characters of a specific ethnic or racial or religious group to attract that group. I mean, great art is universal.

Still, I think people are drawn to works that deal with their lives and experiences, whether that includes the music they listen to or seeing people who look like them on stage.

But when you look at what's coming up, it's mostly revivals and movie adaptations. Other than In the Heights, there really wasn't anything on your poll of upcoming musicals that you could call revolutionary or aimed at an audience that doesn't normally go to the theater.

Maybe I'm just going at the wrong times, but one thing that's surprised me in my year of theatergoing is that the audience definitely skews, well, older. Sometimes I wonder, where are the 20-year-olds, or even the 30-year-olds? And you're right, as much as I love Paul McCartney (he'll always be my favorite Beatle) rock 'n' roll is hardly the vital, edgy music it once was.

There are plenty of movies that use hip-hop or Latino music. The question is, how do you get those artists to write for Broadway? I think producers and artists have to be convinced that if they write it, people will come. Perhaps In the Heights will provide some of the answer.

At 26 June, 2007, Blogger Mondschein said...

According to Gerard Alessandrini, "The opposite of 'Rent' isn't 'La Boheme.' It's 'Oklahoma.'"

At 26 June, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks Mondschein - Of course, I'm not really talking about opposites. I'm talking about the evolution of musical theatre that can take you from a La Boheme to a Rent to an even fresher edge. I confess that I don't know what that will be, but I think it's foolhardy on the part of the Isherwoods of the world to be pondering whether rock can make it on Broadway when it is not, as Esther said, "the vital edgy music it once was."

And for those who aren't familiar with Gerard Alessandrini, he's responsible for writing and directing Forbidden Broadway, which is now performing The Roast Of Utopia.

At 26 June, 2007, Blogger Statler said...

As someone who isn't a huge lover of musical theatre in general I'm going to come at this one from a slightly different angle. It shouldn't be about the next music genre to be adopted for theatre, it should be about actually developing the concept.

Although I find traditional big scale musicals irksome, I love to see music/song/dance incorprated as part of a wider theatrical performance where it adds to the mood of the piece rather than than having a chorus burst into song for no reason.

The only example I can give of relevance outside the UK is the National Theatre of Scotland's award winning "Black Watch" which reaches New York and LA this year. It's a seriously hard-hitting play based on the experiences of soldiers in Iraq, but seamlessly moves between straight drama, dance/physical theatre set pieces, and soldiers songs. I'd also highlight the NTS's less well known "Futurology: A Global Revue" for it's cabaret style performances of music, dance, comedy and contortionism!

Similarly a recent student production of "Lysistrata" amused with a couple of dance numbers and then concluded with an incredible powerful and moving rendition of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance"

Musical theatre can bring in new musical styles but it will still largely be the same musical audience - alternatively it can step outside its comfort zone and develop and attract a number of "straight" theatre audiences currently put off by the whole full-on musical format.

View From The Stalls

At 26 June, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Statler - Appreciate your perspective. But while you say, "Musical theatre can bring in new musical styles but it will still largely be the same musical audience," it is precisely against that grain of thought that the producers of shows like Spring Awakening are trying in earnest to buck. They want to attract a fresh, new audience that wouldn't ordinarily go to see any musical, let alone theatre, in the first place.

By focusing the "hip" quotient, I thought Isherwood missed the point since rock is hardly as incendiary as it once was.

That's not to say that other musicals risk being seen as some sort of throw back merely because they have a rock score. I agree with you that if it's done well, the genre of music hardly matters. But to assume that just because a score has rock that it will be seen as cutting-edge just doesn't cut it anymore.


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