Big and Brash: a Thing of the Past? — What Happened to the Musical Comedy?
Musical comedies: full out, "make them laugh" musical comedies peppered Broadway seasons in abundance from the 1920s through the 1960s. They were everywhere and just about everyone was writing them. Sure, there were always musicals of deeper substance and that had a darker edge making us think, but it was the big and brash musical, filled to the brim with colorful characters, lively music, and zany antics that, for many, became the epitome of what the Broadway musical was. Pure escapist fun like Anything Goes, Guys & Dolls, Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and even lesser revered titles like Goldilocks, Wildcat, and I Had a Ball were the go-to for a joyous outing of theatre. Why are they just not as plentiful as they used to be?
One might speculate that the advent of Stephen Sondheim's success in the 1970s brought an end to this kind of musical. Broadway became more cerebral, audiences more receptive to the intellectual theatre experience that Sondheim provided, and creators of Broadway musicals striving to emulate his style and themes evolved the theatre in new directions. Maybe it was the advent of rock & roll and a new generation of audiences that were shaped by the events and turmoil of the 1960s, leading to the rejection of frivolous entertainment like blatant musical comedy? Perhaps it was the cost, since large musical comedies grew more and more cost-prohibitive to produce? In the last fifty-years, each season might feature one or two musical comedies, a handful of which might be a major success: La Cage aux Folles, Me and My Girl, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Crazy for You come to mind, but not too many that follow that tried and true format of yesteryear.
I think there is some truth to all of these arguments, but I don't think any one argument completely explains the case for the decline of the audacious musical comedy. Infectious melody and old-fashioned song structure are what made their musical scores so easily memorable. And let us not forget the disappearance of the overture in all of this. We used to enter the theatre and be treated to spectacular arrangements of tuneful melodies that we would later hear in the context of the show. Through this device, we would already feel as though we knew the song when we first heard the lyrics sung. BAM! Instant recognition! Then, through reprises, scene change music, and curtain calls we would be so inundated with the tunes of said musical comedy that we couldn't help but leave the theatre humming them. It was built-in conditioning, masked as entertainment, to great effect.
Another evolution (that hasn't necessarily been for the better) is the decline of the musical comedy star. In the old days, there were multitudes of character actors and larger-than-life personalities of varying types that would populate musical comedies. Nowadays, everyone wants to be a power-belter ingénue, amplified to the rafters, in the vein of Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster or Lea Michele. This is not to belittle their talents, but we can only have so many of them before they become interchangeable. Our divas of yesterday: Merman, Martin, Verdon, Stritch, Lansbury, Channing, Rivera all had very distinct, colorful personalities that ignited musical comedy with variety and loveable eccentricity. Where is that now? We have Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters as our mainstays, but they rarely appear in the original musical comedy. Peters last foray into the genre was The Goodbye Girl (1993), and LuPone in a supporting role in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2010). Not particularly resume toppers for either. They seem to be resigned to appearing in those shows of yesteryear (revivals) or have yet to be offered anything worth their time and talent.. The same thing applies to men, where we rely on Nathan Lane to shoulder the weight of those far-and-between, in-your-face musical comedies (and, again, mostly revivals). In a different time and place, performers such as Faith Prince, Alison Fraser, Mary Testa, Lillias White, Laura Benanti, James Monroe Inglehart, Christian Borle, Gavin Creel, and Andrew Rannells (among many possibilities) would be bonafide musical comedy STARS given their due as extreme talents, and not consigned to the elitist Broadway audience radar (or shouldering the burdens of bringing talent to supporting roles in live television musicals).
Could the musical comedy of yesteryear come back? I sure wish it would, but I find it highly unlikely to happen anytime soon, considering the current trajectory of the Broadway musical. I think there is plenty of room on Broadway for shows that are elegant and fun, that make us laugh, where the content is not superseded by production values, and where tuneful melody after tuneful melody bombard us with happiness. This is a renaissance that could get behind.