Broadway Musicals: The Highest Form of Entertainment
Social media has been passing around a rather caustic opinion piece by Stuart Heritage written for The Guardian. In this article, Heritage asserts that “Musicals are the lowest form of entertainment…” and that “I can’t bring myself to trust people who enjoy musicals. I seem to have pegged them all as cheats, as people who don’t understand subtext and nuance, who don’t want to do the work and constantly have to have everything spelled out for them.” It’s an asinine and arrogantly written article that draws from one musical example (the movie musical of Les Misérables) as the means by which to indict an entire art form. The genesis of his misguided manifesto is in regards to the recently announced BBC television adaptation of a non-musical Les Misérables. He celebrates how delighted he is that he will be privy to a Les Misérables without music. Heritage is certainly entitled to his opinion. If he doesn’t like musicals, he doesn’t like musicals. I don’t think any of us will miss sitting next to him at the Shubert or the Broadhurst. What I will assert is that his generalized and snarky article does notorious damage to an art form that is arguably the HIGHEST form of entertainment.
Musicals are not void of nuance and subtext. Good god, anyone who has watched a musical by Stephen Sondheim can tell you that. But it is not just Sondheim who reveals nuance and subtext through music and lyrics. As lyricists are concerned, Lorenz Hart, Alan Jay Lerner, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, E.Y. Harburg, Lynn Ahrens, and Jason Robert Brown have all proven exemplary in their efforts to engage audiences through their carefully chosen words and developed subtext. Musically, musicals offer subtext and nuance through their melodies and orchestrations. Again, Sondheim reigns supreme here, but Leonard Bernstein, Frederick Loewe, Richard Rodgers, Kurt Weill, Kander and Ebb, William Finn, Jason Robert Brown (again), David Yazbek and Jeanine Tesori ask the audience to pay close attention to where the music takes them. There is no laziness for the musical theatre audience. Musical theatre audiences are engaged to process many elements of storytelling at once: music, lyrics, direction, choreography, and design are all telling components of a story. The audience pieces together the puzzle according to how they are affected by these elements. Musical theatre is particularly special in this regard, because all our senses are engaged and our emotions stimulated. I insist that musicals are the highest of all art forms (or among the highest), because it takes a vast amount of talent to create them, an undying amount of collaboration for them to work and sustain, and a special investment from an audience that is game to set aside more natural conventions of storytelling, willing to suspend disbelief, and not only accept, but engage with, the final product. This is the glory of musical theatre that Mr. Heritage is missing.