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December 26, 2003

TT: Out of many, many

Bruce Weber has an excellent article in today's New York Times about the state of the Broadway musical--excellent because he talked to a lot of people in the business and got candid answers. This is one piece that really needs to be read in its entirety, not quoted piecemeal (you can read the whole thing here), but if there's a money graf, this is it:

"You could spell whither either way," said Jack Viertel, the artistic director of the Encores! series of musicals in concert at City Center. "There's a real reluctance on the part of producers to take on new composers because to some degree no one is sure what a Broadway show is supposed to sound like anymore. Is it supposed to sound like Michael John LaChiusa? Or Alan Menken? If the Broadway sound were the pop music of the day, which it used to be, it would sound like hip-hop, but I don't think anyone feels there's much of a Broadway audience for that at the moment."

What I think Viertel is groping toward--as well as several other people quoted in the piece--is that the success of the "classic" Broadway musical-comedy idiom was in large part a function of the existence of the common culture that began to dissolve in the Sixties, more or less around the time that the Broadway musical began to lose its way.

Here's another relevant excerpt:

In any case, as rock took over the radio airwaves in the 1960's, songwriters began turning from the stage to the recording studio. A few songs from Broadway managed to climb the charts - "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha," for example - but the music of Broadway was being overwhelmed by the cultural tidal wave that was transforming the rest of the world.

"I can tell you almost specifically when it changed," said John Kander, Mr. Ebb's partner. "When we did `Cabaret' in 1966, I was unpacking in my hotel room in Boston, even before we went to Broadway, and I turned on the radio and heard five songs from the show. Our next show, in 1968, was a musical called `The Happy Time,' and I think we got maybe one recording. So it was right in there that the changeover happened."

The "untheatricality" of rock music is a complicated subject about which I've never gotten around to writing. It's far too complicated to go into in a short posting, but I can say that to blame the decline of the Broadway musical on rock is to mistake a symptom for the disease. What happened in the Sixties was that the old-fashioned standard-style ballad ceased to be the lingua franca of American popular music--and that nothing replaced it. Instead, our musical tastes shattered into a million pieces. After the Sixties, there was never again one kind of music to which "everyone" listened. In the absence of that kind of broad-based consensus of taste, popular music began to take a back seat in the mass media to other forms of pop culture.

Anyone old enough to remember The Ed Sullivan Show will recall that Sullivan regularly booked musical-comedy stars, and even presented whole scenes from hit shows. (It was Sullivan who turned West Side Story and Camelot into box-office hits.) Nowadays, there aren't any prime-time variety shows, because the culture is so deeply fissured that such shows can't draw a large enough audience to be commercially viable. Similarly, Top 40 has given way to a large number of sharply differentiated formats with minimal overlap. If you ever wondered why David Letterman and Jay Leno almost never bring on their musical guests until the end of the show, that's the reason: no pop musician, however successful, appeals to a sufficiently large slice of the demographic pie. Were Leno to open the show with a musical act, no matter what it was, a significant number of his viewers would promptly switch to Letterman in search of something more to their liking--and vice versa.

All this means that there is no "universal" musical language in which a Broadway musical can be written. That doesn't make it impossible to write good musicals, but it does mean that they will almost certainly appeal to niche audiences, not the masses that once flocked to (and bought original-cast albums of) the great musicals of the pre-rock era. For this reason, my guess is that the really interesting musicals of the coming decade will be small-scale, low-budget shows--and that at least some of them will be written for and premiered by opera companies.

Posted December 26, 2003 1:45 AM

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