That Bleak Ol' Broadway - When "Jazz Hands" Are Just Too Loud!
As a bit of a follow up to my article on the "Brash and Bold Musical Comedy" and its growing obscurity, I thought I would devote this week's top-ten list to the other side of the coin: the bleak and depressing Broadway musical. The catharsis of a gut wrenching cry is, for many, as potent as a joyous showtune or a deep belly laugh. Indeed, there have been a plethora of these "jazz hand" silencing pieces that tug on our hearts and keep us coming back for an emotional cleansing.
The Top-Ten Bleakest and Most Depressing Broadway Musicals
Well... we kind of knew what we were in for when we entered the theatre, didn't we? It is no great secret that this maritime disaster ended with myriad deaths and a luxury liner taking its final rest at the bottom of an icy ocean. What we didn't expect was Maury Yeston's majestic score would pluck at our heartstrings with such haunting tunes as "The Night Was Alive," "Ladies Maid" or "Still," finding the humanity in the characters even as they faced their imminent death. The closing moments of the show, when the chorus of the dead joins the few remaining survivor for a reprise of "Godspeed Titanic", still brings me to tears just thinking about it.
2. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Underneath the gore and the macabre humor of this Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical beats the heart of one of the greatest tragedies ever depicted onstage. The protagonist, who has been wrongfully imprisoned, returns to his barbershop after a decade to find that his wife was raped then allegedly committed suicide. His daughter is now a ward of the lecherous, sexually depraved judge who violated his wife and sent him to jail. He then exacts his revenge on said judge and, eventually, turns his wrath on society as a whole by slitting the throats of the customers who have the bad fortune to rest themselves in his barber's chair. One of his victims is a beggar woman who he realized, only when it is too late, is the wife he thought had killed himself. The show is an indictment of people who misuse power, and we all leave the theatre realizing we are just pee-ons like good old Sweeney Todd. The lyrics tell us "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit and it's filled with people who are filled with shit." Not exactly the sentiments of American Greetings cards.
The girl is an outcast. The girl has telekinesis. She gets her period in front of an audience. She's picked on mercilessly. Her mother is a religious zealot. Her mother is also mentally imbalanced. Her mother locks her in a closet. The girl can start fires. The girl is forced to pray. The girl is tricked into going to the prom with a smugly popular guy. Teenagers are assholes. Teenagers have access to pigs' blood. - Are you adding up the ingredients for this "unhappily ever after" stew? Carrie, of course, ends badly with the titular character covered in the ruby red drippings of pig's blood, with the hemoglobin of several of her classmates and her mother all over her own hands. Sure, we revel in the fact that she gets even with all of the heartless jerks who belittled and humiliated her, but the whole musical is one long romp through the maudlin. Even Carrie's crazy mother has the achingly melancholy solo "When There's No One" that proves even lunatics can feel through song.
4. The Scottsboro Boys
People had polarized feelings about this musical, many feeling that its racially sensitive story set within the confines of a minstrel show, was in poor taste. I found it breathtakingly astute in its use of this device to underscore the atrocities that white intolerance inflicts on black Americans in this country. It brings a focus to the blasé attitudes of bigots by telling the tale through the grotesquely racist entertainment that was once accepted as mere amusement. It made their machinations all the more deplorable through the stark contrast of jolly entertainment against the horrors of the actual events. Whether you liked the show or not, there is no denying that The Scottsboro Boys was indeed a bleak and unhappy tale. The story follows nine black men who are charged and held for seven years for a rape that they did not commit. Despite all evidence to the contrary, through the appeals process they are found guilty again-and-again. Some of the boys are eventually released, while others are forced to serve out their prison terms. One of them dies while incarcerated, and those who do finally make it out can't escape the stigma that came with their association with the trials and the deep scars their incarceration inflicted. Kander and Ebb's score captured the irony, featuring such numbers as "Southern Days" and "You Can't Do Me" that offered music and lyrics that were slyly in juxtaposition with their intended effect.
5. Fiddler on the Roof
Many will contest this addition to the list, but every time I walk out of the theatre after seeing a production of Fiddler on the Roof, I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. Sure, there are colorful characters galore and they are given so many funny things to say, we develop a warm affection for the denizens of Anatevka because of their humor. The show makes them so endearing in fact that the impact on the audience of what becomes of them is all the more disheartening. What starts as lively musical comedy transitions slowly into dire tragedy. The milkman Tevye wrestles with his traditions as, one-by-one, his daughters are taken away from him in a fashion that defies their upbringing. We understand their need to love who they love, but we must also sit by and watch his ideals AND his life crumble as his family and neighbors are scattered to the wind by pogroms that basically eradicate his village. There are glimmers of hope here and there, but you cannot escape the theatre without sensing an emptiness created by all that has been lost and the ambiguity of these characters' futures. Composing team Bock and Harnick set the mournful tone with the song "Far From the Home I Love" and then it is a jump from one puddle of tears to another, right up through the curtain call.
It's a convoluted story, that has many variations, and that requires an audience to pay close attention to its labyrinthine plot turns , but there are many people out there who just love the music from Chess. Since I am more familiar with the American/Broadway production, I will refer to that one to give my plot examples. In its simplest terms, Chess is sort of a love triangle (of sorts). A REALLY complicated love triangle. The American chess champion Freddie is set to face-off with Soviet champion Anatoly. Freddie's chess second and manager, Florence, gets sick of being abused by the egocentric, paranoid Freddie and finds consolation in Anatoly's arms. Anatoly is married, but that doesn't deter him, nor does it stop him from defecting from his homeland. A whole lot of tension, political intrigue, and emotional manipulation later, we find Freddie alone, Anatoly tricked into returning to Soviet Russia, and Florence deceived and broken-hearted. The score is fantastically energized, catchy, and features terrific moments for emotional disembowelment in songs such such as "I Know Him So Well," "Pity the Child," "Anthem," "Someone Else's Story," and "Heaven Help My Heart." You will not get a happy ending, though, so just ride the glorious music to your own necessary degree of catharsis.
This Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical takes the unique perspective of reeling the story of an Argentine political leader through the eyes of it's adoring people, through the narrative of a realistic, slightly misplaced revolutionary, and from the point of view of a common girl who sleeps her way to the top and becomes a saint in her nation's eyes. The problem is, she scams her people out of a lot of money that she uses for her own glorification, but continues to mislead them through her bitter end. She gets sick and dies, elevated to "saint" status. What makes it so bleak is her overhanging deceptions and this sad reality how the masses can be fooled and manipulated by their leaders.
The Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical based on the book Passione d'Amoure, is essentially a unique take on the Beauty and the Beast tale, but with a much unhappier ending. A handsome Italian soldier is sent to serve in a remotely stationed regiment and there he meets the the sister of his colonel, the sickly and ugly Fosca. Fosca mistakes his friendship for romantic intentions, making pathetically desperate pleas for him to return her obsessive affections. In the end, she dies and he is shaken to the core by this peculiar relationship. Not only is the show bleak, but the book and score are ominous, wallowing, and deeply melancholy. Passion asserts that the power of love can change anyone for the better, but in the end, that change is not necessarily a happy or positive one.
9. Miss Saigon
The Vietnam War does not exactly conjur thoughts of fairy tale endings and choruses of smiling showgirls. Miss Saigon was true to the themes evoked by the ravages of an unpopular war. An American soldier named Chris falls in love with a Vietnamese prostitute named Kim, unkwowingly impregnates her on the Eve of the Fall of Saigon, then is ordered to evacuate. Years later, Chris is married when he finds out about his child left behind. He goes to see Kim who wants him to take the child back to America (the half Vietnamese/ half American children that resulted from the war are ridiculed and cast aside by society). When Chris makes excuses not to take him, Kim kills herself so that he will have no other choice but accept responsibility for his son. Songs such as "The Last Night of the World," "Her or Me," "Let Me See His Western Nose," "Why God Why" and "The American Dream" just ooze with cynicism, futile optimism, and desperation.
10. Les Miserables
It's right there in the title: "The Miserable." It doesn't lie. These are some very unhappy people, crawling through life's cesspool while getting kicked in the teeth. Even the misunderstood villain of the piece ends up killing himself because life just isn't going the way he hoped. Dollar for dollar, Les Miserables has more tear-inducing moments than any musical ever written. With a song list that includes "I Dreamed a Dream," "On My Own," "Bring Him Home," "Castle on a Cloud," "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," "Javert's Suicide" and "Drink with Me," as well as the deaths of approximately half the cast of characters, it's easy to forget that this is a musical about hope and faith. These messages , however, supersede the moments of loss and devastation to make our emotional journey with the devout Jean Valjean one of our own transformation. There is nothing darker or bleaker that having to look into your own soul and realize that you come up short in comparison to this humble characters.
Sometimes dark and bleak can be beautiful and we need it just as much as we need to smile and laugh. Balance in all things.