Musical theater is said to be the backbone of the American theater experience. Certainly, in this century, from the creaky story lines of George M. Cohan to the creaky tunes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, musicals have raked in the big bucks while “legitimate” theater plays to smaller, sober audiences.
Yet, are musicals more than merely feel-good entertainment? Can they claim to be real theater?
Let me begin by stating in the clearest possible terms, I hate musicals. I mean, I really hate musicals. They make my skin crawl. They give me the heebie-jeebies. I reach for my revolver.
And I don’t mean just the recent, cat-screeching extravaganzas with their central ponderous ballad. No thinking person can possible defend Les Miz, which was the single worst experience I have ever had in a theater, and that counts once when I was young and spent a night with Brecht after eating some bad clams.
Less miserable? No! I couldn’t have been more miserable.
Les Miz and Phantom are beneath contempt. Pretention amplified by lack of musical talent.
They’re bad enough, and they have taken over Broadway. But what I am talking about, what really makes my flesh turn livery and my eyes spongy, are the bright-faced, cheery musicals of the past, those dynamos of pop standards, with their boy-gets-girl plots and their sparkly chorus numbers. I despise them. I have hated them since I was a kid and watched their corny production numbers on the Ed Sullivan Show.
My face turned in embarrassment for them. And I still suffer occasional tinnitus from having heard Ethel Merman sing once.
From Oklahoma! and On the Town in the 1940s to Assassins and Rent in the 1990s, I hate them all. With a few notable exceptions, they foist off on the public a distorted, happy-face world view. Even Rent ultimately has a chamber-of-commerce take on misery.
It is at best a miserly and partial vision of existence that musicals afford us, running the gamut of emotions from wistful to plucky.
And the thing I have the hardest time with: their arrogant naivete. They are at rock bottom, unsalvageably corny: “To siiiiiing the unbearable soooooong!”
At least the old Rodgers and Hart or Rodgers and Hammerstein shows had some memorable tunes, and extracted from their treacly context, I can enjoy them. But nowadays, the music is aimless harmonic wandering reaching a high-held note cynically plotted to stop the show. “Memories?” Only memories of the kind of tunes Leonard Bernstein could write for Candide. That musical, one of the few I can bear to touch my skin, is pleasantly acid, whereas most musicals are unpleasantly optimistic. I don’t believe in that optimism. It is a lie.
You can point out a Carousel here or a Candide there. Or a whole canon of work by Sondheim, which fails for another reason — tunes no one can remember.
But the form is inherently sentimental, and the actors who sing the tunes in their breathy, oh-so-earnest manner only accentuate the mawkishness of them.
This is different from opera, where the subject matter is usually tragic, and the music is so much richer, more subtle and wider of emotional range, to say nothing of harmonic complexity and drive.
Give me Wozzeck over Brigadoon any day.