Napa Valley Register
Give them a hand! Musicals stage a comeback
Peter Marks Washington Post
November 23, 2016
It’s musical theater geekdom, for the win.
That’s right, all you show tune skeptics, you who snicker at the spectacle of unison-dancing cats or roll your eyes at the first chords of “Don’t Rain on My Parade”: Who’s getting the last laugh now? Because suddenly, being in and grooving on and talking about musicals is the hippest thing going.
Across the pop culture spectrum – from Jennifer Lopez (cast in a “Bye Bye Birdie Live!” that she pitched for TV next year) to the sexy young ensemble of Fox’s “Grease: Live,” to Ariana Grande, appearing in NBC’s “Hairspray Live!” on Dec. 7 – celebrities who never focused their careers on this genre before are getting in line to sing out, like “Gypsy’s” Louise.
In Hollywood, one of the most talked-about award-season contenders is director Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” an original movie musical with a score by Justin Hurwitz and the “Dear Evan Hansen” team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, that lovingly recalls tuneful films of yore, such as “An American in Paris.” Its stars could not, in fact, feel more of the moment: Emma Stone and, soft-shoeing and crooning along with her, that scruffy, soulful heartbreaker Ryan Gosling.
On the CW television network, meanwhile, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” rolls along in its second season, telling the story of co-writer/co-creator Rachel Bloom‘s desperately needy Rebecca Bunch, a woman capable at any moment of segueing with the rest of a satirically gifted cast into a parody music video, a torch song or even a production number modeled on “Les Miserables.”
And back in its natural habitat – Broadway – where musical theater has long been king, it’s now also queen, crown prince and virtually all the other royals. This season, original musicals are popping up at a near-modern-record pace, with 12 of them opening, by some accountings the highest number since the 1978-1979 season, when 13 musicals debuted. A new crop of old musicals is being sewn, too, starring the likes of Bette Midler and Glenn Close. Sightings of straight plays on Broadway, consequently, seem to be getting ever rarer.
The resurgent enthusiasm seems in part a recognition of the extraordinary adaptability of this quintessential American form; its ability to absorb new melodic styles remains a fitting metaphor for a nation of ever-evolving makeup and character. Maintaining its legacy and, at the same time, pushing the form forward, is a challenge being taken up anew by older nostalgists and a younger generation alike.
“What I loved about it, when Damien pitched it to me,” says “La La Land” producer Marc Platt, “is that it sounded as if it accomplished its singing in a non-cynical way, which is also contemporary. I’m always looking to find ways to keep the musical form alive and relevant in the world, because I love it so.”
All of this is not even to mention the national dinner-table debate that has been ignited by the most acclaimed musical of our time, “Hamilton,” a show that has been embraced by the Obama White House and has even made musicals safe for hip-hop fans. On the occasion of Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s attendance on the evening of Nov. 18, the cast and creative team went out on a risky limb, issuing a statement read at the curtain call by actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr in the show. The remarks took the incoming administration to task for what the production viewed as its hostility toward minorities. The bitter reaction on social media from President-elect Donald Trump gave the entire exchange sustained national media attention.
It is a measure of the degree of confidence felt by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the other artists involved with the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning megahit that they could use the stage of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre as an impromptu pulpit and not worry too much about alienating some subset of potential ticket buyers.
These pockets of populist strength for the musical have been expanding for some time. Musical theater, a genre with roots in the European operetta tradition, has drawn inspiration from such varied influences as vaudeville, jazz and Tin Pan Alley. And though it has renewed itself when it needed to, by, for instance, adapting to the rhythms of rock, it hasn’t for several decades enjoyed the kind of cultural sway it once commanded.
Important songwriters have continued to come to the fore, as musicals have always retained a cadre of passionate adherents. But it has taken longer for the nation’s entertainment machinery to find ways to integrate musical theater back into the mainstream consumer’s diet. “It took on a little bit of a stench,” producer Neil Meron says. By which he means that outside theater circles, a mustiness had crept into the show business zeitgeist, a sense of the musical becoming uncool, out of step.
Meron has a huge stake in understanding the trends. He and his business partner Craig Zadan are longtime supporters of musical theater and more lately executive producers of the live television presentations of musicals at holiday time that began with “The Sound of Music Live!” on NBC starring Carrie Underwood in December 2013. They followed that with “Peter Pan Live!” the following year and “The Wiz Live!” in 2015. The viewing audience, he said, has grown each year. The “Hairspray Live!” that they are set to unveil at 8 p.m. Eastern time on Dec. 7 features Harvey Fierstein reprising his role as Edna Turnblad from the 2002 Broadway production, with a cast that includes Jennifer Hudson, Derek Hough, Ephraim Sykes, Ariana Grande and Maddie Baillio as Edna’s daughter Tracy.
“It’s always been this secret little mission of ours, to bring this genre back to respectability,” says Meron, who with Zadan has also produced such TV extravaganzas as the Oscars. “Which of course we never thought wasn’t respectable.”
On TV, series such as Fox’s “Glee,” in which actors playing high school kids covered songs ranging from hits by ’60s rock bands to the score of “Wicked,” and NBC’s “Smash,” a dramatic series about the making of a musical, gave musical theater opportunities to carve deeper inroads back into the American consciousness. (“Smash’s” popularity in the theater world was such that its original songs were performed at a live concert on Broadway.) Artistically successful movie versions of Broadway shows, such as director Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning “Chicago,” have done their part, too, to foster a broader appeal. Meron adds that the realization by the theater industry over the years that it could tour its biggest hits, such as “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables,” to venues even in small markets has helped knit together a coast-to-coast constituency for musicals on TV.
As Meron puts it, ” ‘Musicals’ is not the dirty little word anymore when it comes to film and TV.”
It remains a fairly difficult process, though, persuading these other branches of the industry to accept the artistic values of musical theater. Bloom, who studied musical theater at New York University and did improvisational comedy with New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade, says she pitched two other ideas for musical-theater series to TV executives before the CW bought “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”; she says finally landing a deal largely stemmed from the credibility brought to the project by co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna, screenwriter of, among other things, “The Devil Wears Prada.”
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which tells of Rebecca’s move from Manhattan, where she was a high-powered lawyer, to West Covina, California, on a quixotic quest to win back the heart of a former boyfriend (played by Vincent Rodriguez III), typically weaves two or three songs into each episode. The overarching concept, Bloom said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where she was filming the final episodes of the show’s second season, is that the songs form a loose narrative chain over the course of the series.
“I kind of see the show as one giant musical,” she says, noting that the songs are primarily written by her and two others, Adam Schlesinger and Jack Dolgen. But it was her specific critique of the humor in many musical comedies – which she often found to be clever, rather than laugh-out-loud funny – that has infused the “Crazy” songwriting with a certain addled wit.
“When I started to learn to write comedy, things changed for me,” she says. “The musicals I loved as a kid just were not as funny anymore.” Indeed, the songs of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” while sometimes inspired by actual musicals – one episode features a number that sends up the rhythmic signatures of “The Music Man” – are far more often drawn from Bloom’s own cuckoo perspective. You might recognize that sensibility from her YouTube sensation of a few years ago, a darkly demented music video called “I Steal Pets.” (“I steal pets from the popular people / And I dress the pets up like the popular people.”)
Like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “La La Land” and even the live TV presentations use novel techniques to reinvigorate the way we watch musicals. Platt, who this year produced “Grease: Live” – he is also a producer of Broadway’s “Wicked,” and his son Ben, is the star of the soon-to-open Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” – says the “Grease” team sought to combine the styles of filmmaking and live television to create a wholly unique experience of the show. And he’s on the lookout for more such opportunities.
“You always want to find new ways to stretch the genre,” he says. “It’s about finding a new grammar for a form we love.”