The Ivey Essay: The Lovable Mongrel

In the fourth of our American Express Ivey Awards essays, Dominic Papatola of the St. Paul Pioneer Press extolls and excoriates the musical--the evergreen favorite form of drama.

Dominic Papatola

The American musical has had to bear a lot of weight on its slender frame over the years. It’s been lionized as one of the few truly indigenous American art forms. It’s been hailed as device for social commentary. It’s been clung to as the last crutch propping up the fabulous invalid of Broadway theater.

That’s a lot to expect from a scrappy little mutt of an art form – a crossbreed of European opera and operetta, American minstrel shows and straight drama with recent injections of recycled rock n’ roll and old movies into the bloodline. All the poor mongrel wants in return is to be loved, and generally speaking, audiences throughout the decades have been willing to give the musical a generous tummy rub.

The vast majority of Broadway theaters currently house musicals, and you’ve got to reach down to number 14 on Broadway’s long-run list (currently topped by “Cats” at 7,485 performances) to find a non-musical (“Life with Father, which closed its 3,224-performance run way back in 1947). Closer to home, when theaters from the mighty Guthrie to the tiny Starting Gate Productions are looking for a boost in revenue, you can almost hear them humming a happy tune – a showtune, that is.

And yet, we can’t resist kicking our loyal lapdog. One of the favorite parlor games among theater aficionados is to bemoan the current state of the American musical, whatever that current state happens to be.

“Concept musicals” of the 1970s — from “Company” to “A Chorus Line” — were supposed to sound the death knell for the story-centered “book musical.” There was hand wringing in the 1980s during the British invasion that brought “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables” and other “poperettas” to our shores.

The ‘90s were mostly a big snooze in terms of new musicals and in 2000, the genre hit its nadir when “Contact” – a “musical” in which no one sang, hardly anyone spoke and whose score contained not one single note of original music – won the Tony Award for Best Musical. In the new century, four of the five best musicals – according to the Tony folk, anyway — have been remakes of movies.

There was even a whole book published last year called “The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical,” in which author Mark N. Grant bemoaned the fact that today’s musicals “reflect and cannibalize other areas of pop culture – television, movies, techno special effects, rock music, music videos – and with few exceptions do so without developing any independent life as dramatic literature.”

It’s true that musicals have devolved from leaders to — at best — followers in America’s popular consciousness. We’ve fallen a long way since the Beatles recorded “Till There Was You,” and I’ll give a gold star to anyone who can name a major pop star who’s covered any showtune since “Memory.”

But you can’t just blame the musical. When Rogers and Hammerstein and their contemporaries were churning out shows, not only were there no iPods and high-speed Internet connections, there was no rock n’ roll and hardly any television. As technology has made accessing entertainment ever cheaper, musicals are becoming more expensive to produce – and to see. In 1963, you could buy a pair of seats for a Broadway musical for $7.20, or equivalent of about $44 in today’s money. That same pair for “Spamalot” will set you back more than two hundred bucks.

Given those complicating factors, the fact that the handmade, anachronistic thing called a musical has survived at all is, in itself, astonishing. And in the face of soul-sucking economics and encroaching technology, I think there’s hope for the musical, here and elsewhere.

Some encouraging signs:

  • On Broadway, you’ll occasionally see an unheralded new musical swerve around the roadblocks that read “Star Names,” “Based on a Popular Movie” and “Really Impressive Sets” to become a hit.
  • My favorite current example is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a show in which seven of the nine members of the ensemble cast are making their Broadway debut. There’s not much in the way of a set and the show has nothing, really, going for it except a funny script, interesting characters and a score filled with songs you can sing.

  • Off Broadway musicals – which generally have a little more edge, less flash and give more obscure composers a chance to hone their skills – are starting to wend their way around the country with a bit more regularity
  • A genre that was once the lonely province of “The Fantasticks” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” is being joined by titles like “Bat Boy” (staged last year by the Minneapolis Musical Theatre), “Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical” (part of Fifty Foot Penguin’s upcoming season).

  • And here in the Twin Cities, there are a handful of groups working to keep and build the American musical. Along with Minneapolis Musical Theatre, Theatre Latte Da can be reliably depended upon to bring well-realized stagings of comparatively little-known musicals to local audiences (as it will do this season with 1996 off-Broadway musical, “Floyd Collins.”)
  • And no conversation of musical theater in the Twin Cities would be complete without a nod to Nautilus Music-Theater, which gives aspiring composers a place to experiment and whose monthly “Rough Cuts” programs explore works-in-progress and helps create a dialogue between artists and audiences.

    Will the American musical ever regain its place as the top dog of American popular culture? Probably not – the world has simply changed too much. But those who write off the musical kick a durable and surprisingly resilient breed; one that still has plenty of bark – and bite.