The Theater Turns to New Old Voices

Holly Near . . . Pete Townshend . . . Lucy Simon. . . .

Not quite a roll call of the rockers and folkies of another time, but the people still in attendance, some long removed from the frenzy of clubs, concerts and recording studios but now making their presence felt simultaneously in that great American theatrical asylum for the comfortable and upwardly stable, the musical stage.

Townshend and the Who's rock opera, "Tommy," dressed up after 23 years, has been breaking ticket-selling records at the La Jolla Playhouse as it gets one extension after another, the latest until mid-September.

The Tony-winning "The Secret Garden," with music by Lucy Simon, who with sister Carly once performed as the folk-singing Simon Sisters, is winding up its near sellout run Aug. 16 at the Shubert.

And the Mark Taper Forum ends its celebration of 25 years next Thursday with a one-woman show, Holly Near's personal history as singer-activist through the '60s and '70s and beyond, "Fire in the Rain . . . Singer in the Storm." Even the tough first-nighters of the Taper's previewers did the far-from-customary post-performance thing last Sunday, a stand-up acknowledgment.

For some in the theater, it would seem it's back musically to the future. Move over Beethoven. Maybe Lloyd Webber, too.

It's tempting to speculate about the musical influences and afterlife overtones of the convulsive '60s and '70s when rock and folk dominated mass culture and the words amplified and acoustic helped define the period.

Today rock has been co-opted and is as ever-present as elevator music. And latter-day folkies ply the Nashville Network.

Theater takes its time, though, content so often with musical formulas and patented stories. It's been 25 years since "Hair" was first staged, two years before "Tommy" was recorded and six years before the Who's second effort, "Quadrophenia." Musical theater keeps itself generally quarantined against the contemporary. "Guys and Dolls" is in no clear and present danger of becoming a Deadhead's "Guys and Groupies." Nor is anyone planning a "Most Happy Dude" or a "Rapper on the Roof."

What "Tommy" is showing is that there is a younger-than-traditional audience that would get to the theater in schedule-breaking numbers either out of a sense of curiosity or musical taste or memory.

"The Secret Garden," which calls itself "the family musical," shows that audiences will buy music, even in a 19th-Century children's story scored by a '70s folk singer.

What Holly Near showed in her first one-person show earlier this year at the San Jose Repertory is her acceptance by traditional audiences as well as her appeal to younger audiences.

The generation that bought 45s may now be calling Ticketmaster on their cellulars.

Frank Dwyer, the Taper's literary manager and a key figure in bringing the Holly Near performance to Los Angeles, uses a '60s idea when he talks about changing tastes in entertainment, including the musical theater: "There are changes blowing in the wind. Cultural changes. Deep, sociopolitical changes." People, he believes, are looking for more personal experiences, significance rather than fluff. So in the '90s there is a strong, growing interest in single-artist shows like Near's.

A search for directness. Basics. Honesty.

"The American theatergoing audience," he says, "has become accustomed to seeing big, glamorous, glitzy, dazzling performances. . . . That won't work in the '90s, in the time of deficits and illiteracy and homelessness.

"There seems to be a growing revulsion against the exhilarating excesses of the past decades. Holly Near, performing alone on the stage, with a pianist, her slides and her songs, retells her life from 1948 to the present. It becomes a reenactment of a turbulent time when we shouldn't have eaten all those grapes."

Des McAnuff, the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse and with Pete Townshend the stage adapter of "Tommy," is not that certain that a theater-shaking, high-decibel, rock 'n' roll or even folk/country trend is confirmed 30 years after the rocking of popular music. He'd welcome such a development, though, having earlier brought the Kinks' Ray Davies to La Jolla for his rock musical "80 Days."

If there is a trend in the re-emergence of some '60s-'70s people, he says, it's that theater itself may finally be "getting past quoting and requoting itself. What 'Tommy' proves to me is that people are ready to listen to original work. It helps prove that audiences will listen to the real thing, that they have an appetite for this music. In the '50s, the theater turned its back on popular music. It became more and more inbred, the same kinds of presentations. Andrew Lloyd Webber eventually showed that people like orchestral sounds and rhythms different from the old-fashioned. Rock is taking a longer time."

Single-ticket buyers for "Tommy" have long ago passed the number of subscriber tickets at La Jolla. Most presentations there can count on subscribers taking up half the seats. "Tommy," now in its second extension, is almost exclusively non-subscribers, generally younger, generally new to the Playhouse. A number of "Tommy"-goers are enhancing their return to the late '60s with the coincidental Playhouse companion offering, Joe Orton's "What the Butler Saw," written and performed almost simultaneously with the original "Tommy."

"It's a mission for me, one I share with others in the theater," McAnuff says of trying different musical offerings. "And that's to develop new audiences through a series of individual attempts like 'Tommy.' Can you imagine what kind of audience we would have if I could get Elvis Costello to write for us and to feel comfortable with theater and master the form?"

The lush score to Lucy Simon's "The Secret Garden" hardly resonates with Elvis Costello or even Beatles overtones, but the New York composer believes that "something is happening" to the musical theater, a movement that might change the traditional form.

She says that the original score for "Secret Garden" had a definite "rock sensibility" with several of the numbers written in rock form.

"There is something happening in the theater," she says. "It always takes a movement to make something happen to a traditional form and maybe this is it. There is always room for a different form. But we will never move away from a Sondheim or a Richard Rodgers. Not totally.

"In writing music for the theater it's important to tell a story, to express emotion. That's why it's important to have training in different musical forms. Many of the people from the rock generation who tried to write for the theater couldn't make the dramatic leap, to tell a story. In theater you must know the emotion without the words."

In writing her first stage musical, the former folk singer originally wrote rock- and folk-rock-based songs. But the collaborative processes of theater held down the drums and slowed the beat.

"I would have kept more of the rock," she says.

Her second musical, "Fanny Hackabout Jones," with book by Erica Jong and presented last year in a workshop production at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, was another attempt by her to bring more contemporary musical themes to the stage.

Her description for it: "baroque rock."

While she won't talk about her next theater project, she does say her folk roots will be showing in the score to the HBO movie she is writing for Michael Ritchie, "The Texas Cheerleader Murder."

There is a possible other sign of the '60s and '70s musical influences reaching into the '90s. Sister Carly Simon is writing an opera commissioned by the Kennedy Center, due next February.

Rock? Folk?

"It will be," she suggests, "very much Carly."

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