“And I Felt Nothing" - When a Musical Leaves You Cold
I am sure that I am treading in dangerous territory here. It's hard writing passionately about musical theatre and always trying to find positive things to say about every musical you encounter. There is such an intense love among musical theatre fans for the genre itself, and in particular a devotion to certain titles, that it makes it tricky to admit in your writing that you just don't warm up to certain shows. Having been both a historian and theatre critic for twenty-four years now, I have found that people relish your positive assessments but get angry with you if you are left cold by a certain piece. Since theatre is a personal experience, and reactions are shaped by mood, the quality of the production, and individual tastes, of course not every show is going to speak to me. Critics and historians are, in fact, humans as well and entitled to their opinions. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with me.
People often ask me what musicals leave me cold and I'm always reticent to answer that question. Oh, I have a list of shows that I just don't respond to and some I just can't stand. If people were honest, they'd all admit that they have their own list of shows that failed to move them. One thing I try to remember as a critic is that I am not beholden to please everyone, but I am obligated guide the right musical to the right audience. I can dislike a musical, but still admire it (or at least portions of it) and certainly I can appreciate how someone else might love it even if I don't. That being said, there are some musicals I just don’t like and never want to sit through again. That’s fine. If every show were a hit and had wide appeal, there would be no such need for a word like “flop”. Every musical would run for years, making millions of dollars for the producers and creators. This, however, is not the reality.
Musical theatre is an art form, and like any art form, a piece of the creators is embedded in the final product. Their intellect, their heart, their soul and their talent have all been poured into this creative stew that will either appease audience’s appetites or leave them unsatisfied. It’s not hard, from a critic/historian’s point of view, to understand that a less-than-enthusiastic review or assessment of a musical could be met with bitterness or anger. Nevertheless, producers don’t shy away from taking quotes from a good review and plastering them across the theatre marquee if they think it will help get audiences in the door. It’s a risk you take when you open a play or musical. To quote the art critic Blair Daniels from Sunday in the Park with George, “You never minded my opinions when they were in your favor.”
And that’s the thing to keep in mind when reading a critic’s review. This is one person’s educated opinion, but certainly not the final say in anything. What is more, you are of your own free will. If you want to see a musical or play in spite of their opinion, you can actually do that and should. All a critic is doing is sharing how a production looks and feels through one set of eyes. If they are good at what they do, they will paint a picture that helps you decide if it’s the show for you. If they are great at what they do, they will know who the audience is for a show and make sure that audience shows up, regardless of their personal preferences.
Okay… back on topic. People want to know what musicals I flat out dislike and I refuse to state that here. That kind of writing is malicious without purpose. What I will agree to is that there are musicals I admire, but that entirely leave me cold. Structurally, they are well put-together and musically they might even have a few songs I can appreciate and will catch myself singing, but the overall premise or product doesn’t connect. I have listened to many people malign Man of La Mancha, Me and My Girl and Bye, Bye, Birdie over the years, but I have always connected viscerally to these shows. I, however, am quite unaffected in the overall by South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof and Brigadoon. I have seen good productions of all three and I am quick to admit that many audiences connect in ways that I do not. I would never consider, though, saying that any one of them is a bad musical. I admire the themes and audacity of South Pacific, but get bored with the plot and trite characterizations. Fiddler on the Roof feels disjointed to me and I only find myself engaging with it in fits and starts. That doesn’t stop me from crying at the end, but that stems more from my understanding of the historical implications of what is happening (and what is to come) and not because I have any particular connection to the characters themselves. Brigadoon has one of musical theatre’s loveliest scores, but a paper thin plot and two-dimensional characters that have no substance. It doesn’t mean I have given up on these titles, because I have not. I keep returning to them with the hopes that a new production will awaken something in me that hasn’t been stirred in the past. I am particularly excited by the forthcoming revival of Fiddler on the Roof because I think if any production is going to grab me, it will be one led by Danny Burstein as Tevye and the Yente of Alix Korey.
Those of us who write about theatre want nothing more than to see a musical that exhilarates and inspires us. If we are left cold by a piece, it’s not because we felt nothing, but rather it’s because we had hoped for so much more. We are a pack of idealists who, unfortunately or fortunately, love theatre and hold it to a high standard. We are not and should not, however, be the be all and end all in a musical’s success. Too much margin for error exacerbated by a search for an impossible dream of perfection.