New themes from the musical stage

Mark Czarnecki December 24 1984

New themes from the musical stage

Mark Czarnecki December 24 1984

New themes from the musical stage


Mark Czarnecki

Traditionally, a “musical” meant for theatregoers a play filled with hummable tunes and captivating dance numbers, supporting an often sentimental love story. But the era of the traditional musical may be drawing to a close, as music and theatre gradually regroup under the more comprehensive heading of “music theatre.” In the experiments of such composers and lyricists as Stephen Sondheim and Philip

Glass, the new ways of uniting music and theatre—whether in drama, musicals or opera—are yielding kaleidoscopic patterns which may serve as blueprints for future American theatre. Meanwhile, in London’s West End, the opening last month of Melvyn Bragg’s The Hired Man indicates that British theatre has developed its own form of music.

A key factor in those innovations is economics. In New York production costs for a medium-sized show start at $500,000 while ticket prices for good seats now reach $45. Unless a moderately successful production becomes a smash hit and generates massive spinoff revenue, it is often closed as unprofit-

able. As playwright Arthur Miller commented this month: “We have no real theatre. We have shows, which isn’t the same thing. It’s wrong that for a show to be a hit it has to be sold out.” The stifling effects of such harsh economics have forced music-theatre innovator^, including even the world-renowned Sondheim, to off-Broadway and beyond, where they can take greater risks. At the same time, operas are moving from opera houses to theatre stages. Sixtythree-year-old Joseph Papp’s New York

Shakespeare Festival has followed up its successful version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance in 1981, starring Linda Ronstadt, with another appearance by the rock star in Puccini’s opera La Bohème.

Still, few individuals have been as involved in restructuring the musical as Sondheim, 53, the lyricist for West Side Story (1957) who has written the score and lyrics for 10 other Broadway musicals. This fall three of his works played simultaneously in New York: while his latest musical, Sunday in the Park With George, played on Broadway, a revival of his 1979 hit, Sweeney Todd, appeared at the New York City Opera and a scaleddown remount of his 1976 Broadway

musical, Pacific Overtures, has been winning raves at the Promenade Theatre.

Sondheim’s whimsical, detailed scenarios blend the traditional Japanese Noh and Kabuki theatre with Western mime, vaudeville and—in such a show stopper as Please, Hello—the wit of Gilbert and Sullivan. Instead of plot, Overtures presents a series of poetic sketches showing how Japanese of all classes, from politicians to samurai to fishermen, react to commercial exploitation

by the West—especially the United States. Perry is brilliantly characterized as a demon lion with floor-length, flowing white hair.

Most surprising in Overtures is its emotional richness. In such a crowded dramatic laboratory, human feeling could easily be overlooked. But Sondheim, aided by Fran Soeder’s delicate direction and the simple, inventive design, once again touches the audience in unfamiliar ways: instead of the musical’s usual love interest, the play plucks at a gamut of emotions more common to serious drama, from the loss of childhood innocence to the tragedy of humanity’s chronic inability to communicate.

In 1976 Broadway was unprepared for the eclectic virtues of Overtures. But its revival and success off-Broadway mirrors the development of Sondheim’s ground-breaking Sunday in the Park With George. It too reached its present, mature form off Broadway—the first time Sondheim has nurtured a creation elsewhere before trusting it to Broadway’s capricious climate.

Currently playing at the Booth Theatre, Sunday is a complex, intellectually challenging inquiry into the creative

process. Its focus is the 19th-century French painter Georges Seurat and his most famous work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte, which he completed in 1886. Seurat broke each color into its component parts with his pointillist technique, so that at a distance the viewer’s eye reassembled the whole. Similarly, Sondheim presents a seemingly unrelated tangle of musical and philosophical ideas in the first act which triumphantly fall into place in the second.

The setting is the park in Seurat’s painting where George (Robert Westenberg) obsessively sketches Dot (Bernadette Peters), his long-suffering mistress. She eventually abandons him and moves to the United States with their baby, Marie, but George rejects her accusation that he is unfeeling. Speaking for both Seurat and Sondheim, George proclaims: “I am not hiding behind my canvas. I am living in it.”

Having anchored their work so firmly in a particular time and place, Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the

book and also directed, pull off a dramatic coup by leaping ahead a century. Marie, now 98, is helping her grandson, also called George, to introduce his latest laser-lit piece of technological sculpture at an art gallery reception. But George knows that his inspiration is flagging, and only by returning to the island of Grande Jatte can he tap his artistic bloodlines and start again. Like Seurat’s painting viewed in its proper perspective, Sondheim’s scattered melodies slowly come together in moving

harmonic choruses which praise the gods of creativity and once again affirm the humanity inherent in great art.

Meanwhile, British crowds are currently flocking to a work co-produced with England’s master writer of American-style musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber. (Webber’s musical, Cats, is still packing houses both on Broadway and in the West End.) But the new work is uniquely English. Written by Melvyn Bragg, The Hired Man is a stirring, romantic view of life in English rural communities around the time of the First World War. Howard Goodall’s inspired score, especially powerful in the male choruses, sounds like the rich hymnal music of Edward Elgar rather than the Broadway musical tradition, and it perfectly suits the brusque emotions of rural life. Overall, The Hired Man offers a refreshing approach to the working class at play.

The Hired Man is a first step for British theatre in formulating its own recipe for mixing music and theatre. But music-theatre professionals every-

where are also expanding their horizons to include territory that opera lovers had considered their chosen form’s exclusive domain until recently. In La Bohème, at off-Broadway’s The Public Theatre, director Wilford Leach draws convincing, restrained performances from the show’s alternate lead, Patti Cohenour, as Mimi, and country-andwestern singer Gary Morris as her lover, Rodolfo.

As theatre reaches out to incorporate unexpected forms, opera at the same time is drawing closer to theatre. One of opera’s most controversial designers and directors is the American artist Robert Wilson, whose 41/2-hour epic Einstein on the Beach, with music and lyrics by Philip Glass, 47, has just opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Originally produced in 1976, Einstein has been an object of cult worship ever since. In their Herculean attempts to construct a new mode of artistic expression the two pioneers work with only the most basic artistic elements. Glass’s minimalist score employs endless variations on a limited number of rhythmic patterns, while the lyrics are restricted to the names of the notes themselves. The cavernous opera stage alternately displays a complete absence of sets, with dancers twirling against a monochrome backdrop followed by scaffolding dotted with light bulbs for the apocalyptic finale.

Einstein has no story in a traditional sense: Wilson’s astoundingly slow elaboration of his daunting, surreal images constitutes the only action. An investigation into the scientific and cultural implications of Einstein’s theory of relativity, the work incarnates the best and the worst of the 1960s avant-garde movement in which Wilson is rooted. Its techniques hold a unique mirror to the viewer’s subconscious, but several extended sequences are simply boring—they do not lead to contemplation, as Wilson intended, but to the bar. Yet without such magnificent, excessive gambles as Einstein, music theatre would develop much more slowly.

Although it is unlikely that Einstein will ever play on Broadway, the sellout success there of Sondheim’s Sunday indicates that, even in its current state of acute economic tension, Broadway has not shut tight the door on change. Still, its future functions may be restricted to generating solid income from its traditional fare and theatrical innovations, including Sunday, which have proven themselves elsewhere. As for music theatre, public taste is already showing signs of a willingness to try something new in exchange for the old Broadway musical—before that form’s legs give out forever.

Nicholas Jennings