After September 11th, 2001, theatre crowds wanted something light...at least that's what I remember hearing. And evidence would suggest the same. In 2002, Thoroughly Modern Millie took home the Tony Award for Best Musical. It was nominated alongside Mamma Mia!, which may not have won but has stayed alive to this day. Contrastingly, Sweet Smell of Success was also nominated but only ran 109 performances.
In 2003 another high energy show, Hairspray, took home the title. With a closing number like "You Can't Stop The Beat", it's hard to top the enthusiasm surrounding this one. But then in 2004 Avenue Q surprised everyone by winning Best Musical. (Rumor has it that everyone expected Wicked to win, so the screens actually had the logo for Wicked displayed before the envelope was read. Oops.) While Hairspray is loads of fun, Avenue Q had people rolling in the aisles night after night with it's topical humor and crass jokes...and the fact that it was puppets doing both. The year after that it was the goofiest of all: Monty Python's Spamalot. Next up we had the slightly more poignant but still crowd pleasing Jersey Boys.
Only in 2007 did we get back to something with more depth: The brilliantly innovative Spring Awakening, exploring sexual repression at a turn of the century school through the modern music of Duncan Sheik. Following that was In The Heights, a beautiful show with Latin flare about family, struggles, and dreams. Billy Elliot took home the prize in 2009, but had some stiff competition with Next To Normal, a dark musical about a woman suffering from bipolar disorder. And regardless Billy taps into some deeper issues too.
An interesting article in the New York Times on 3/2 explores the topics of off-Broadway musicals in the current season, focusing in particular on The Scottsboro Boys, a Kander and Ebb (Chicago) musical that explores an infamous case of several young black men being falsely accused of raping a white woman. Also included in the off-Broadway season are The Burnt Part Boys, about several teens who wait for the mine where their fathers were killed to reopen, and Signs of Life about Theresienstadt, a "model" concentration camp. All sounds VERY interesting, and much like the type of musical fare I gravitate towards.
One thing came up in the article that perplexed me though. If I may, a quote:
"...complexity is something audiences have been searching for", said Nathan Tysen, lyricist for “The Burnt Part Boys,” and Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, which is co-producing that show with the Vineyard Theater. “In these times people want to see something with some weight, that justifies putting your money down,” Mr. Sanford said.
Mr. Tysen added, “I don’t think there is a lot of serious musical theater that tackles loss, and people are hungry for that in musical theater.”
While I certainly respect the efforts of the composers of The Burnt Part Boys, I would have to big fat disagree with the second part of that statement. Do I really need to list for you the shows I can think of off the top of my head that tackle loss? Okay I will...and this is without really even looking into it that deeply: Floyd Collins, Next to Normal, Carousel, Parade, Hair, Assassins (when they leave in "Something Just Broke" that is), The King and I, Marie Christine, john & jen, West Side Story, Falsettos, Into the Woods, Ragtime, Dessa Rose, Rent...is that enough of a list to kick us off?
The question is are audiences having more of a response to the serious subject matter now, when the economy has left many people devastated? I can respect the idea that people want something that is worth putting their money down, but what is "worth it" to people really depends on the person. Some people want to walk away with something having touched them emotionally and intellectually, others just want to laugh and escape their troubles. Both are "worth" the money, depending on who you talk to and whether they have money to spare anyway. And if 9/11 has been any indication, when times are tough and dark people don't like to be "brought down" (faced with serious subject matter) further.
While musicals are certainly progressing, I think it has more to do with the feelings of the creators rather than what audiences want to see. And we all know you can't measure the success of a show on commerical success alone. These shows may not run very long for whatever reason but they're bound to pop up at regional theatres in future years. (I will have my eye on all of them, that's for sure.) The influx of more complex ideas I think has to do with a) the growth of an art form that is around a century old (this depends on when you classify musical theatre as having started...whether it was with operetta and vaudeville or not until the likes of Show Boat, in which case it hasn't even hit the ripe old age of 90 yet.) and b) the feelings of composers and creative types who are no doubt saddened by the fact that theatres are shutting down, great artists are out of work, and they themselves have to work at Mail Boxes Etc. just to pay their rent. (B. does not apply to John Kander, of course).
As usual I encourage using music to explore every topic under the sun and executing that exploration correctly. But does the dark subject matter have to do with the economy, and does it mean that these shows will be more successful? That I don't know. Any thoughts on this are welcome!
PS-The Scottsboro Boys sounds awesomely innovative...I can't wait to explore it more!