Theater critic Charles McNulty and pop music critic Ann Powers began their conversation about the changing sound of the Broadway musical in the lobby of the Sam S. Shubert Theatre in New York, where they ran into each other at a Sunday matinee of “Memphis,” one of the four Tony nominees for best musical. The discussion that ensued, provoked by the new indie spirit struggling for a place in an increasingly commercialized landscape, unfolded by e-mail.
CM: So Ann, it seems as though Broadway has become a rocker’s haven. Two of the best musical nominees, “Memphis” and “Million Dollar Quartet,” are about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Nowadays, aging boomers are the main ticket-buyers, so these shows make total sense. But who could have anticipated the Green Day hit “American Idiot” or the Afrobeat sensation “Fela!” — a show that thrillingly demands that audience members get up out of their seats and experience the rhythm physically?
AP: I’ve been a rock musicals aficionado since my Catholic high school days, when I Gleeked out to “Godspell” in show choir. I just spent a week checking out the Broadway beat, and I couldn’t be more excited about what’s happening. But to me, the amped-up mood on Broadway feels quite natural, the culmination of several decades’ worth of pumping up the volume. A similar shift has been happening, in the other direction, in rock. Green Day’s evolution from a theatrical punk band to theatricalizers of punk (for that’s what “American Idiot” is, a glorious exposition of the musical movement’s rough style and rebellious spirit) has plenty of parallels, from the rock opera antics of the Decemberists, to Janelle Monae’s silent film-inspired sci-fi funk, to Adam Lambert’s “American Idol” journey from chorus boy in “Wicked” to Freddie Mercury’s’ heir apparent. And don’t forget “Glee.”
On Broadway, the shift is definitely generational. The bubbe tapping her foot next to me at “Memphis” was probably a sock-hopper in her youth. The 1950s-oriented shows aim for this crowd by simplifying and sentimentalizing rock ‘n’ roll’s origin myth. “American Idiot” and “Fela!,” pitched toward younger crowds, do something different and, I think, far more important. What excites me is the emergence of a new form, something that finds its mojo somewhere at the crossroads of theater and live popular music.
There are other questions: How are these shows as shows? Could you sit through “Memphis”? (I had trouble.) Does the soul-deep booty shaking “Fela!” inspires overcome the fact that it leaves some big holes in the true story it tells? Can “American Idiot” really be called a musical, or is it more a very loud dance concert — à la Twyla Tharp’s recent work — or even a live music video?
CM: I’ve been mulling over these same issues, and I probably have more questions than answers. I was able to sit through “Memphis,” but only because of the radiant prowess of Montego Glover, one of those musical theater naturals who does her best to redeem the artificiality around her.
I’m thrilled that new sources of musical inspiration are being tapped on Broadway. (May piano bar bathos die a peaceful death.) And I think Michael Mayer, the director of “American Idiot,” and Bill T. Jones, the director and choreographer of “Fela!,” took their works probably as far as they could as auteurs. Both have book credits on their productions, but neither is first and foremost a writer.
As a choreographer who has spent his career blurring the boundaries between dance and theater, Jones was the more successful, I think, in distinguishing between vision and attitude. True, the book by Jones and Jim Lewis is almost as negligible as the one Mayer and Billie Joe Armstrong “wrote” for “American Idiot.” How Fela Kuti’s death from AIDS-related causes could be skirted in a work otherwise so politically charged is a mystery.
But “Fela!” has a depth of experience that resonated for me beyond the borders of its story. (My imagination was flitting between Nigeria and our last presidential election.) The environmental staging, with cast members exhorting the audience to join them in their swaying and grinding, didn’t just free Broadway from its proscenium paralysis. It invited everyone to bodily experience the power and possibility of grassroots activism.
The trouble I have with most jukebox offerings, even really artfully pulled off ones such as “American Idiot,” is that there’s rarely a true marriage between storytelling and music. That’s why it’s so exciting when songwriters such as Stew and Duncan Sheik are willing to start from scratch on new theatrical works. “Passing Strange,” the indie-rocker-coming-of-age musical that Stew created with his longtime partner Heidi Rodewald and director Annie Dorsen, may have been aggressively loud and unharmonious for the Rodgers & Hammerstein set, but it had a poise and an integrity all its own. “American Idiot” flies but feels somewhat jury-rigged to me.
AP: Let’s not do away with piano-bar bathos too soon! (I’ll give you the schmaltz, but can we keep the gently soaring cadence of “On the Street Where You Live,” and the snazz of “Hello, Dolly!”?) What’s interesting is that as theater has turned toward rock-era musical styles, American pop has returned to the theater — where it was born anyway, in traveling minstrel shows and vaudeville halls more than a century ago.
Today, many of indie pop’s leading lights have embraced the tunefulness and literary lyricism of traditional musical theater. Some, like Sheik, Stew and the Magnetic Fields maestro Stephin Merritt, have stepped with ease into the theater community itself. But plenty of others are following in the let’s-put-on-a-show spirit of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, turning rock clubs into ersatz Broadway houses where they don crazy capes and glitter hats, pursue concepts, and play music that’s more akin to Sondheim than to the Rolling Stones.
One goal of today’s young pop theatricalists — bands like the Decemberists, who released a fiercely plot-driven rock opera, “The Hazards of Love,” in 2009, or singer-songwriters like Joanna Newsom and Inara George, both of whom have worked with maverick Hollywood arranger Van Dyke Parks — is to reconcile with the show-tune side of pop. I see a complementary movement in theater, as playwrights, directors and composers break down the same split by embracing rock and soul’s looseness and participatory fervor — so effective in “Fela!”, as you note.
“Passing Strange,” which I’ve only seen in the Spike Lee film version, does seem like a thorough melding of these elements. (Also, its narrative powerfully confronts the central matter of how music intersects with race and sexuality, which “Memphis” also tries to do, though it falls painfully flat.) And I think it’s a more deeply idea-driven, funnier show than “American Idiot.”
Yet something about “Idiot” felt new to me in ways “Passing Strange” did not. Maybe it’s the way this iTunes-era jukebox show does, in fact, eliminate what theater usually provides. Abandoning a real plot and fleshed-out characters, “Idiot” achieves resonance through shouted choruses, startling dance moves and basic eardrum assault — the tools employed by punk itself.
Do you think Broadway is headed somewhere new? And do you think the kids coming up now, raised on Lady Gaga and “Glee” and of course “American Idol,” may actually start to crave the classics too?
CM: I think the Broadway musical is trying to figure out how to be new in the face of enormous financial pressures. I’m encouraged by the diversity of influences on theater music, but I worry that the holy of all holies — marketing — is dictating the offerings. Friends were commenting during intermission at “The Addams Family” that the merchandise was superior to the show. I’m still regretting the umbrella I passed up, but shouldn’t I be preoccupied with a lyric or some bit of comic business?
The old line about how you can make a killing but not a living in the American theater has never been truer. Producers are turning over every multiplatinum stone for their next future jackpot. Meanwhile, only two new musicals were deemed eligible for Tony consideration in the best original score category. I’d have no problem with the jukebox and revival avalanche if the fullest form of musical theater expression weren’t being squeezed out. But it seems that our most talented theatrical songwriters —- Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel — are in danger of being relegated to the art house margins while the commercial juggernauts hold sway.
Speaking of juggernauts, I’m glad you brought up the biggest one of all — “American Idol.” You’ve been tracking the “Idol” phenomenon, both as a generator of new talent and as a cultural weather vane. The show has certainly had a stylistic impact on contemporary theatrical performance, altering the dynamic between singers and audiences. Theatergoers strike me as more boisterously appreciative than ever before — and I’m not just talking about the now compulsory standing ovation. The adulation for the hard-working cast members of “Million Dollar Quartet,” all of whom perform covers of pop chart classics, was deafening at times. Are “Idol,” “Glee” and the “High School Musical” franchise feeding this frenzy? And should theater critics like me stop reading this as a sign that the apocalypse is near?
AP: Tracking is a labor of love, however frustrating it sometimes can be. (How could Crystal have lost to Lee?!) As an unapologetic fan, I believe “Idol” reveals much about America’s attitudes toward both music- and star-making. And yet I think it’s a little bit hard to track its effect on the theater world.
The most obvious connection comes from the ever-growing number of ex-Idols (winners and otherwise) joining Broadway casts. Taylor Hicks in “Grease,” Constantine Maroulis in " Rock of Ages,” and Fantasia Barrino in “The Color Purple” are just a few. New York’s footlights offer a steadier income than the declining music industry promises — their already famous faces pay off more readily than do their sometimes generic voices.
As for the crowd’s response to these performers, isn’t that also an historical return, of sorts, invoking a pre-film and television world emblematized by theatergoers who regularly rioted? The apocalypse, my friend, has always been with us — and stars have always emerged from amateur productions, whether it’s summer stock or a talent show.
What’s strange is that the best-known “Idol” personality — the now-departing judge Simon Cowell — has consistently criticized contestants for being “too Broadway.” His objections, most famously used against Adam Lambert, operated on two levels. Primarily, Cowell, who considers himself a music industry executive first, is very invested in the idea that “Idol” defines what succeeds on the pop charts. Theater is an outland to him. Also, there has always been a strange homophobic undercurrent feeding his and the show’s anti-theater bias.
Because “Idol” presents itself as a conduit to pop stardom, not success on the stage, the show’s stamp on theater may always be shadowy. Not so with “Glee”! The campy high school dramedy is really a jukebox musical, transforming contemporary pop and classic rock into show tunes everybody can sing. “Glee” puts the lie to those old clichés about the best pop being “real” and “raw” and heralds a new age in which the drama club kids know how to smash electric guitars and rock the DJ decks, and the rocker kids have no shame about belting out a big number.
I’m thinking that theater in the “Glee” moment is also reaching for this broader populist feel. It’s not about spectacle; Andrew Lloyd Webber gave us that in the previous era. And, sadly on one level, it’s not so much about old-fashioned virtuosity and Nathan Lane-style charisma. It’s about letting the audience shout and dance and sing along; making work that invites the audience in. That strikes me as a good thing. As Fela Kuti said: Welcome to the Shrine!