Musical Malaise: The Twilight of the Original Score?

The zeitgeist doesn’t bode well for top-flight musical theater scores. Unless...

The Ladies of Moulin Rouge. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

In a disturbing and all-but-hilarious New York Times story from London, it was reported that staff members at several West End musical theaters may now be wearing body cameras. This is to combat an apparent plague of “aggressive, alcohol-fueled theatregoers.” An usher at one of the theaters was quoted as calling the audiences for jukebox musicals the “worst behaved.” London’s “more upmarket productions,” it seems, “are not immune from rowdy behavior.”

In an oblique way, this story hints at the changing state of the musical theater — a genre which, with jazz, has been long considered America’s foremost musical contribution to the world. When recent trends are examined — that is to say, not audiences’ behavior but the shows themselves — it’s clear that musicals, like alcohol-fueled ticket buyers, are in a very compromised state.

The roots of the compromise? There are, most prominently, two: 1) the jukebox musical and 2) the musical adapted from a successful (sometimes only modestly successful) movie. Often, as with the recently opened Moulin Rouge on Broadway, it’s a combination of both.

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In addition to Moulin Rouge, the other jukebox musicals on Broadway right now are Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations and Beautiful. The jukebox adaptations include Aladdin, Frozen and The Lion King. Recently closed is The Cher Show and the less recently closed Head Over Heels, with its score by the Go-Go’s. Among jukeboxers coming in the season ahead are Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill, and Girl From the North Country, playwright Conor McPherson’s work incorporating Bob Dylan songs and, some argue, a show that lifts the jukebox musical to a higher level.

But the implication of the list — and of the much more extensive list of jukebox musicals on the Main Stem in the last 25 years — couldn’t be more clear. The most glorious element of the musical — the original score — might be in eclipse. Earlier this summer, the hearts of musical theater lovers sank when it was learned that not a single Broadway-bound tuner for the 2019-20 season will have an original score.

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Several musicals during the 2018-19 season boasted original scores. Among those that are still on view are Beetlejuice and Tootsie (adapted from movies), and the Tony-winning Hadestown. Pretty Woman: The Musical and King Kong (also adapted from movies), as well as Be More Chill (based on a novel) and The Prom (the only original work in this list) are no longer playing.

And what can we say, enthusiastically, of either these still-present or not-sadly-departed scores? That the songs passed pleasantly in performance? That there might be one or two numbers that someone might hum or want to hear again?

This has been written before, but I think it bears repeating: for those who cherish the great 20th-century American songbook, one could sense the melodies from last season’s new scores evaporating as they were being sung. The lyrics especially lack staying-power — no romance, no passion, no wit, no sophistication, no intelligence, no pith. In a word: no craft. Here’s how one frustrated reviewer assessed the score for Pretty Woman, by Bryan Adams and Tim Vallance:

Carpentering their first Broadway effort, the two don’t quite burst on the scene. They peek through. The songs, where off-rhymes proliferate like mosquitoes in summer, do remain serviceable. Not surprisingly, two pop ballads given [male lead] Edward — “Freedom” and “You and I” — impress as items Adams himself could render Top 40 candidates. The ballads handed [female lead] Vivian are less so.

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But hold on. Are the sentiments expressed here grounded in the conviction that quality scores containing quality songs are an obligatory ingredient of any musical that aspires to excellence? Isn’t it possible that standards have shifted? The songs produced in the 1910s and ’20s were practically the point; little changed until 1927, when Show Boat reset the model for the “integrated” musical. Later musicals focused on the director-choreographer, with the score becoming less preeminent and needing to fit sufficiently into the director-choreographer’s concept.

Which is part of the reason that, for more than a half-century now, Broadway songs do not step out of their scores and on to Top-40 playlists — or serve as subtle commercials for the show. In 1964, the Louis Armstrong version of Jerry Herman’s title song for Hello, Dolly! hit the top of the Top 40. Songs from Hair hit the airwaves in 1967. Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” from A Little Night Music, in 1973, landed on the charts when Judy Collins and Frank Sinatra were smart enough to record it. “What I Did for Love” made some headway in 1975 after A Chorus Line composer Hamlisch, as the story goes, insisted that the song, under a threat of being cut, remain in the score. (Major crooners of the day, such as Shirley Bassey and Engelbert Humperdinck, then waxed it.) All of which was long, long ago. Just try to locate a breakout song from the last 45 years — only “Memory” from Cats comes to memory. Record companies won’t get behind songs, and contemporary music is split into niches.

And yet, if you’re listening, some recent Broadway clicks feature first-rate songs. Find them in the Irene Sankoff-David Hein Come From Away, in David Yazbek’s The Band’s Visit, in Sting’s The Last Ship, and in Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop.

This isn’t to omit Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “My Shot” from Hamilton: the original cast version has had millions of YouTube listens and cover versions exist. But even there, none have charted. Cabaret performers might occasionally include something from Broadway or Off-Broadway — Sara Barreilles’ “She Used to Be Mine” from Waitress, for one — but cabaret is always kind of a last bastion.

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So the zeitgeist doesn’t bode well for a renewed emphasis on top-flight scores. Sometimes it feels that given the differing emphases of pop, folk, rock and hip-hop on songwriting, the craft is suffering from neglect. Or, again, perhaps definitions of craft have altered. As the late lyricist Carolyn Leigh once said:

The English language has fallen into sad disrepair. But it’s still true that ‘home’ and ‘alone’ don’t rhyme, ‘time’ and ‘mine’ don’t rhyme. And ‘friend’ and ‘again’ rhyme only in the area bound by Nashville and God knows what.

But hold on one more time. Notice has just arrived that Six, a rock musical about the wives of Henry VIII, arrives on Broadway in February after an Australia stop. Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss wrote the score while Oxford undergraduates. And James Lapine, Tom Kitt and Michael Korie will present a new score with Flying Over Sunset, a discourse on LSD, at Lincoln Center Theater in March. And during Barry Manilow’s recent residency at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, the songwriter announced from the stage that Harmonizers, crafted with frequent collaborator Bruce Sussman, will bow at Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage after many years of preparation. It concerns the Comedian Harmonists, the German-Jewish group that managed to thrive in the 1930s but were forced to disband during World War II because three of its members were Jewish. Maybe the original score isn’t on its last legs after all?