How to Right the Broadway Musical

In his Wall Street Journal article of May 9, 2018, What’s Wrong With the Broadway Musical, Terry Teachout argues that a splintering of American culture caused the seemingly moribund state of the Broadway musical, and the recent notably weak season. His reasoning is questionable. In order to perpetuate the notion that we once had a common culture, Teachout must ignore the history of institutional cultural segregation that gave us race records, biased entertainment hiring practices, the Chitlins Circuit etc. Furthermore, the successes of Hamilton and The Band’s Visit and the golden age of musicals itself belie the notion that cultural Balkanization should prevent the production of quality art. In fact, they suggest the opposite.

The fact is that the most successful music on Broadway tends to blend disparate styles. While Hamilton is full of R&B, with occasional trips into swing, the songs in that show that are mostly hip hop are all at least 1/3 Les Mis. While I wish the show had been more like the more thoroughly hip hop Hamilton Mixtapes release that followed, I suspect this tension of Tupac Shakur and Jean Valjean contributes to the musical’s success.


While the admirable show The Band’s Visit (or Once but in the Middle East, as I like to call it) comes off as about as Middle Eastern as a teriyaki burger is Chinese, its musical orientation is much like that of the golden age of musicals in which (primarily white) people added jazz to musical operetta. Far from having a negative impact on musicals, the increased attention on great music from far corners of culture and the blending of styles that made the success of performers ranging from The Pogues to Nirvana to MIA to Psy should lead to a new golden age.

The problem, aside from poor market analysis and investor aversion to risk (ironic, in a business in which 75% of investments fail), is that the musical styles with which producers are comfortable don’t match the requirements of musicals, especially the requirement for comprehensible lyrics in songs that move the plot forward. 
Note that Hair (which Teachout cites) broke this rule brazenly. but then plot is of minimal interest in that show. Good rock songs and musicals are oil and water.
For example, consider Stew, one of the more prominent and successful creators of viable rock-based musicals currently working. Stew is a Tony winner for Passing Strange, whose latest musical, Columbus is Happening, had a recent developmental run at a NYC community college (yes, a community college–analyze the economics of that).
Given his success, it should not be surprising that Stew is an assiduous misfit in both musicals and rock. His work is too dirty and overtly political for the one and too neat and overtly political for the other, but then everything is political, especially now (see also Carousel). If Stew would just stop subverting his own stories he might pave a path forward for musical theatre, more so even than Duncan Sheik did with Spring Awakening, a musical with lyrics that were a far cry from the direct simplicity of songs like “Tradition” or “I Feel Pretty”.

Contorting to the demands of rock’s inscrutability is not the way forward for Broadway. Musicals will not return to relevance until they embrace and blend, the language driven sounds of hip hop, R&B, and even country (as the Off-Broadway production Desperate Measures ably demonstrates) with all the diversity of styles available on YouTube. Those three styles combine popularity and articulateness with occasionally tuneful hooks that should satisfy the needs of the Broadway stage and the culture beyond. Stephen Sondheim understood this as early as 1986 when he gave The Witch in Into the Woods a tepid old white man’s version of rap for her opening number. 
However, relevance will require more than just style. The aim must be to drop a great set of songs, as one would any in the music industry, and open the musical of those songs as one integrated marketing package. Not only does Broadway not set the tune for popular music recording sales, it is the cast albums that sell musicals, not the reverse. This is true for everything from the ubiquitous Hamilton to, the otherwise obscure, Floyd Collins.

Broadway has been declared dying since at least 1938, when Kaufman and Hart’s play The Fabulous Invalid opened. If there is something wrong with Broadway musicals it is not the culture that’s been around them since the Beatles or whenever Teachout’s “common culture” came to an end. We can’t blame the audience for the failure of the show. With smarter analysis that embraces America’s diversity, investors will create better art and profits.

Addressing the endemic weakness of musicals’ books won’t hurt either.

 

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