Thursday, August 29, 2019

MUSICALS ENDANGERED

What Is happening to America's greatest contribution to the theater, musical comedy? Why so many jukebox musicals? Why so many paltry shows?  Why haven't you even tried to hum a  song from a show as you were leaving it? The answers tend to be forbidding. Can it be that possibilities are exhausted? There has not even been a brand new Sondheim show for some time now, and the recent "Road Show," is merely a third version and  even so not a real success. Is there nothing new under the limelight? Is every new note really an old note? No use pointing to new operas, few of them hits and having, as a genre, options that the Broadway musical doesn't have and the off Broadway musical doesn't afford. Some of the new or newish Broadway musicals smell to me of desperation. Take "Hadestown," which, to my nose, is redolent of that desperation, holding no other real interest than Andre de Shields's marvelous performance. But can a single safety belt save a shipload of drowners? The plot is part exhausted myth and part farfetched claptrap.That this elicits ovations reminds me of the German saying "In compulsion, the Devil will eat flies." That is what keeps a mediocre show like "Frozen" going,  that children love it and their parents can at least  bear it. Only two recent musicals have earned my approbation, with "The Prom," despite a sensational performance by Brooks Ashmanskas, already closed, and '"Tootsie," based on a popular movie that offers an adroit actor a timely genderbending role.

Still, with the excellent exception of "The Band's Visit" gone after a respectable run, shows like "Waitress" and "Mean Girls" offer audience-flattering elements  that differ from real quality. Such shows depend largely, if not quite exclusively, on the hunger and gullibility of audiences willing to stand, and stand up for rather meager fare. Most often these are cult favorites, like "Beetlejuice," aimed at and cherished by specific minorities. Another, "ain't too proud," caters to nostalgia for "the life and times of The Temptations," and has at least decent choreography by Sergio Trujillo well executed by an able cast. However, some shows boggle the mind. I am thinking of such nonmusical dramas or comedies as the double bill of "Sea Wall" and "A Life," whose two British authors seem to have gone out of their way to make things needlessly complicated and barely comprehensible as tokens of  presumed profundity. In the former, by Simon Stephens, you never know why a hardly mentioned, submerged wall of sea shore should have become titular; in the latter, by Nick Payne, we never know whether we are dealing with a stepfather's dying or a wife's birthing, the two  becoming somehow scrambled.

But to return to musicals, what are we to make of "Bat Out of Hell," with book, music and lyrics by the songwriter Jim Steinman? He is known for stuff written for, or performed by, the likes of Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Bonnie Tyler, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and a whole trilogy performed by Meat Loaf. But basing an entire show on preexisting numbers is almost like finding a button in the street and having a suit made to go with it. It does not make much sense. Its young hero, Strat, is lover to both Raven and her mother, Sloane, on a rather unbecoming set by Jon Bausor which, not only hard to decipher, does not follow locations called for by the script. The chorus that provides most of the backup is labeled the Lost, though we never find out what they have lost and how. The presumed villain, Falco, is just as vague as the rest, provenance and relationships remaining obscure. The title song does not emerge until the end, and does not explain much of anything.

The show's young hero, Strat, gets little help from having to say or sing things like "Though it's cold and lonely in the deep dark night,/ I can see paradise by the dashboard light." A car and motor bike do indeed figure prominently. The latter "explodes apart/ and his heart explodes out of his chest." "He is drenched in blood" as the Ensemble goes  on repeating without respite oohs and ahs, and we wonder "if life is just a highway. and the soul is just a car" and our hero "seems dead or near dead" in an ambiguity rather hard to enact. Oddly named characters such as Tink and Zahara sprout out of nowhere, the former to have his name comedically mangled, and finally "disappear in a cloud of feathers," which the costume designer, again Jon Bausor, does not quite manage to pull off. And what are we to make of characters named Ledoux, Valkyrie, Kwaidan and Jagwire, among others, who may emerge from the chorus without much conviction or function?

One question haunts the mysterious proceedings: "On a hot summer night/ Would you offer your throat to the wolf with red roses?" As it is worded, I could not even tell whether the red roses come from the unseen wolf or from your throat. After two and a half hours, we get several iterations of a "bat out of hell," when  all we want is for the whole damn thing to be over already instead of coming up with ever more quasi endings. Why doesn't it just go to hell or Hadestown and let us go home? There we can at least play our recordings of true musicals past.

6 comments:

  1. It's not only broadway musicals. Popular music and art, in general, have been going down the shithole slowly but surely for the last thirty years. I know I sound like the "get-off-my-lawn-old-guy," but it's true. Indeed, much of the entire art world is crap. Pure crap. Remember the hitchhiker Nicholson picked up in "Five Easy Pieces?"

    "CRAP! It's all CRAP! It's FILTH! DIRT and FILTH!"
    https://youtu.be/wKWckZxpPBk?t=42

    Remember Picasso? Van Gogh, Camus, Beckett, and Poe? How about Bergman? Are there any filmmakers doing anything close to what Bergman did in his heyday? e.e. cummings, Auden, Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, The Beatles, Mozart, (Yes, I put The Beatles in the same sentence as Mozart). Maybe I'm just out of the loop, but we don't see the kind of artwork these days as we've seen in the past.

    And, I'm not even talking about the classics such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Homer, Shakespeare, etc., I'm just talking about regular old great artists. They're all gone.

    They're all programming computers nowadays.

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    1. Have you visited college campuses lately? No one wants to hear from white male geniuses.

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  2. True, Pop. I said something similar a few days back, posted it but it didn't take. T mentioned the classical repertory as in part inspiration for the Broadway musical, and that's on life support on college radio stations and the like.

    NPR and PBS still have some commitment to it but less than twenty or thirty years ago, as they've gone pc.

    Even old-time network television featured anthology shows that aired adaptations of classic and modern short stories, and that includes the Hitchcock series. I don't see that now even on public television!

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  3. Musical comedy was always doomed for death. I liken it to all those old musicals produced by Hollywood--it seems silly to be on the brink of song and high kicks. As to Broadway, never is there much interest there--quick, who are the great playwrights now? Who wants to see a second-rate movie become a second-rate play? I love your comments on theatre, you have no rival.

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    1. There have been several well-received movie musicals in recent years. "Chicago," "La La Land," "Hedwig," etc.

      And, shows on Broadway sell out for years. "Hamilton" ring a bell?

      https://www.buzzfeed.com/louispeitzman/best-movie-musicals-since-2000

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