14 June 2012

The State of the Broadway Musical

Sure, “I Believe,” but does anyone else on Broadway?

I’m pleased to announce that the new online magazine The Aesthete has just published my backstage profile of Caissie Levy, the appealing star of Ghost: The Musical, an adaptation of the popular 1990 film now playing at the Lunt–Fontanne Theatre; you can find that article here.

In order to speak to Levy without making a complete fool of myself, I attended a performance of Ghost a couple of days before our interview. Appropriately, perhaps, after a show that opened on Shakespeare’s birthday, I walked out thinking of Polonius. “To thine own self be true” turns out to be good advice in entertainments, as well as in personal conduct, but it’s here that Ghost, for all its flash and boom, fails miserably — and that, in turn, bodes ill for all of Broadway.

Ghost stars Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy.

Most of the flash in Ghost is found in the stagecraft, the show’s most impressive component, which uses all kinds of mechanical ingenuity and digital imagery to create evocative scenery and whiz-bang special effects — to the point that, every time that designers Rob Howell (sets), Jon Driscoll (video), and Paul Krieve (illusions) don’t pull out their high-tech bag of tricks, as for a rather puny little Italian restaurant set, you’re rather disappointed: “Is that all there is?” you think. “Why no flying spaghetti?”

Ultimately, Ghost tries very, very hard to be a movie. It’s even got an opening title, including a flying aerial view of New York City, and the show recalls the film’s most memorable sequences and gestures (notably including that pottery-wheel scene that’s burned into the memory even of people who never saw the movie) with care. That’s not surprising, since the book of the musical, like that of Carrie: The Musical, was written by the screenwriter, in this case Bruce Joel Rubin.

See the movie, see the show: Levy and Fleeshman
in Ghost’s most famous sequence.
Nothing if not a savvy pro, Levy rightly predicted that this scene
would be included in the show, and as soon as she was cast,
she went out and took pottery lessons.

Ghost also tries very, very hard to be a rock concert, with a score by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and Glen Ballard, who’s written monster hits for stars such as Alanis Morissette and Michael Jackson. Despite decades of trying (since Hair, in 1968), Broadway has never really, entirely assimilated rock or known what to do with it, but in the meantime, the general public has stopped listening to theater music: the days when the original cast album of My Fair Lady was the number-one record in America are long gone. And so Broadway tunesmiths keep trying, and Broadway producers keep turning to rock stars, hoping to come up with something popular.

For Ghost, sound designer Bobby Aitken pumps up the volume to earsplitting (and I mean that almost literally) levels, all the better to trick us into thinking we’re attending a concert. I seldom go to rock concerts and I’m not accustomed to listening to music this loud — or this distorted — but, I quickly understood, I am not the target audience for this show.

The target audience is tourists, as it is for virtually every show on Broadway nowadays. Producers seem to have concluded that a monster hit cannot be sustained by New Yorkers alone, and in our society’s post-Reagan thinking, only the monster profits of a monster hit are worthwhile. Thus Ghost also tries to be a tourist attraction — something of a thrill ride, in fact.

Not a scene from Ghost: Andrew Rannells (center) in The Book of Mormon, flanked by Nikki M. James, Josh Gad, and the company.

What Ghost is not, and seems to have forgotten to try to be, is a Broadway musical — not in any way in which that term of art has ever been understood before. Only intermittently, and primarily in the performance of Da’Vine Joy Randolph (as Oda Mae, the psychic played onscreen by Whoopi Goldberg), do you get the sense that anybody connected with this show has ever seen a musical, much less knows how to write one.

The contrast couldn’t be more pronounced between Ghost and the last musical I saw on Broadway, The Book of Mormon. That show’s creators, Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone, have done their homework, quite possibly all their lives. Certainly there are plenty of examples of strong musical-comedy sequences in Parker and Stone’s most famous collaboration, South Park; Lopez is a creator of Avenue Q.* Not only their knowledge of but also their affection for musical comedy are evident in every scene.

Thus we get “I Believe,” an anthem for the central character that recalls — and quotes from — “I Have Confidence” in The Sound of Music. And the brilliant sequence in which the Ugandans enact their own version of Joseph Smith’s story is a direct reference to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” in The King and I. You don’t get more classic than that, and those are just two among countless examples of Book of Mormon’s complete understanding of its antecedents and mastery of the form.

An authentic Broadway dance number: “Turn It Off,” choreographed by Casey Nicholaw and featuring Rory O’Malley (left).

What’s most remarkable is that Lopez, Parker, and Stone have adapted the conventions of the Broadway musical in a way that simultaneously satirizes and celebrates them — that is to say, their approach to the Broadway musical is entirely analogous to their approach to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Sure, this stuff may look absurd to outsiders — but it works, if you let it.

And as proof of their faith in the form, they didn’t merely adapt a popular Hollywood movie. They created something wholly original, in which they’d fully invested themselves, so that no plot development is unconsidered, no detail unexamined, no possibility unexplored. The results are almost unnervingly flawless.

Ethel Merman never did this:
Fleeshman walks through closed doors in Ghost.

Producing a Broadway show is a hugely expensive undertaking — just buying a ticket is no small feat — so one can understand to a degree why producers and creative teams are wary of the risks that originality entails. They’re constantly hedging their bets.

They exploit the least sophisticated audiences and the most familiar material possible, because surprise means risk. They hire actors (either crowd-tempting Hollywood celebrities or near-anonymous journeymen) whose personalities are irrelevant to the essence of the show, the opposite of Merman or Martin or Channing. And most and worst of all, they bend over backward to be something they’re not.

Which means that the thing they seek to do, no longer exists. What I saw was less Ghost: The Musical than a ghost OF a musical, and despite The Book of Mormon and the efforts of a few other quixotic idealists, I’m less and less optimistic for the survival of a great American art form.

The cast of The Book of Mormon.

*NOTE: It was through the generosity of Ann Harada, one of the original stars of Avenue Q, that I was able to see Book of Mormon.


Anonymous said...

I believe the only one I want to see is The Book Of Mormon! I am waiting for his discount tickets from Ticketpolice.com for that one!I have been going to Broadway since I was 13. LOVE IT!

William V. Madison said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm unfamiliar with the service you mention.

Janice H. said...

Yeah, I was wondering how you got in to "Book of Mormon"...:-)