As always, a Scott Miller book is one I reach for with relish.
In his previous tomes, Miller has proved himself to be a marvelous and incisive writer about the inner workings of musicals. What’s more, his concise survey of the Vietnam War in his excellent 2003 book LET THE SUN SHINE IN: THE GENIUS OF HAIR describes what happened better than many history books I’ve encountered.
And with his new book’s subtitle – “The New Golden Age of the American Musical” – I felt we’d be in agreement.
Any fan of this art form would have an easy time coming up with 11 21st century musicals that have marked a major renaissance. Those that might come to your mind are:
WICKED, for creating a teen girl audience.
COME FROM AWAY, for finding a completely different approach in weaving music in and out of a show without a particular emphasis on songs.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN, for revealing how pervasive social media can have negative effects (and bringing Pasek and Paul to the fore).
JERSEY BOYS and BEAUTIFUL, for showing the jukebox musical to its best advantage.
URINETOWN, for taking the Brecht-Weill musical into today.
KINKY BOOTS, for showing that if a man wants to display his feminine side, he can and should.
MATILDA, for reiterating that knowledge beats ignorance.
HAMILTON for breaking the sound of Broadway’s music barrier as well as its fearless casting of minorities.
NEXT TO NORMAL, for being the first musical to succeed with a most difficult subject: the ramifications of losing a child.
THE PRODUCERS, for reintroducing sheer musical comedy to
AVENUE Q and THE BOOK OF MORMON for their entertainment value and sheer audacity.
That’s 11, and you’ll undoubtedly have your own that may vary by a title or two or three. But there’s a good chance that your list will be closer to mine than Miller’s.
His choices are (in the chronological order that he’s arranged them):
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA
NEXT TO NORMAL
BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON
and BE MORE CHILL.
To paraphrase Pickering in MY FAIR LADY, “Come, sir, I think you’ve picked some poor examples.”
Shows that ran an average of 70 performances off-Broadway and 355 on Broadway aren’t evidence of a golden age. Most people attending theater simply did not want to see Miller’s selections with the exception of URINETOWN (28 months), NEXT TO NORMAL (21) and AMERICAN IDIOT (12). Even those shows weren’t white-hot tickets compared to some of the ones I mentioned above.
But Miller’s 11 shows? His past books have had publishers, but with these comparatively obscure musicals that he wanted to champion, apparently no editor said yes; hence Miller had to self-publish.
When I questioned Miller on his choices, he answered “You have a bias that I don’t think you generally realize you have. It doesn’t matter if those shows ran long on or off Broadway if they have a healthy life and are appreciated regionally.”
First off, I don’t believe I’m biased towards Broadway or that I have less regard for regional theater. Of the 45 that have won the Tony, I’ve been to 32. I’ve traveled to catch theater in 46 states and 15 countries from Austria to Australia, from Bermuda to Japan. In fact, I’ve made four visits to Miller’s estimable organization, New Line Theatre in St. Louis.
I’ll wager that I’ve made my way there more than most New York-based critics have. And New Line deeply rewarded me each time I went. I wrote that one of those trips was “the most valuable theatrical pilgrimage I’ve ever made”; this statement, published 16 years ago, still holds true. (It’s also a quotation that Miller has used in his promotional material.)
But how many of Miller’s golden 11 are literally experiencing “a healthy life” and are “appreciated regionally”? That happy fate usually happens to Broadway’s smash hits of yesteryear. There’s a good chance that many of the shows that Miller is trumpeting are ones that would cause the average regional theatergoer to say in an astonished voice “I never HEARD of that.”
Let’s go to Amazon and take a look at the record sales in the Show and Soundtracks category for Miller’s selections. As of this writing, only AMERICAN IDIOT is in the Top 100 – and that just makes the cut at 100.
After that comes HEATHERS (303), NORMAL (354), CHILL (448), URINETOWN (451), STRANGE (878), CRY-BABY (1,331), SUCCESS (1,402) and BLOODY (1,592). For whatever reason, Amazon doesn’t give JERRY SPRINGER a ranking. As for BARE, it doesn’t even have a cast album, which will greatly hurt its chances for future productions and being a part of the new golden age.
Wouldn’t a better case be made by citing some of this millennium’s musicals that Miller ignored? Amazon lists HAMILTON (1), COME FROM AWAY (3), WICKED (6) and DEAR EVAN HANSEN (37).
Miller rebuts “Broadway isn’t the musical theatre – it’s just the commercial arm of the musical theatre.” Sure, but is there any doubt that virtually all of today’s musical theater writers want their shows to play there?”
“I’d argue that most people attending theater never get to New York,” he writes – and he’s right about that. The Theatre Communications Group, which monitors our nation’s 1,855 regional theaters, reports that the 2017-2018 season (the most recent for which figures have been computed) saw 39 million tickets sold – two-and-a-half times more than The Broadway League’s 2018-2019 season (the most recent for which figures have been computed) when 14.77 million tickets were bought.
But The Broadway League also says that 65% of its audience is tourists. Yet the 9.6 million that came to town last season and could have seen BE MORE CHILL (Miller’s other 10 choices had been long closed) apparently preferred other shows.
Keep in mind, though, that a good portion of that 14.77 million was for musicals, which have dominated Broadway for the last 70 years. In contrast, most regional theaters do NOT do a full season of musicals; the vast majority present at most one or two annually and fill out the rest of their schedules with plays or one-person shows, all in the cause of economy. Plenty of these theaters, unlike Broadway’s, are dark for many weeks of the year, including Miller’s own New Line Theatre; at the end of this season, he’ll have been open 12 weeks and closed for 40.
And while Miller constantly stresses that New York is not the be-all and end-all, he’s not above citing the times when his 11 selections got awards or nominations from the Tonys, Drama Desk, Obie and Outer Critics Circle Awards to prove their worthiness. If the regionals are so important to him, why doesn’t he make more mention of such awards as the L.A. Ovations? Indeed, he does – when he has no New York prizes to bolster his claims. This Manhattan-centricity for awards suggests that Miller has, to paraphrase his own words, a bias that I don’t think he generally realizes he has.
Your eyebrows may raise on the very first page of his introduction. Miller states that the much-praised period of Broadway musicals between 1943 and 1964 “wasn’t actually a golden age.” Really? With LIFE magazine often putting a Broadway musical on its cover and with Ed Sullivan frequently showcasing numbers from a current Broadway musical on his TV show, people felt a need to pay attention to Broadway, lest they be branded as lacking in culture and sophistication.
Record companies feverishly competed for the rights to record original cast albums. Columbia was so ashamed that it didn’t get FIDDLER ON THE ROOF that it put out an album of its own. So did RCA Victor with MR. PRESIDENT when everyone thought that one was going to be a major hit.
CAMELOT, FLOWER DRUM SONG, THE MUSIC MAN, MY FAIR LADY, THE PAJAMA GAME, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and HELLO, DOLLY! were all the Number One best-selling albums in the country for at least for a week (and often many more). These achievements weren’t just in the “Shows and Soundtracks” section, mind you, but in ALL areas of music. Even the now-forgotten CARNIVAL could make that claim for the week of June 12, 1961.
During these years, MY FAIR LADY was the best-selling album of all time. But I’ve saved the best for last: WEST SIDE STORY’s soundtrack stayed on the charts for five years. Five years! Perhaps even more impressive is that it was Number One for 54 – yes, 54 – weeks.
With figures such as those, Miller is right in saying that it wasn’t a golden age for Broadway musicals. It was a platinum one.
And if that wasn’t a golden age, then how can THIS era be, as Miller claims, “A NEW golden age”? Then when was the OLD golden age? I doubt that he thinks it occurred when Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml were on the scene.
Still, this 1943-to-1964 era warrants Miller’s disdain. “This is not your father’s musical comedy,” he says of URINETOWN. Now of course he didn’t originate the expression “This is not your father (or grandfather’s) (whatever),” for it’s been used for decades to make young consumers feel superior. Yet would it spoil some vast eternal plan if fathers and their sons and daughters liked the SAME musicals?
(Some do, you know.)
An inordinate amount of Miller’s criticism is directed at Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their musicals, he insists, “no longer speak to the reality of modern-day America.” Then why do people keep coming to see them? Sure, the recent OKLAHOMA! took plenty of liberties, but virtually everything that R&H wrote for it was still in place. It ran longer than five of Miller’s eight Broadway selections – not bad for a show that “everybody” has seen.
Hell, even the disappointing run of the recent CAROUSEL revival ran longer than four of his choices. And CAROUSEL has always been the R&H classic that clocks the least number of performances partly because it deals with a tough subject: spousal abuse. And THAT, regrettably enough, is still part of “the reality of modern-day America” that Miller claims Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals don’t address.
But that’s Broadway, Miller will rebut. And yet, for all their alleged irrelevancy, R&H’s 11 shows will see more performances in regional theater this year than Miller’s 11. That includes a theater three miles away from Miller’s: The Muny, St. Louis’ outdoor showplace that’s now in its 102nd year. Every time I’ve attended it’s been packed, so here’s betting that with its 11,000 seating capacity that this July it will do more business in one night when it does THE SOUND OF MUSIC than Miller will welcome in a number of seasons.
By the way, how are R&H’s hits doing these days in the arena of recorded music? Let’s start at the very bottom and work our way up: Amazon lists a KING AND I (464), a CAROUSEL (338), an OKLAHOMA! (279), a SOUND OF MUSIC (61) and a SOUTH PACIFIC (14). As surprising as that last figure is, here’s the unexpected one: FLOWER DRUM SONG, R&H’s rarely revived sixth hit that never reached the stature of the so-called “Big Five,” comes in at 286.
Not bad at all for albums that have been available in one form or another for the last 60 to 75 years – ones that plenty of people have owned for decades and wouldn’t buy again.
Another R&H problem for Miller: “No more are musicals in a choke-hold to middle-class, 20th century morality, as encoded in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. Now characters can say ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ like real people do.”
Yes, but the characters in ‘40s and ‘50s musicals didn’t use that language because most real people living in that time didn’t either. Oh, many did when dropping watermelons on their feet, but when they were interacting with others, they rarely used such words.
For that matter, one of the first profanities ever heard on an original cast album came from those old fuddy-duddies Rodgers and Hammerstein way back in 1949 for SOUTH PACIFIC: “Bloody Mary is the girl I love – now ain’t that too damn bad.”
(And “damn” was the “fuck” and “shit” of its day.)
While we’re on SOUTH PACIFIC, better to laud and respect Rodgers and Hammerstein for daring to take on racial prejudice at a time when many theatrical pros strongly advised them not to do so. They were warned that much of the nation wasn’t ready to be carefully taught. Some citizens didn’t want to hear that what they’d felt throughout their entire lives was wrong. But R&H wouldn’t drop “Carefully Taught.”
No one’s saying that Rosa Parks saw the show and was thus motivated to stay put on the bus when challenged, but SOUTH PACIFIC surely made some bigoted people think twice about their worldviews. (Does this show “no longer speak to the reality of modern-day America”? I’d say – although I’m not happy to – that racial prejudice is still with us.)
Finally, Miller – who’s quite the Sondheim fan – criticizes “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s bromides like ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’” And yet, this occurs 58 pages after lauding Sondheim “who taught us in INTO THE WOODS that no one is alone.”
Where’s the difference? This four-legs-good-two-legs-bad mentality does no one any good. Must we extol the present by denigrating what came before? One shouldn’t begrudge the past for taking baby steps in frankness and freedom; history shows us that progress always comes slowly.
If anything, Broadway musicals have introduced subjects that have been taboo in other media. In 1970, the utterly commercial musical comedy APPLAUSE that was out to do nothing but entertain had an out-and-proud gay character who wasn’t a nelly or vicious caricature; where was such a man then in the movies or on TV?
What’s more, musical theater, like every other art form, HAS to change, for once a barrier is broken, an artist will need to find a new one to shatter; if he repeats what’s gone before, he’ll be branded derivative.
As Steven Suskin wisely wrote in his BROADWAY YEARBOOK 2001-2002, many plays have involved a highly successful and married middle-aged man: “In the 1920s, he fell in love with a chorus girl. In the 1940s, he fell in love with a free-spirited poetess. In the 1960s, he fell in love with a black woman. In the 1980s, he fell in love with a white boy” – all this leading up to Edward Albee’s 2002 play in which a highly successful and married middle-aged man fell in love with a goat.
So those who came before shouldn’t be criticized because they didn’t achieve everything that’s happening Right Now. Do we condemn the man who invented the candle because he didn’t come up with the light bulb? He did the best he could, and for thousands of years his invention was state of the art. Give credit where it’s due, and, while we’re at it, don’t automatically praise today’s writers for simply writing about frank subjects in an era when the public is ready for them.
If the very talented Joe (BE MORE CHILL) Iconis had been born around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century as R&H had been, his musicals in the ‘40s and ‘50s would have been just as hemmed in as theirs – and probably would have resembled theirs, too. Conversely, if R&H were around now, they’d want to push the proverbial envelope, which might result in shows that resemble Iconis’ work.
Funny; among the many ways Miller establishes BE MORE CHILL’S great worth is relating what happened after the dormant show was revived at Feinstein’s/54 Below: “Representatives for Rodgers & Hammerstein Theatricals were at the concert and offered to license the show.”
Perhaps Miller would argue that Dick and Ockie themselves didn’t make the decision to sign the show – and might not have if they were still around running the company. But there wouldn’t BE a Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatricals to endorse BE MORE CHILL if it hadn’t been for THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE KING AND I, SOUTH PACIFIC, CAROUSEL and OKLAHOMA! The fact that today’s management is signing musicals far different from R&H’s demonstrates that the company’s mind-set is right in line with Miller’s.
Moving on to other matters: Miller writes “Today, the most exciting shows on Broadway do not start there.”
The fact that any musical, be it exciting or not, starts in a regional theater has to do with the fact that trying out in Philly, Boston and Baltimore’s big theaters is now often prohibitively expensive. The alternative of solely previewing in New York can result in poisonous word of mouth that will hamper a show to the point where it can never recover (cf. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG).
So now world premieres of musicals are indeed more likely found at regional theaters. One reason is that their artistic and managing directors learned long ago that closing AH, WILDERNESS! after four weeks means the end of any revenue; doing a new musical may result in a Broadway hit that will give them a cut of the action that will keep them in (oh, that word!) business. Besides, these new musicals often come with enhancement money that makes mounting them less daunting for the theaters.
That brings us to Miller’s most starling remark: “Today, money no longer drives the American theater; now artists and their audiences do.” He believes that the musical theater is “freed from economics” and that “finally, for the first time in history, the musical theater is no longer defined by commercial success.”
Yes, Broadway press agent send out the news every time one of their shows breaks the theater’s house record for money grossed. But even regional theaters are more than moderately interested in money. I’ve attended dozens upon dozens of benefits at such theaters around the country. They occasionally give awards to creatives, but more prizes go to the people who write the checks. (They get longer introductory speeches of appreciation, too).
For that matter, money is not irrelevant to Miller, who every now and then can be found on Facebook soliciting funds for his own theater. (Applaud him, though; he started New Line Theatre in 1991 in a city that continues to lose population at an alarming rate, but he’s still in business. That’s more than many regional theaters can say.)
All this aside, Miller makes a solid case for each of his 11 picks, and will convince you that these are worthy musicals. He’ll motivate his readers to examine these shows through their cast albums and bootleg videos, for actual productions will be harder to find. But to offer these shows as Exhibit A of a Golden Age doesn’t get a grade of A.
And the name of Miller’s new book? IDIOTS, HEATHERS AND SQUIPS. If the last word is unfamiliar, it’s a term used in BE MORE CHILL: a pill that contains an infinitesimally small computer that one ingests at his peril.
I’d say a more accurate title for Miller’s book would be GREAT BUT UNDERAPPRECIATED NEW MUSICALS.
Better still: A MINORITY REPORT ON GREAT NEW MUSICALS.
Despite the Best Score Tonys that URINETOWN and NEXT TO NORMAL achieved – as well as a Best Book Tony for the former and a Pulitzer Prize for the latter — Miller could make a solid argument that their two-year runs were woefully short when compared to musicals that weren’t remotely as lauded, respected or awarded as they: ROCK OF AGES (six years) and MAMMA MIA! (14 years),
But the most logical and accurate title of all is one that we couldn’t expect Miller to choose:
THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS.