Swan Song

The Broadway musical feels like an anachronistic art form. It doesn't have to.

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Neil Patrick Harris was invited to host the 2009 Tony Awards partly because of his Saturday Night Live sketch from January called “Save Broadway.” Standing before a variety of recognizable musical theater characters, the Phantom of the Opera calls a meeting to order. “As you all know,” he says, “Broadway is in trouble.” This sentiment was the undercurrent of the entire awards show “Broadway is in trouble, Broadway is in trouble….”

Alice Ripley, accepting this year’s award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, said, “Musical theater is a fine art, so it needs constant adjusting and constant tuning.” It was as if she were simultaneously celebrating Broadway and admitting that the Phantom of the Opera might be right: the Broadway musical is in trouble. One only has to witness the ever-expanding “Revivals” category at the Tonys and the so-called new musicals of recent years like Mamma Mia! and Shrek, “new” only in the sense that they had never happened before, but certainly not novel. “Is the decline of the Broadway musical irreversible?” Terry Teachout asked last month in The Wall Street Journal. The answer? Not necessarily. Alice Ripley is right to remind people that musical theater — like painting, choral music, and film — is a fine art, and that refreshing the musical form is to remind ourselves what is special about musicals, and what is wonderful.

Musicals, in their essence, take Shakespeare’s famous quote seriously: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” What if, when you helped an old lady across the street, the people around you burst into wild applause? What if your attempt to cut the line at the DMV was met with boos and rotten tomatoes? What if every 20 minutes your boss made a costume change? What if we all just burst into song?

When you ponder it, the last example is the most outrageous. Note to those of you who sing along to your iPod in public: you look insane. Ahoy, those of you who sing out loud for the audience in your mind: You are creating a subtle and silent terror in everyone around you. You may as well be casually pointing an automatic weapon at their heads. That is why musicals are one of the most radical and disconcerting of art forms.

Since their inception in the early 20th century, musicals have been a space where people can act normally, become transformed into a perfectly choreographed ballet, and then go back again as if nothing ever happened. In a musical, interruptions in our experience are not just possible, but reasonable. Bearing witness to spontaneous singing (and dancing, too) creates a gap between what is expected and unexpected, a tear in our societal fabric, a wrinkle in time. Taking for granted that things will be a certain way every day is not just easier; it staves off craziness. It’s like Descartes wrote — only madmen doubt the obvious, think that their heads could be made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins. Life is life, a stage is a stage, and never the twain shall meet. If a boy selling newspapers can burst into song what’s next? Is that store I’ve passed a thousand times real or a two-dimensional facade?

What we sometimes forget is that (as they say) life is full of surprises. Even if you believe in some kind of grand meta-narrative, let’s face it, you don’t really know how it’s all going to play itself out. Experience is shifting all the time. Fully embracing this fact, the musical — as an art form — is actually extraordinary in its ability to express life’s unpredictability and entertain at the same. It tells a story, and yet is constantly pulling the rug from underneath truth, stability, sense. I’m not saying that life is like a musical, but instead that musicals can speak to our daily lives much more than we give them credit for. Unlike the supposedly straight-up, realist narratives that  are supposed to bring us closer to truth, musicals — with their bold costumes, artificial staging, and flimsy plots — remind us that truth involves a lot of fiction. So dance!

Sadly, the relevance of musicals has been on a slow and painful decline since the 1970s. For a half century before that, musicals had a real hold on society’s collective imagination, and not because your grandparents were more innocent or easier to dupe — don’t kid yourself. It’s because the creators of musicals themselves embraced life as a series of nutty, uncontrollable happenstance.

It’s not that people aren’t making musicals anymore or that those musicals aren’t making money. The High School Musical franchise, for instance, is an absolute phenomenon. When the first movie was released in 2006 (there are now two sequels and an infinity of related spin-off merchandise), it was the most successful show Disney Channel Original Movies had produced. The soundtrack was the top-selling album of 2006 in the U.S., besting Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé. In an attempt to hop aboard the Disney musical gravy train, Broadway producers have created cartoon-inspired shows like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. Maybe the reason why kid musicals constitute some of the only real successes in the world of the musical right now is because children don’t yet know they’re supposed to think of life as coherent and sensible. They revel in madness, much to the exhaustion of adults around them and the glee of Disney executives.

On the other side of the age demographic are the nostalgia shows aimed at fun-loving baby boomers who just want to hear the songs of their youth: Mamma Mia! (ABBA), Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons), Movin’ Out (Billy Joel). Even more nostalgic are the lavish revivals of tried-and-true shows like West Side Story, South Pacific, and Chicago that, for all their past glory, are now more period pieces for connoisseurs. What’s missing are shows that reflect the world we’re actually living in right now. Sure, new musicals have been written in this century that use cuss words, or boobs (briefly), or new media. Yet though the theater still acts as though these devices are shocking and novel, the life of a 21st-century human is quite at one with cussing and TV and even boobs.

For most people between the ages of 12 and 50, musicals are not just irrelevant, they are the stuff of jokes. One of the major problems lies in the music itself. Stephen Sondheim aside (perhaps Broadway’s last great composer), show tunes of the last three decades essentially sound like those from the prior three decades. There was once a direct link between popular culture and theater. Show tunes were played on the radio and in the great concert halls, sung by the hit artists of the day. Today they come off as cornball and absurd. Hip-hop, electroclash — for goodness’ sake, punk, which is already 30 years old — may as well never have existed in the world of the contemporary mainstream musical.

The brilliance of Stephen Sondheim is that he was able to recognize the full potential of the musical as interruption and reinvigorate the whole genre just when it seemed it had nowhere else to go. Sondheim not only welcomed this aspect of musical theater, he wrote plays that were explicitly about fragmented contemporary experience while still composing some really super, unbeatable songs.

An example: Sunday in the Park with George, one of Sondheim’s most formal works, embodies the surprising, mixed-upness of life. It’s a musical based on a painting, George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Paintings, the mutest of art forms, are positively the last place any of us would expect to find singing and dancing. With this premise, we begin on unsteady ground. The story centers on Seurat in the process of painting his famous work. Throughout, he is besieged by his own characters, who drag him from one venue to the next, distracting him from the goal. Now he is in the studio, now an art gallery. Now he has “painted” himself into his own park. Now the characters have left the painting and the park is empty. Or is it the other way around? At the heart of this house of mirrors is a love story between Georges and his mistress Dot.

Though intended as commentary about how the artist is at once responsible for and alienated from his or her art, Sunday in the Park is more than that. We all struggle to find meaning in the fractured bits of experience that at every moment threaten to alienate us from our own lives and make us think we’re pumpkins. But in the musical, all these splinters still manage to hold together. The pointillist painting is itself a superb metaphor for this. If you stand close to “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” it’s just a swarm of unconnected dots. Yet stand back, take in the whole picture, and suddenly all the dots are an ordered image. The frame is a stage that allows the distance necessary to comprehend the craziness as something familiar.

In Act Two, one of the musical’s most famous numbers, “Putting It Together,” is an anthem for making a successful puzzle from the disjointed pieces of life and likewise, an anthem for the potential of the musical.

Bit by bit, putting it together.
Piece by piece, working out the vision night and day.
All it takes is time and perseverance
And a little luck along the way.

The art of making art…
Is putting it together, bit by bit,
Beat by beat, part by part
Sheet by sheet, chart by chart,
Track by track, bit by bit,
Reel by reel, pout by pout,
Stack by stack, snit by snit
Meal by meal, shout by shout
Deal by deal, spat by spat
Shpiel by shpiel, doubt by doubt

Bit by bit, shpiel by shpiel, the musical is being re-explored if perhaps beyond Broadway. One of the first great musicals of the 21st century was not a play but a film: Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. The movie was a revelation in the musical form, using the disintegrating experience of its main character, Selma — slowly going blind and withdrawing further into an internal fantasy world — as an excuse to have some great song and dance numbers inside an otherwise bleak Dogme script. It solved the problem of cheesy musical music by featuring original songs all written and composed by Björk (and whose music is more relevant and more directly connected to popular culture?). Dancer in the Dark took another interesting step by having Björk perform the songs largely alone, unheard of in traditional musical theater, unless you’re watching a one-woman show. The result is startling: stylized artifice that is completely at one with stark realism. Dancer is consciously weird, and yet it’s impossible not to be absorbed by its internal logic.

When we are absorbed by a musical in this way, we experience wonder. Wonder, though, is not escape, something separate from our lives. In fact, it’s the opposite. The way that a big song and dance number disrupts a seemingly straightforward story — just like someone bursting into song on the subway — opens up a space to reflect on the incoherency of life. It sparks our imagination and curiosity, creating possibility out of babble. Wonder is horrifying and unnerving but also liberating and thrilling. “From wonder into wonder existence opens,” wrote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. And so it does, whether we like it or not. Louis Armstrong was right. The world is indeed wonderful, just like a musical. • 8 June 2009

 

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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