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The Musical: Relevant Again

Jun 16, 2016

We have started to witness the quiet reemergence of the musical as an art form.

Flash: The musical is back.

What I mean is, the Broadway musical – the art form we sometimes like to think of as America’s signature cultural invention – feels relevant again. It’s being talked about, argued about. Attention is being paid.

What’s more, the music of musicals is getting interesting again.

It’s nice to see. Even a few years ago, I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted it.

A few years ago the Broadway musical seemed like it was becoming the province of corporate boardrooms. The Great White Way was being taken over, or so it felt, by grandiose epics featuring loud major-key anthems with many gratuitous modulations. Or alternately, by formulaic musicalizations of mediocre movies, some of them starring Adam Sandler. Disney, as one wag said, was turning Broadway into a theme park, though with fewer bathrooms.

To be fair, some genuinely fresh and creative shows were getting produced here and there, but few broke through – they were shouldered aside by the publicity machines being wheeled out in support of the behemoths.

But more recently -- I’m not sure we can pinpoint the moment -- it has seemed that things are changing. We have started to witness the quiet reemergence of the musical as an art form that means something. Shows like “Caroline, or Change” or “In the Heights,” though not huge hits, were announcing a shift.

I’m telescoping here, but that process took a big step forward a year ago when “Fun Home” – a touchingly personal piece about family and sexual identity, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir – won the Tony for Best New Musical.

“Fun Home” the musical is a brilliantly original piece of work, with inventive, groundbreaking tunes. Not coincidentally, the show was hailed for being the first major Broadway musical whose central creative team – book, lyrics, music – were all women. But the overriding point is that, not only did it get written and produced, it was (and still is) a hit.

Let’s just say it already goes way beyond being a tough ticket.

And then, of course, the process took a giant leap last fall, when a show opened that told the story of -- talk about your long shots -- the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury. (As President Obama pointed out in a taped segment at the Tony Awards last Sunday, when he first heard about the idea of trying to making a smash musical about a group of rapping 18th century legislators and cabinet members, he laughed. He manfully acknowledged he is not laughing now.)

It’s hard to talk meaningfully about the “Hamilton” phenomenon because it’s still unfolding.

Let’s just say it already goes way beyond being a tough ticket.

How culturally far-reaching is “Hamilton”? Last week, I heard some hard-bitten musician friends of mine talking about how cool they thought the music to the show was. A day later, a neighbor of mine -- the mother of two daughters, aged ten and 12 – told me that her girls were now absolutely obsessed with the “Hamilton” cast album, and had memorized every song. (There are 46 of them.)

Grizzled musicians and starry-eyed schoolgirls flipping out over the same piece of work -- no wonder they gave Lin-Manuel Miranda a genius grant.

The off-Broadway scene is even more adventuresome, as it tends to be. I point to shows like Anais Mitchell’s “Hadestown,” a musically ambitious recasting of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. Or “The Total Bent,” a generational music-biz show by the hard to categorize singer/songwriter Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the team that created the quirkily brilliant “Passing Strange.”

I could name dozens more.

Hartford Stage’s witty, inventive – and Tony Award-winning – little modern operetta, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” illustrates the point in a slightly different way. It took a cherished and well-established set of components, and gave them a slyly and stylishly modern spin. (I can’t comment on the company’s current production of “Anastasia,” because as this blog was being written, I hadn’t yet seen it.)

"The Great White Way" or, Times Square
Credit Sam Valadi / Creative Commons

Broadway is a cruel business. I don’t know if it’s any crueler than the music business in general, but the table stakes are certainly higher. The average show these days is budgeted at between $8 and $12 million. A musical often has to run a couple of years before it recoups its original investment. Unsurprisingly, roughly 80 percent of shows fail to recoup.     

The cruelty has been on display in recent weeks. “Tuck Everlasting,” a show based on a much-admired book, with a much-admired director and some fairly decent reviews, abruptly closed a couple of weeks ago, after a brief run.

And “Bright Star,” a seemingly inspired and non-cliched piece of work by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell – an intriguing segment of which was performed at the Tony show – suddenly announced a few days ago that it, too, is closing.

Given the precarious economics, maybe it’s inevitable that men in suits are going to, as it were, play a leading role in determining what goes up on some Broadway stages. And maybe, as Jack Viertel suggests in his entertaining new book, “The Secret Life of the American Musical,” a certain number of the behemoth shows will run more or less forever, primarily now fuelled by the now-unending waves of global tourists who want to say they saw “Aladdin” or “Wicked” on Broadway.

But it does feel heartening, even a little miraculous, that men and women with great ideas and great talent are still drawn to this art form. And that they are, disproving our doubts of a few years ago, aggressively and effectively reinventing it.

Though they could be forgiven for doing something safer and more sensible with their lives, they are not, to turn a phrase, throwing away their shot.

Reach Steve Metcalf at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.