In August 2005, there was a New York Times report by Robert Simonson called “2 Broadway Composers Do Inharmonious Battle” on a contretemps between composer-lyricists Michael John LaChiusa and Marc Shaiman. (The scrap was also reported in Variety: Robert Hoffler’s “Inside Move: Tunesmiths take tussle to mag, Web.”) LaChiusa, composer of plays such as The Wild Party and The First Lady Suite, had written an essay in Opera News, “The Great Gray Way,” which opened with the statement, “The American Musical is dead,” and called plays like The Producers, Mama Mia!, and Shaiman's own Hairspray "faux-musicals." Shaiman, “hoping to stir up a reaction," responded in a theater chatroom, mostly to defend himself, his collaborators, and their work. I went to the Web and read the two pieces to see whether either guy was actually making any sense, or if either or both were selling sour grapes.
I suppose we ought to be used to hearing about the deaths of this or that institution. History itself was declared at an end as recently as 1992. I guess that was premature. A few years ago, irony was deemed over—but that turned out to be . . . well, ironic. The Republicans, then the Democrats, then the Republicans again have been pronounced deceased for years. (Richard Nixon was taken for burnt toast after losing the governorship of California in 1962, but then . . . . Well, maybe that’s not such a great example.) Detroit’s auto industry was mourned and nearly buried just a few months ago. Broadway itself has been on its deathbed for decades, if you listen to certain critics, journalists, and other croakers who nicknamed it “The Fabulous Invalid” after Kaufman and Hart’s 1938 play about New York theater. In 1953, Oscar Hammerstein II wrote, “The theatre is dying, The theatre is dying, The theatre is practically dead!” (Me and Juliet) and Simon and Garfunkle asked the musical question, “Is the theater really dead?” (“The Dangling Conversation”) in 1966. LaChiusa didn’t actually mean, however, that the musical was totally dead and gone with the wind (as Cole Porter wrote in another context). Dying, maybe; breathing its last. Living on borrowed time. As we can see, five years on, there are still musicals on our stages, both on Broadway and elsewhere. (I saw one just the other night.) It isn’t the production of musicals whose demise LaChiusa had proclaimed anyway. The great oldies were still being revived then (Pacific Overtures, Wonderful Town) just as they are now (South Pacific, West Side Story). It was the art and craft of creating great new musicals whose obit LaChiusa was announcing.
Have a look yourselves, at least at LaChiusa's article (Opera News, August 2005), and see if you agree, but the brouhaha looked more to me like sour grapes than an honest appraisal. Shaiman, dubbing LaChiusa “The Coroner Of Broadway,” was most upset that LaChiusa was criticizing other theater workers as if his offense weren't that he might be wrong about the American Musical but that he was disloyal. "I was surprised,” Shaiman said in the New York Times, “that he would go so on record to badmouth so many of the people working alongside of him, all with the same goals.” The Hairspray composer-lyricist didn’t put up much of a defense for the musical form itself. The Times characterized the contretemps as “a juicy, old-fashioned feud” and Variety proclaimed, “There’s a cat fight in Shubert Alley.” The fight generated more heat than light, to be sure: LaChiusa had a temper tantrum and Shaiman threw a hissy fit!
What LaChiusa said was that the big, popular new musicals on the stages of Broadway and around the country aren’t “real” musicals. He held up The Producers and Hairspray as exemplars of these pale copies of the past greats, saying that such shows “[i]n no way . . .aspire to be the next West Side Story or Sunday in the Park with George.” They are all faux-musicals, which LaChiusa defined as “musicals based on formulae” that don’t “transcend their source material” and therefore end up “facsimiles of the real thing.” He even waxed quite professorial:
A philosopher might consider them simulacra: Plato’s “copy of a copy,” a fake that seems more real than the real thing. . . . No aesthetic is involved in creating the faux-musical, and it’s pointless to disparage the effort or claim that they prove the American Musical is dead. The best of them are exacting copies of copies; they fool the eye and ear to perfection.
But LaChiusa decides which shows are true musicals and which are faux on the basis of whether he likes them or not, it seemed to me. It's very, very subjective. As Shaiman pointed out, though, LaChiusa's assertions were "stated as fact." Shaiman was incensed that LaChiusa “places it down in his article in such a scholarly fashion, to make it seem that this is fact. I'm not sure that he ever says 'In my opinion' or 'Just not my cup of tea.'" LaChiusa listed some criteria, but first, the positive characteristics could all apply to the shows he dismissed (if you let them) and second, the negative ones could also apply to some top-notch shows of the past (which LaChiusa didn't mention, so I wonder how he feels about them)—My Fair Lady, Kismet, Carousel, just for instance. For example, LaChiusa disparaged what he (and many others, too) calls "jukebox musicals" because they string together songs from an outside source and then try to hang a flimsy libretto/plot on them. He went as far back as Mamma Mia! (2001) and Contact (2000) to illustrate his complaint, but I wonder about the work of Robert Wright, who had died the month before LaChiusa’s essay appeared, and George Forrest. They recycled the "songs" of Alexander Borodin and Edvard Grieg for successful musicals Kismet (1953, Best Musical Tony; book by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis; 583 performances) and Song of Norway (1944; book by Milton Lazarus; 860 performances), respectively. By LaChiusa's definition, they're really "jukebox" shows, but how do they measure up in his estimation of the "real" musical? Is it all right to reuse the music of classical composers, but not contemporary or pop writers? It’s true that most jukebox shows have failed both with the reviewers and with audiences; recent examples like Lennon (91 total performances in 2005) and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Bob Dylan; 63 performances in 2006) went down in flames along with many others. But Movin’ Out (Billy Joel; 1331 performances in 2002-05) and Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons; over 2040 performances since 2005, and still going; Best Musical Tony) have caught on with audiences here and around the country (they’re popular touring and rep company productions), and added something either dramatic (a book for Jersey Boys by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice that “catches the very texture, almost the actual smell, of its time”) or theatrical (the rock-ballet story-telling of Twyla Tharp in Movin’ Out that “fits no pigeonhole”) to the canon of American musical theater.
I’m no fan of ABBA or Mamma Mia! and jukebox musicals are, on the whole, not my taste, so I can’t entirely dispute LaChiusa’s estimation of the genre. The fact that most of them sink—even Tharp couldn’t duplicate the success of Movin’ Out with this year’s Come Fly Away, her attempt to make a dance play from the music of Frank Sinatra which, though still running, hasn’t met with general endorsement—suggests that neither the critical community nor the audience pool has embraced the form. But Unchain My Heart, a musical based on the 2004 film Ray using the music of Ray Charles to tell its story (so it’s both a jukebox musical and a “movical”), is coming to New York with a book by Suzan-Lori Parks. Since the Pulitzer Prize-winner for Topdog/Underdog is no slouch when it comes to innovative playwriting, Unchain My Heart, which had a try-out run (as Ray Charles Live!) at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2007, is almost guaranteed to contain some surprises. (The original book is under revision, so the final script isn’t known, but Parks, whose first libretto this is, reportedly played with temporality in the Pasadena version—Charles has returned from the dead to record a last album—and may be applying more of her avant-garde proclivities for Broadway.) LaChiusa rejects the whole genre, which is both reductive and, perhaps, premature. We’ll have to see what Parks comes up with, but even the minimally inventive jukebox form can have its contributions to the American Musical today when put into the right hands.
LaChiusa spent a lot of print denigrating Tharp’s Movin’ Out because “choreography creates the libretto, and not vice versa.” On his continuum of real musical to faux-musical, Movin’ Out is “the real thing,” LaChiusa said, “a real ballet, that is, though it longs to be musical theater.” (He did begrudge that Movin’ Out “is about something: the terrible cost of war.”) LaChiusa also dismissed John Weidman and Susan Stroman’s Contact (though we’ll see shortly that this judgment is suspect for its own reasons), another “dance play.” He bemoaned that Contact won a Best Musical Tony even though there was no live music or singing and the music and lyrics were not original. (LaChiusa did acknowledge that the show’s creators didn’t actually call Contact a musical; “the critics chose to,” LaChiusa charged.) Though he doesn’t cop to it, it seems to me that the composer’s objection to these kinds of shows is not so much that they are made from collections of someone’s pre-existing songs, but that music and lyrics aren’t the drivers of the production—dance is. “I write musicals,” declared LaChiusa early in his essay, but what he really meant is the he writes the songs and book for musicals. Could he be miffed that there are shows, however worthy, that don’t spotlight his work and the work of others like him? We know that that’s not his only complaint because he also insults other composers and librettists—like Shaiman and Mel Brooks—but could he be afraid that another artist might be poised to take a prominent role in making American Musicals of substance and artistry: the choreographer? Dance has long been an important part of the American Musical, beginning with the innovative choreography of Agnes de Mille in Oklahoma! (1943) and arguably reaching a pinnacle in West Side Story (1957). “I’m old-school about what makes a musical a musical,” wrote LaChiusa. “Lyric, music, libretto, choreography—all work in equal parts to spin out the drama.” Sure, but dance has always been subservient to the book and the music, a partner, perhaps, but a junior partner. In fact, a few years earlier, LaChiusa stated flatly that “a musical demands that the music and libretto function as equal partners,” making no mention of dance at all. Choreography didn’t carry the narrative or the production outside of traditional ballet. (“Out of My Dreams” was just a single scene in Oklahoma! that was enacted through dance.) What might happen if dance began to carry the drama itself, the way Tharp used it in Movin’ Out? The late Peter Stone, onetime president of the Dramatists Guild, once observed that “the choreography of musicals is sort of at a dead end” and that Jerome Robbins had tried unsuccessfully to take the step of moving into “ballet in musicals.” But what if the new “dance plays” were the start of that next step—to make musicals where choreography carried the narrative? (The Chinese have a performance form called “dance drama” which is neither ballet nor Beijing opera.) Could LaChiusa be looking into a future in which, not having gotten fully into the room himself, he sees his potential for standing next to the greats of Musical Theater Past diminished?
Since LaChiusa cited The Producers and Hairspray as his prime examples of the faux-musical, let me address them briefly. LaChiusa said that both shows “celebrate” “the premise that musicals are stupid.” I just don’t see that at all. (I checked some of the reviews of both plays, and none of the ones I read thought so either.) Hairspray isn’t even about theater, so if LaChiusa feels it’s making fun of musicals, it’s embedded somewhere in the subtext (though he pretty much denies these plays have anything so profound as a subtext); otherwise, he’s interpolating a context that’s not really there. Hairspray makes fun of a lot of things—racism, “weight-ism,” dishonesty, religious fanaticism, ‘60s fashions, TV—but not theater. There’s a general sense of light-hearted irony, derived as much from John Waters’s original screenplay as from the adaptation, but it’s not mean-spirited and its intent isn’t to shame those who subscribe to a less candy-colored view of the world than the play presents but to remind us that there’s a “right thing to do”—and a little music and dance can’t help but get us there. Okay, the theme is pretty low-intensity, but that’s not a fault. As another light-hearted musical reminds us, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” In fact, Hairspray is redeemed (if it needs to be) by its placement of the issue of size and our fear of fat people in the same frame as racism. The Producers, which is about theater, is no more poking mean fun at musicals than are Kiss Me Kate or Annie Get Your Gun, both musical comedies that take a wry look at show biz. In fact, I believe Mel Brooks was paying homage to Broadway and the musical. It’s not musicals he says are stupid, it’s investors in musicals. (“There’s a sucker,” sings the title character in Barnum, “born every minute.” Can I get an "Amen"?) If we take that literally—LaChiusa said that musicals “can never be realistic theater”—we have to believe that producers are all dishonest and conniving.
LaChiusa objected to the songs in both plays because, he said, they “seem to endorse the hateful operatic adage: no one listens to lyric.” Really? I haven’t heard The Producers in a while, but I recently listened to the score of Hairspray and I found Shaiman and his collaborator Scott Wittman’s songs witty and funny, perfectly in the vein of the show as a whole. They weren’t writing arias, after all; they were writing songs to evoke the early rock ‘n’ roll of 1962. I lived through that period (and had a damn fine collection of 45’s, too!)—I was the same age as the teens in the play, in fact (15 going on 16, as the song goes)—and I watched American Bandstand, the national counterpart of the Baltimore TV dance show in the play. Even LaChiusa himself stated: “[A] great song is something we think we’ve heard before but haven’t.” Shaiman and Wittman’s songs all sound like what I remember from those pre-Beatles days, from the Philly sound to Motown (even a Sinatra-esque number for the oldsters), except the Hairspray lyrics are more knowing, more pointed. (The Times called them “canny”; I think that’s right on.) I don’t have the musical background to put this in my own terms, so I’ll borrow what Ben Brantley said, because I think he nailed it:
Mr. Shaiman, the show's composer and its co-lyricist with Mr. Wittman, isn't sending up the music of the age of “American Bandstand.” Nor is he simply replicating it. What he's doing instead is taking the infectious hooks and rhythms from period pop and R & B and translating them into the big, bouncy sound that Broadway demands.
If the score was reminiscent of the work of others from 45 years ago, that’s because it’s part of the plot and fits the characters—just how a musical’s score is supposed to work. (The dances, too—despite LaChiusa’s disparaging characterization of that, as well—were spirited evocations of the steps I did in middle and high school.) No, they’re not Sondheim songs. But Hairspray isn’t Sweeney Todd, either; it has it’s own dynamic and character, and the score suits it precisely for me. As for The Producers, its songs are also right for the material. They make reference to other Broadway songs, but shouldn’t they, considering the plot? Because Producers is a farce, the songs are parodies—but they’re not travesties, which is what they’d be if Brooks were saying that musicals are silly. The Producers is silly—farces are—but I don’t think Brooks, who’s professed a love for the Broadway musical, is saying that the form is.
As Shaiman observed, LaChiusa also made a wry face because both Producers and Hairspray, the stage musicals, were being filmed. That's a film from a play from an original movie—which somehow is unworthy in his eyes. Shaiman asked about Mame, which was a book, then a play, then a movie, then a musical, then a movie musical—but I wonder if citing Mame was the best way to make Shaiman's point. I suspect LaChiusa would dismiss Mame in the same way he dismissed Wicked as a “Broadway blockbuster.” But what about MFL? It was a play, then a movie, then a musical play, then a musical movie. (It skipped the book phase, I'll admit—though it was a Greek myth!). Is that an unworthy theater life? Is MFL a faux-musical? I wouldn't say so, but it seems to meet LaChiusa's criteria for one. (Popularity and even critical success aren't aspects of his criteria. In fact, financially successful faux-musicals seem to irk LaChiusa the most—which is where the sour grapes come in. His own shows, which I assume he considers "true" musicals, have been mostly box-office flops—and also had middling critical appeal, as I recall—although LaChiusa was nominated for seven Tonys and has won two Obies. Shaiman, a Tony-winner for Hairspray, really ripped him on this!) There was a time, several decades ago now, when stage musicals were almost always put on film. Since many musical plays were drawn from straight plays, it’s not unlikely there was also a film of the non-musical predecessor, too. I could name many, but I’ll settle for just one: Cabaret, surely a true musical, was a stage musical in 1966, then it was a film musical in 1972. Before all that, it was a drama, I Am a Camera, in 1951 and then a movie in 1955. How does that history diminish any of the four versions of the story, all of which were themselves drawn from a book of tales, Berlin Stories, published by Christopher Isherwood in 1945.
LaChiusa further seems to have a serious problem with “movicals,” shows adapted from movies. But how is adapting a movie really any different from adapting a straight play? I agree with Shaiman here: “I honestly don’t understand why people [keep] harping on this,” he said in a later interview. “A great story is a great story.” (As evidence, I offer Carnival!, based in 1961 on Lili, Sweet Charity from 1966, based on Nights of Cabiria, and even A Little Night Music, Sondheim’s great 1973 musical drawn from Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night.) For decades, from its earliest days, the American Musical was nearly always an adaptation of a straight play. Not until its recent history were musicals written from original material—1776 (1969), I guess is an early example, though Pal Joey (1940) and Guys and Dolls (1950) were taken from non-dramatic sources (short stories and newspaper columns); On the Town (1944) was based on a ballet (Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free). Oklahoma! was Green Grow the Lilacs, Carousel was Liliom, Most Happy Fella was They Knew What They Wanted, West Side Story was, of course, Romeo and Juliet, and so on. (LaChiusa even pointed out that Rent, which he counts as a true—though uncompleted—musical, was adapted from "one of the greatest musical-theater inventions, La Bohème.") Okay, quality certainly depends on the way the adaptation is handled, but LaChiusa didn't say anything about this in his criteria. In fact, he set aside "the quality of creative talent involved" when he made his judgments. It sounded to me like there's a prejudice against movies as a source, as opposed to plays or prose lit. Is it because movies are pop culture and plays are high culture (though not always in either case)? My, my—that's elitist prejudice, isn't it? LaChiusa’s list of faux-musicals includes Lion King, and I would debate him there: Julie Taymor's stage "adaptation" isn't just a straight "simulacrum," as he dubs them, of the film; even the music is different. LaChiusa differentiates between "theater" and "theatricality"—the former is good, the latter bad—and I see Taymor's work in TLK as true, thorough theater, not just theatricality. That's the problem with LaChiusa's points: they're highly subjective and debatable. Why is his judgment in this instance any better than mine? It isn't!
One big problem with LaChiusa’s position is that it isn’t consistent. In the 2005 essay, the composer dismissed Contact as a pastiche like the jukebox musicals and plays based on movies like The Producers and Hairspray, mere “simulacra” of true musicals. But four years earlier, in a panel debate for the Drama Desk, LaChiusa took the positive side of the question “Resolved: The American Musical Has Entered a New Golden Age.” Guess what plays LaChiusa named to demonstrate what the Drama Desk News reported he characterized as the “exciting new musical theater” being staged? The Full Monty, a play taken from a film; Riverdance, an all-dance entertainment with no book or narrative; and, finally, Contact itself, which LaChiusa called “experimental” back in ’01. (Just to make my point all the stronger, the artist who would present himself as a stern purist in ’05, dubbed MTV music videos as “an offshoot of the Broadway musical.” In 2005, he couldn’t tolerate musical plays adapted from Hollywood films, but in 2001, he saw the Broadway musical reflected in the lowly music video!) The musicals of 2001, LaChiusa proclaimed, were “big and splashy, intelligent, experimental, provocative, and controversial” which “tapp[ed] into their culture in bold, sometimes disturbing ways” fusing tech “with artistic wizardry.” I wonder what happened in the four intervening years to cause such a complete flip-flop?
Incidentally, Shaiman noted that LaChiusa himself wrote a musical play based on Medea: Marie Christine. (“How could you! Don't you know it's been filmed??!! How dare you recycle that old story!”) Ripping off Euripides is okay, but ripping off John Waters (even with his connivance) isn't? Marie Christine, as it happens, ran about two months in 1999-2000, including previews. (The Wild Party ran three months in 2000.) Aside from audiences, the critics didn't care much for it, either, as I recall. (But, then, critical and box-office success is not a criterion for "true" musical status. LaChiusa's estimation is. Harrumph!)
LaChiusa's whole attitude reminded me of the column Robert Patrick wrote in the Times in November 1988 trying to argue that Samuel Beckett was a lousy playwright—I think he dared to call him a "hack"—and shouldn't get the critical acclaim and attention he gets, except that critics had all bamboozled us into thinking he was important. (See my counterargument to Patrick in “Is Waiting for Godot Trash?,” ROT, 17 April 2009.) Mike Nichols’s all-star production of Godot (F. Murray Abraham, Bill Irwin, Steve Martin, Robin Williams) was on stage at the time, and I figured Patrick was jealous because he couldn't get arrested, must less produced. (Deservedly so, I suggested in an opinion I wrote a bit earlier for the Rockefeller Foundation.)
Shaiman's response, “Me, Marc Shaiman responds to Michael John La Chiusa,” was an "open" e-mail he posted on All That Chat, the chat room of Talkinbroadway.com, with the intent that LaChiusa would see it. (It had originated as an e-mail he sent to theater friends such as director Joe Mantello, playwright Terrence McNally, producer Margo Lion, and librettist Thomas Meehan because Shaiman didn't know LaChiusa's e-mail address and hoped someone would forward the message to him. His original response was later posted by one of his correspondents and included some funny, and nasty, asides and personal comments that were excised from the public posting. A lot of this was pretty catty, but in one paragraph opening Shaiman cut from the public letter; he wrote: “Good God John . . . er, Michael . . . er, John . . . er, Michael John . . . .” Genius it’s not, but I confess, it handed me a chuckle. The open letter is no longer available, but the unexpurgated version is still at http://www.broadwayworld.com/board/printthread.cfm?thread=862550.) It was pretty much all defensive and self-serving; he mainly addressed the charges LaChiusa leveled at Hairspray. (Shaiman mostly wrote stuff that pretty much means, 'Oh, yeah? Sez you!' though he did make a few points along the way. The Mame point isn't bad; I just think he might have chosen a weak example—or, at least one that was open to challenge by LaChiusa.)
LaChiusa also had some points—certainly it's hard to deny that the musical has slipped since the Golden Age. Many of his general criticisms of the current state of American theater is valid and accurate, but they’re not new—and don’t really bear on the possible death of the American Musical. On the surface, you could disparage some shows as faux—if you could nail down some criteria to define the label. But in the end, LaChiusa's whole screed was just that—a personal diatribe against a lot of successful (and expensive) musicals that he just doesn't like. His criteria for what’s faux is pretty much in Potter Stewart territory: I know it when I see it. As Shaiman justifiably—if vulgarly—wrote of LaChiusa: "I just have to remind myself what the[y] say about opinions and assholes, everyone has one. But who asked to see yours?"
Not that I could hold Shaiman up as an example of a great theater composer; but is he somehow not legitimate because he’s not Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, or Fred Ebb? LaChiusa said of Hairspray and the other plays he disparages that they deliver “what the audience thinks a musical should deliver,” suggesting that we’ve been bamboozled or don’t know any better. Well, if you’ve read “A Broadway Baby” on ROT (22 September), you know that I saw many of those great oldies and hold them in special esteem, so I pretty much do know what a true musical is. Hairspray isn’t great Musical Theater, but it’s good Musical Theater—and it’s as real as, say, The Boy Friend or Girl Crazy. (It even has a little more to say than those fillips.)
By the way, LaChiusa actually concluded that the American Musical wasn't really dead—it was just absent from Broadway. It lives, he asserted, "in the nonprofits, in opera houses, in school cafeterias in Vermont, in basements in Boston, it’s alive and well—far away from the economics of Broadway." I don't know for sure, of course, but that sounds a lot like wishful thinking to me. He made a very valid—but not original—point that the economics of commercial theater—both on and Off Broadway—are helping kill the musical. But that's also helping kill the straight comedy and the serious play, too. And we all already knew that.
Now, I won’t say that the American Musical has entered a new Golden Age. That would be patently untrue. In the actual Golden Age, the ‘30s through the ‘60s, there were always a half dozen or more musicals on Broadway and three or four new ones opened each season. Of those, at least one or two, and often more, became classics. There were composers and librettists who were world-famous on the same level as the greatest playwrights; there were true musical stage stars who spent their whole careers on Broadway and in Broadway musicals. Pop singers covered show songs, right up to the Beatles (1963’s “Till There Was You” from The Music Man); we don’t hear that very much these days. The American Musical was our gift to world culture, next to jazz, and only we could do it. That hasn’t been true for a while now. Our musical stages are filled more with revivals and imports than native creations and of the few new American musicals presented on Broadway or even Off-Broadway, most are wan and lackluster. But the form’s not dead, either. I’ve recently admitted that my first love in theater were musicals, so maybe my prejudice is showing—but I don’t think so, at least not entirely. I feel like composer-lyricist David Yazbek (whose Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is on LaChiusa’s list of faux-musicals) when he likened the situation to the 1941 movie Sullivan’s Travels. A popular director of Hollywood comedies wants to make a serious movie of social significance and Yazbek suggested, "Maybe LaChiusa wants to make 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' and maybe Shaiman wants to do 'Ants in Your Pants of 1938.'" He concluded, "As long as it's good, I'll take either one"; me, too.
First of all, unlike LaChiusa, I applaud a good entertainment. South Pacific was not only a Tony-winning musical but a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama—but not all good theater has to pay off on that exacta. Some high-minded plays don’t work very well as theater, as Shaiman was blunt enough to point out. “Maybe if certain theatrical undertakers stopped trying to be Stephen Sondheim, we could all 'rest in peace,'” Shaiman dryly conjectured in reference to LaChiusa’s remark that contemporary musicals lack aspiration. “If the musical is dead,” Peter Stone, librettist of 1776, Woman of the Year, and Titanic, among others, remarked in the New Yorker, “LaChiusa . . . has put many nails in its coffin. Ersatz seriousness is as deadly as ersatz frivolity. . . . In his earnestness, LaChiusa displays the fallacies of the avant-garde temperament. His own over-serious musicals show how hard joy and frivolity are to make.” Having watched a spectator nod off at LaChiusa’s Marie Christine while a scene played out right in the seats next to him, Shaiman scolded LaChiusa: “[I]t is MY opinion that you made the CARDINAL sin of bad theatre. You BORED the audience.” Now, I can’t confirm Shaiman’s appraisal of Marie Christine because I didn’t see it, but the principal stands. LaChiusa implied that entertaining theater “still should be theater” and I say that good theater must still be entertaining. In 1999, LaChiusa even said that theater “does have the fundamental responsibility to entertain. You can write about the tragic demise of American culture as we know it, but don’t be boring.”
In 1999, LaChiusa also wrote with delight about the “two styles of conventional musicals”: “There are the fun-only shows with skeletal books on which to hang pop tunes, and there are the operettas rooted in European tradition, with sweeping music and story.” The Producers has nothing to be ashamed of, whatever its origins and sources. Good, raucous fun is to be cherished, not denigrated. What Shaiman called “the ‘E’ word” should not be anathema in the American theater. Spamalot, which LaChiusa rejects with twice the opprobrium he heaps on Hairspray and The Producers—he calls it “faux faux, a parody of a parody”—falls into the same category for me: terrific entertainment. Remarking on his own Opera News essay, LaChiusa said in the New York Sun, “There’s nothing wrong with mindless entertainment. Just don’t call it art.” Hardly “mindless,” I say, anything from the Pythons is bound to be more substantive than LaChiusa gives it credit for.
Second, there are exciting ideas being tried and developed, both here in New York City (often Off-Broadway or even Off-Off-Broadway) and in rep companies across the country. Although Steven Suskin, a former Broadway producer and general manager and lately a columnist for Playbill, reviewer for Variety, and author of books on Broadway music and musicals, doesn’t think we’re entering a new Golden Age for the musical, he does believe that emerging writers are working in new directions “and pushing the musical to places it hasn’t gone before.” I’ve mentioned Unchain My Heart with its book by an exciting young playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks, which is coming from California. A few seasons back was Urinetown—with a plot about pay toilets, of all subjects—which began Off-Off-Broadway (as part of the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival) and moved though Off-Broadway (2001; Best Book and Lyrics Obies) to Broadway (2001; Best Book and Score Tonys); and last season’s Tony-winner for Best Original Score (and a Pulitzer Prize-winner as well) is the current Next to Normal, a musical play that was developed at the Second Stage Theatre in New York City and reworked for a second try-out at Arena Stage in Washington, and deals with mental illness. Things no musical play of the Golden Age would ever have touched on are forming the basis of some new plays.
And, third, I’m not ready to dismiss so early the new forms that writers are working with, including the emerging dance play, the jukebox musical, which, if you discount the two oldies I mentioned, is really a phenomenon that only began in the mid-‘80s and deserves time to shake down, and the movical, which, as I’ve said, I don’t really see as much different than musicals based on straight plays. Along with the jukebox shows I’ve already discussed, the movical Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993; multiple Tonys), with book by Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by Tony-winners John Kander and Fred Ebb, not only deals with homosexual love in the confines of a men’s prison, a pretty brave topic for a Broadway musical, but does so while “celebrating the theatrical impulse and its ability to remake the world.” That was David Richards in the New York Times, and he went on to say:
"Kiss of the Spider Woman" doesn't just assert their [the show’s creators’] collective belief in the transforming and redemptive properties of theater. It embodies that belief. What the musical does and what it says are one and the same. Work and thesis are indissolubly wedded.
That sure sounds like a work with the standards of an old-fashioned musical drama treating new-fashioned ideas. Okay, granted, these kinds of shows are unhappily rarer today than they were 50 years ago, and that’s to be lamented. The economics of theater and the loss of courageous and adventurous producers like Kermit Bloomgarden, Alexander H. Cohen, and Emanuel Azenberg who were true men of the theater before they were men of business are in great part to blame, undoubtedly. But my point here is that LaChiusa’s ready to put the pennies on the form’s eyes and I say, There’s life in the old gal yet! In a weakened state, perhaps, but dead? Not bloody yet, mate! Like Mark Twain said of himself, the report of the musical’s death is an exaggeration. Whether it will revive, or stay in its invalid state, or get weaker and finally pass away, I don’t have the expertise to gauge. But for now, the American Musical’s still around and making an impact.
[Marc Shaiman is also the composer of the up-coming movical, Catch Me If You Can, which is scheduled to open at the Neil Simon Theatre in April 2011. Michael John LaChiusa has several new openings in the near future: The Public Theater and the Dallas Theater Center have announced a co-production in 2012 of Giant, adapted from Edna Ferber’s novel, which had its world première at the Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, in 2009; the Transport Group will stage the première of Queen of the Mist starting in October 2011; the same Off-Broadway company will begin performances in March 2011 for a revival of Hello Again; and in January 2011, a group of young performers will present “The LaChiusa Project,” a cabaret of the composer’s songs, at the West Bank Cafe.]