New Broadway hits wrong note

While others may be ashamed of being a musical geek, I wear it like a badge of honor. Since childhood, my parents brought my brothers and I up to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Learner and Loewe and Disney movies. As I got older, my love of musicals grew and I discovered composers like Stephen Sondheim, performed in middle school, high school and college and saw Broadway shows at Shea’s Performing Arts Center in my hometown of Buffalo.

Ask me a question about any musical and I’ll either know it off the top of my head or I’ll be so intrigued I’ll research it that day, if not that hour. I will spend hours upon hours on my laptop watching YouTube clips from musicals past and present in fascination. I sing show tunes not only in the shower but as I’m walking to class, making dinner or editing articles at The Oswegonian (to the dismay of my colleagues). The Tony Awards is an annual event in my house.

And as if I had to tell you, "Glee" is one of my favorite shows.

It’s not an obsession. Trust me, I know people more fanatic than I am who make pilgrimages to New York City several times a year to catch the latest shows. What I have is simply an appreciation for an art form that blends compelling storytelling, moving music and intricate dancing.

So, when I see something I love so much go in a scary and unsafe direction, I have to speak up.

In recent years there has been a disturbing trend on Broadway. More and more musicals are now adaptations of movies or using music we’ve already heard on the radio a billion times. These musicals are known as "jukebox musicals." The likes of "Shrek," "The Adams Family," "Elf," "Legally Blonde" and "9 to 5" are getting the million-dollar treatment and becoming big Broadway shows. Although these are all fine movies, are they really worth the effort it takes to be transformed into a musical? And although I enjoy the music of Elvis, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra and Green Day, is it necessary to turn these tunes into big, flashy musical numbers?

These musicals add nothing to our culture and are a ploy to make money. They show that there is currently a great lack of originality and creative thought on the Great White Way. That is a problem for an industry that prides itself in a history of innovation and breaking barriers.

Although many of the classics of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s are based on source material (for example, "My Fair Lady" is based on George Bernard Shaw’s "Pygmalion;" "The Sound of Music" is based on the true story of Maria von Trapp; "Kiss Me Kate" is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s "Taming of the Shrew"), these composers and book writers created something innovative and accessible for large audiences with their adaptations. In addition, they made the stories stronger and accompanied then with songs that added depth and meaning to the show. In contrast, this new wave of adapted musicals is just rehashing what has already been onscreen.

As with anything, there are numerous exceptions. "The Producers," the 2001 musical based on Mel Brooks’ 1968 movie of the same title, made history by winning 12 Tony Awards, the most for any show in a single year. With smart humor and clever songs, "The Producers" ultimately brought Broadway from the brink of despair it was hanging on in the 1990s. Other recent above-par adaptations include "Hairspray" and, surprisingly enough, "Monty Python’s Spamalot." Some jukebox musicals that do work, such as "Jersey Boys," based on the music and life and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and "Mamma Mia," based on the music of ABBA. Yet, these are only a few examples in a sea of otherwise unimaginative shows.

There are some glimmers of hope for this beloved American tradition. At this year’s Tony Awards, "Memphis," an original musical, won the top prize, beating out "American Idiot" (a musical based on Green Day’s album of the same title), "Million Dollar Quartet" (a show based on the famous 1956 jam session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) and "Fela" (a musical based on the life and music of Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti). In addition, shows like "In the Heights" and "Next to Normal" are bringing in audiences week after week and winning numerous awards, showing that the original musical is not dead.

But the trend is far from over. The upcoming Broadway season boasts titles such as "Catch Me If You Can," "Sister Act," "Priscilla Queen of the Desert- The Musical" and "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." There are numerous projects in the works right now that have familiar names like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Bring it On." It has even gone across the pond as "Flashdance: The Musical" and "Dirty Dancing- The Classic Story on Stage" are featured in London’s West End.

Like any trend, this may go away over time and the tradition of brilliant, innovative musicals will once again reign supreme. But as legwarmers and Crocs have shown us, trends can take a while to phase out and I don’t know how much longer I can hear about this movie or that movie becoming a Broadway show. I don’t even dare make some sarcastic suggestion because I fear that sooner or later I’ll see that on a marquis.

All that we can hope for is that the next wave of composers and book writers will find the spark of creativity within themselves, not after catching a flick or driving in their car listening to the radio. There needs to be encouragement for individuals as they develop their truly original art. Otherwise, we’ll completely lose one of the great institutions of America to the unfortunate commercialization that has consumed many other facets of our lives. And then the sound of music that we’ve come to love from Broadway won’t sound as sweet.

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