The Party’s Over – Mourning the Musical Comedy We Once Knew
Joy - one of the ingredients that used to make for a successful Broadway musical and the one that is chiefly missing in today's musical theatre writing. Nowadays, shows have to be biting, sarcastic, topical, cynical and revolutionary, but to just be a conduit of happiness, melody and merriment doesn't seem to cut it anymore.
Escapism is one of the great gifts that theatre (particularly musical theatre) can provide. Remember the days when we'd gather in the theatre, enjoy an overture full of infectious melodies, laugh together as one at the antics of Dolly Levi or Pseudolus, and just forget the doldrums of everyday life, trading the price of a theatre ticket for that rush of innocent joy? Where is that today? Why is the "old-fashioned" musical comedy progressively becoming more and more old-fashioned? Looking at Broadway's current offerings, the only musical that really fits this style is Something Rotten! and even that has an edgy, ribald humor that was ushered in with the success of The Producers.
Please don't misunderstand me; I believe there is room for all kinds of musicals. The more the better, in fact. What I am interested in exploring is, why the honest-to-god, melodically infused, laugh-inducing escapist musical comedy, which used to be the norm on the Broadway landscape, has now become the artistic equivalent of the black rhino? Did we just stop wanting the Hello, Dolly!, Guys & Dolls and The Pajama Game type shows, the once classics that made us tap our toes and grin from ear to ear, that we have evolved to what now passes as musical comedy in the likes of The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q, and Something Rotten!? These are all fun, escapist musicals, but they are not the musical comedy we once knew.
An argument can be made that the type of musical comedy I am talking about has become dated. Contemporary audiences are used to edgier fair all around, including television, film and music. In a world where the likes of Family Guy, South Park, American Horror Story, and The Walking Dead reign supreme, can the simple charms of the old-fashioned musical comedy be too trite, hopeful and completely of another time and another place? It seems to be a product of our lost innocence as a society that we look at Mame, Dolly and The Music Man and would turn our nose up at their simple charms.
I’m not so naïve as to imply that all musical comedies are perfect (or even the titles that I have used for examples). In fact, I attribute our changing tastes and evolved ways of thinking to be the major contributor to what has become known as the “revisal.” What was considered politically correct in 1940 or 1950 doesn’t always sit right now (nor should it), but the major content of most of these musicals is inoffensive and still makes them classics that deserve to be revisited in some form. I think the problem goes deeper, into the idea that we are just not accustomed to, or open to, a happily-ever-after scenario that is achieved without some dark twists and turns that take us into a murky middle ground of darker or edgier humor. Even Disney and Pixar, once bastions of optimism and hope in the film world, have traded a simplistic format for something more contemporary and complex. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it does point to an evolution in entertainment norms and what is deemed necessary that may be why the old-fashioned musical comedy formula doesn’t resonate anymore.
I, for one, wish we would buck this trend and find a reason for melody, hope and happy-ever-after again. I enjoy theatre that teaches and changes me, but I also like theatre that transports and uplifts me. Hasn’t this always been the case? For every Show Boat, wasn’t there an Anything Goes? For every Carousel, wasn’t there an Annie Get Your Gun? Mame and Man of La Mancha stood side-by-side on Broadway in one season and each managed lengthy runs, memorable music and to win the hearts of their audiences. Sometimes, we just need to laugh, disappear into the magic, and walk away humming a melody that casts the darkness out of our hearts. I champion the composer, lyricist and librettist who can reignite that “old-fashioned” magic. For me, there is a void that needs to be filled, both on Broadway and in my heart.