In the frenetic run-up to the Tony nominations due Tuesday, April 29, much of the discussions, not to say harangues, among the scores of self-appointed dopers have been about the musicals being named. The chat intensified appreciably when Bullets Over Broadway, expected to be the one to beat this 2013-14 season by virtue of its several attached boldface names, opened to less than rave notices and threw everything into a cocked hat.
The Outer Critics Circle noms, announced last week, substantiated the low regard with BoB receiving only four nods—for Susan Stroman’s choreography (but not for direction), William Ivey Long’s costumes, Nick Cordero’s supporting performance and Marin Mazzie’s supporting performance. There’s nothing for book writer Woody Allen, which means he can skip the awards evening without offending anyone. The Drama League includes Bullets on its list of nine best musical contenders. The Drama Desk nominators give Bullets six nods—one supporting mention (Cordero) and the rest in the less heralded categories.
But with all the talk about who and what will be nominated in the musical categories, there’s been no real conversation about the quality of the musicals and little in particular about the music written for them, music written for shows at one time (if not very recently) being the crucial element of anything calling itself a musical.
If there had been such conversations, those chatting wouldn’t debate the relative qualities of the eligible productions. Instead, they’d shake their heads in despair over scores being passed off as the implied equivalent of the top-drawer award-snagging scores of the past.
Let’s put aside jukebox musicals where, in large part for their marquee value, familiar material has been worked one way or another into a Great White Way enterprise. They remain plentiful, of course, with the standout being Carole King’s Beautiful, containing a healthy collection of her chart-making songs, many of them from the multi-million-selling Tapestry. And the revue After Midnight with its ‘20s-‘30s standards has no music-o-meter worries, either.
On the other hand, Bullets Over Broadway, in which the ‘20s ditties Stroman and Allen favor don’t especially edify the characters and situations, is decidedly compromised by its jukeboxness. Yet another jukebox musical (whether it answers to the call “musical” or “play with music” is Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, which is chock full of Billie Holiday’s signature songs. Yes, they pass muster. And speaking of signature songs, A Night with Janis Joplin featured, needless to say, the late great’s rafter-ringing tracks as covered by Mary Bridget Davies.
Let’s also put aside the revivals which by definition, or almost by definition, boast strong scores and box-office recognizability. Fred Ebb and John Kander, whose work was always commendable (hummable, well-crafted) even if their shows weren’t, are at the top of their traffic-stopping form in Cabaret. Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer (he translated Claude-Michel Schonberg’s French lyrics), often distinguish the sometimes bombastic Les Miserables score. Their songwriting effectiveness certainly goes a long way towards explaining producer Cameron Mackintosh’s repeated revivals.
Jeanine Tesori’s revived Violet (lyrics by Brian Crawley) confirms handily enough her promise from Thoroughly Modern Millie (lyrics by Dick Scanlan) and Caroline, or Change (less impressive lyrics by Tony Kushner). She further proved herself downtown this year with Fun Home (lyrics by Lisa Kron). Finally, Stephen Trask’s score for the revived Hedwig and the Angry Inch demonstrates that at least someone can write a legit (that’s to say, not ersatz) rock score for the legitimate stage.
But what about the original scores dropped on our heads and into our ears this season? Which offers anything more than echoes of the great scores of the past? Do the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty Rocky songs stay with listeners past the okay renditions they get as the show ambles on its way to the hotsy-totsy championship finale? The two Ragtime purveyors definitely know better, but here they give the impression of turning out tunes for hire and letting inclusion of the Top 40 “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor’s Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan carry the day.
When Jason Robert Brown is writing for himself or about himself (The Last Five Years), he’s forceful. But when decorating a book, as he does with The Bridges of Madison County (where the only covered bridge on hand isn’t covered), he turns out generic Broadway stuff. This outing he gives the impression of being strongly influenced by The Light in the Piazza’s Adam Guettel.
As for Aladdin, the latest of the Disney cartoons brought to the stage with varying results, the standout number is the Oscar-winning “A Whole New World” by Alan Menken and Tim Rice. Though sometimes peppy, the other ditties from Menken, Rice, the late Howard Ashman and additional lyrics by the overrated Chad Beguelin, serve mainly as pegs for director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s gaudy production numbers. Several of them emanate, of course, from the screen version
The repetitious Tom Kitt-Brian Yorkey If/Then songs exist primarily for the uninspired power ballads Idina Menzel belts at regular intervals from downstage center. And why go on about First Date, Soul Doctor and Andrew Lippa’s Big Fish, which started out flashily and then went downhill with small help from director-choreographer Stroman? Why dwell, for that matter, on the usually superb William Finn’s disappointing Off-Broadway Little Miss Sunshine?
But wait. One score does warrant praise: the Steven Lutvak-Robert L. Freedman contribution to the smart and funny A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which has received 11 Outer Critics Circle nominations and 12 Drama Desk nominations. In that song list, there’s evidence that the tunesmiths are aware of the demanding craft practiced by the best of their predecessors. Where it sometimes seems as if the men and women writing musicals now have no idea that Show Boat or Anything Goes or South Pacific or My Fair Lady or Gypsy or A Chorus Line were ever written, Lutvak and Freedman respect the standards by which the unforgettable shows were composed.
But wait a minute. Maybe my invoking those standards—the ones that led to the penning of so many Great American Songbook staples—exposes my not accepting that times change. It may be that songwriting standards haven’t been lowered, as I see it, but that in 2014 we simply live by different standards. The time when tastemakers turned to Broadway musicals for important new songs has long passed. What the public wants now in the age of hip-hop, American Idol and The Voice isn’t what the public wanted then. Record companies, whatever is left of them, that invested in musicals a half-century ago no longer do for undoubtedly obvious reasons.
The Broadway musical today is a different animal, and if A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is struggling at the box office while Aladdin isn’t, the message is clear. What the public wants in a dumbed-down age is what they know, what’s accessible to them, what doesn’t require rigorous attention from them or awareness of a certain sophistication conferred by craft and artistry.
What I won’t concede, though, is the notion that they no longer write them as they used to. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is the most obvious example at the moment, but there are numerous equally talented songwriters toiling in the time-honored tradition. Their major drawback is they’re unknown and therefore not bankable.
Care to hear about teams who deserve to be on Broadway and aren’t? I’ll name only two: Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich and Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk. These four, and many like them out there, are absolutely writing them like they used to, but so far not enough of the visionary people are listening. Not enough producers willing to take risks are rallying round.