Monday, September 14, 2009

Warts and all

Upon reading comments made by reviewers on my theatre's production of Floyd Collins and other productions of the same show, including the original New York production at Playwright's Horizons, I got to thinking about musicals that have a lot of flaws.

When musicals we haven't grown up on or maybe even heard of are produced, often we are quick to find the flaws with the writing and blame the show's lack of commercial success on them. By "we" I mean those who aren't musical theatre geeks..just those who pay to be entertained and educated.

Floyd Collins has it's share of problems with the book and the pacing. However, consistent critical negativity towards the show makes me wonder why the writing is not more often examined in the older musicals we have grown to love and that are guaranteed to pack houses no matter where they are done.

A few examples:

  • Oklahoma!, by the infamous Rodgers and Hammerstein, is perhaps one of the most often performed musicals in the genre. A few years ago it saw a surge in performances by summer stock and amateur companies was the cool new old show to do. Running approximately 3 hours, the show is plagued with superficial characters who don't have much at stake. The most interesting and complex character, Jud Fry, is painted as a villain, killed at the end, and no one is made to pay for his death mostly because nobody liked him. Jud has been treated like dirt his entire life (in one song the romantic lead actually tries, in all seriousness, to convince him to kill himself), and while not a nice guy and definitely a bit crazy (he attempts to kill the romantic lead over a girl), it would have been fun to explore why he was the way he was. There is a beautiful and haunting song entitled "Lonely Room" that is often cut from the show, where Jud laments his lonely state in his little shed behind a farmhouse. The song is often cut because we almost feel sorry for Jud when we hear it. Then who will the villain be? Many will say Oklahoma is celebrated for its innovation: Agnes DeMille's dream ballet was revolutionary. Still, the show is problematic. Newer shows with very innovative ideas (for example, in Violet, the plot centers around a main character with a disfiguring scar. Other characters onstage are terrified and go so far as to scream when they see her face. The scar is not done with makeup. The audience never sees it) are not given the credit they deserve for their new ideas that are risky and end up working brilliantly. Another example lies in the echoes used in Floyd Collins as part of the music to reflect Collins in the cave. This brilliant innovation is rarely mentioned in reviews or acknowledged by audiences. If Oklahoma was written today we'd find it tedious, dull, and shallow.
  • Another musical that brings people out in droves is My Fair Lady. Talk about a show that drags. For three hours we are subjected to lengthy songs in which the characters pontificate, celebrate or complain ("Why Can't a Woman Be More Like A Man", "Just You Wait", "With a Little Bit of Luck", "Without You" etc.) rather than songs that move the action forward (with the exception of "The Rain In Spain", where Eliza finally speaks with her new accent for the first time). But we care for these characters, mostly because we spend so much time with Eliza Doolittle, Henry Higgins, and Colonel Pickering...and because we are holding out for the realization of romantic feelings between Henry and Eliza-even though they aren't really realized.
  • The Sound of Music onstage is perhaps one of the most tedious musicals out there. My theatre company did it before we went to doing lesser known pieces, and we chopped a good forty-five minutes off of it, still ending up with a 3 hour show. The Nazi threat and Captain Von Trapp's dangerous stance against it are hardly addressed, with the authors focusing instead to focus on the cute little kids. Critics hated this one, advising diabetics in particular to stay away from the saccharine musical. But people still flocked, and it is performed in approximately 500 venues each year. When done in its original form VERY few of the songs do anything to move the action forward. My company paid the extra fee to replace some of the original songs with ones from the movie. But people love this one. LOVE it. When played correctly and with depth there is a sweetness to it...but it takes quite a bit of work to extract.
  • Damn Yankees has a great deal of problems. I love it, but the second act has so many scenes in it that unless you have a fancy rotating stage with everything on tracks you are in for some lengthy and frequent scene changes. The ending also makes little sense, with there never really being an explanation for why Joe Hardy didn't have to release his soul to the devil, except that he has realized how much he loves his wife. But it's full of rousing production numbers and hysterical lines.
  • One that hits close to home for me, as I was in the National touring company: Cats. Nothing happens in this musical. In 2.5 hours nothing happens. There is no through line, very few distinguished characters, and it makes no damn sense. If that is not a reason to lombast a musical I don't know what is. But Cats really is now and forever. For whatever reason, people dressed as kitties prancing about in unitards is enough to keep the crowds coming...over and over and over, many of them dressed up. Yeesh.

These shows were successful in their time because they were what people wanted to see. The problem is that 60 + years later, with new musicals coming out constantly, they are still what people want to see. We have not allowed our ideas about what musical theatre should be to change.

Have we come to expect more? Do we forgive these older shows their flaws because musical theatre was even newer when they came out? If we've come to expect more, why do we continue to want only to see these flawed musicals that are nonetheless tried and true?

No show is perfect-a few come close in my book, but musical theatre is such a new art form, with so many different skills crammed into it, that we haven't quite figured out the formula. The above examples present reasons why these beloved musicals are treasured in spite of their why are flaws used to quickly dismiss new works?

In only a century of existence many different styles have been attempted in musical theatre. And we must recognize that the newer musicals, the ones that we are skeptical of now, are the ones that will someday be remembered as classics. They are the ones that will someday be forgiven for their flaws. But if we do nothing but look back, what will happen to this quickly developing art form? I don't have the answer to this. But I do know that focusing on flaws in these newer musicals because we are skeptical of what we have to offer is not the answer to helping the art form move forward, especially because we are so forgiving of the major flaws in musicals that have made a significant mark.

Take a chance on something you haven't heard of. It won't be perfect. But guess what? It can still be worth it.