The Other Musicals
Eleven new musicals opened on Broadway in the 2015–16 season, but ten might as well have opened in Poughkeepsie for all the attention they have received, so dominant is the phenomenon known as Hamilton. It is now clear that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is not just a smash hit but a milestone: a show that has entered the zeitgeist, crossing over into mass awareness. It’s the proverbial game-changer. Only a handful of shows in musical theater history have achieved this status: South Pacific, My Fair Lady, A Chorus Line, and a few others. What’s required is not just an extraordinary artistic achievement and impossible-to-get tickets, but also a sense that the work both reflects and fulfills something happening in the culture. Hamilton, of course, draws much of its power from the casting concept built into its DNA: a powerfully willful disregard for race as a criteria for authenticity, an assumption that skin color simply doesn’t matter when casting historical characters, that it is as irrelevant as eye color or height. By zeroing out race in the casting, the show achieves a joyfully affirmative action, a redressing of historical inequalities by refusing to allow them to dictate the present. It’s an extraordinary achievement: when watching Hamilton, one is both aware of the non-traditional casting (in an intellectual sense) and also unaware of it, so natural and right does it seem. The show creates an onstage utopia in which the best, or at least most vital, instincts that drove the United States in its infancy are symbiotically wed to the multicultural, multi-racial society that we find ourselves in today. It is a vision of incredible optimism and power. Little wonder that President Obama and his administration have embraced the show with such passion.
Wags dubbed this year’s Tony Awards the “Hamil-tonys.” And, in truth, none of the other ten musicals that opened last season come close to matching its achievement. But many of them dealt, in their own ways, with the same pertinent issues of multiculturalism and diversity. Two shows opened and closed quickly in autumn: Amazing Grace and Allegiance, the former a misbegotten depiction of the title song’s abolitionist composer and the latter a sweet but underpowered musicalization of the actor George Takei’s childhood experiences in a World War II internment camp for Japanese-American citizens.
A third show from the first half of the season, On Your Feet, has proven to have more staying power. This bio/jukebox musical charts the life stories of pop star Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio. All three of these shows brought a welcome diversity, both in casting and subject matter, which transcended their varying artistic qualities. In a year when the film industry struggled with questions of visibility and representation, culminating in the #OscarsSoWhite debacle in which no person of color was nominated for an acting Academy Award, the Broadway industry put forth show after show that examined diverse American cultures and heterogeneous perspectives.
Winter saw the opening of the first real commercial and critical hit of the season, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock. Based on the well-regarded Richard Linklater film, this show was a comeback for Webber, who has struggled to replicate the enormous success of his 1980s hits Evita, Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera. He returned to his rock-and-roll roots for this score and came up with a fresh and youthful sound that matches the insouciant plot. The show tells the story of slovenly, ne’er-do-well musician Dewey Finn, who scams a job teaching at an uptight private school where he secretly converts the prim kids in his class into an accomplished rock band, much to the initial horror of the parents and school staff. The usual lessons apply—follow your dreams, let kids be themselves, and so forth—and the show, like the film, is a charmingly non-threatening paean to the transgressive properties of rock music (most forthrightly conveyed in the song “Stick It to the Man”). The canny book, rather surprisingly, is by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame. Here he unabashedly wallows in Dewey’s bad manners, hopeless fashion sense, and general lack of discipline. The character who might best fit in with the Crawleys, the straitlaced principal (played efficiently by Sierra Boggess), must be redeemed by an awakening of her inner rock goddess.
Webber’s two and a half decades of box office and critical failure post-Phantom were due partly to his inability to find good collaborators and partly to his own limitations. His taste in lyricists was always suspect, but he seems to have settled into a groove with the talented Glenn Slater. Webber has never been the deepest or most ambitious of composers. His gift is for incredibly memorable melodic hooks, and his rhythmic drive is always engaging. It’s fun to sing along to Webber cast albums. But he has little ability to develop musical themes in a way that reflects and deepens narrative and character, and there is a sameness to his style that becomes numbing after an hour or so. In all of this, he is the mirror image of such contemporary theater composers as Michael John LaChiusa who demonstrate extraordinary sophistication in musical construction and in the craft of thematic development but lack the ability (or interest) to provide ear-pleasing melody. (Stephen Sondheim remains the gold standard of the contemporary composer who can cover both bases.) What makes School of Rock work, ultimately, is the bravura performance of Alex Brightman as Dewey and the absolutely adorable kids (a multicultural bunch, let it be noted), all of whom actually play their instruments. The show has a dodgy first twenty minutes, but once Dewey and his class find their groove, joining together for the showstopping “You’re in the Band,” it becomes a silly and sweet delight.
Spring brought the opening of two new musicals that trafficked in a retro, rural Americana that felt out of step with the rest of the season. The less successful of the two, Tuck Everlasting, was based on Natalie Babbitt’s popular children’s book, which depicts a family in eighteenth-century New Hampshire who accidentally become immortal after drinking from a magic spring. One hundred years later, young Winnie Foster, who has run away from home, discovers them. The show’s interest lies in the clash between the initial fascination of never aging and the ultimate realization of how awful such a state would be. With bland music and lyrics by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen, and a treacly book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, Tuck Everlasting felt stodgy, despite a solid cast led by eleven-year-old Sarah Charles Lewis as Winnie and the sprightly Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Jesse Tuck. The show’s presence on Broadway was puzzling, as was the participation of director Casey Nicholaw. The go-to director for riotous comedy combined with kitschy spectacle, Nicholaw currently has three big hits running on the Main Stem: The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, and Something Rotten. Perhaps he wanted to tackle something completely different, but the earnest, white-bread Tuck was not a good match. Until, that is, the final ten minutes of the show, when suddenly directorial invention combined with narrative experimentation to create a breathtaking and unexpected climax. Having rejected the temptation of drinking from the spring of eternal youth, Winnie leaves the Tuck family. Her subsequent life, including growth, marriage, children, grandchildren, widowhood and death, is then depicted in a wordless, capsulized ballet, full of rich emotion, darkness and light, tragedy, joy and compassionate understanding. I have rarely seen such a bold stylistic leap in the last minutes of any play; this one was a knockout, leaving the audience stunned and thrilled. Would that the first two hours of the show had been so daring and powerful.
Better received than Tuck was the similarly rural/retro Bright Star, a bluegrass-scored, North Carolina-set soap opera composed by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and Edie Brickell, with a book by Martin and lyrics by Brickell. The story jumped back and forth in time to tell the story of Alice Murphy, a literary-minded woman who is forced to give up a child born out of wedlock and who, two decades later, confronts the consequences of that decision. With a plot straight out of a Warner Brothers weepie, Bright Star shamelessly exploited every genre cliché, blatantly signaled every plot twist, and blithely employed coincidences that would have made Fannie Hurst blush. Still, there was an integrity to the show, and the agreeable music did a good job of delineating character, feeling theatrical in a way that many such country-flavored scores never achieve. Director Walter Bobbie kept the proceedings fluid and expertly guided a strong cast, particularly Broadway debutante Carmen Cusack in the leading role. Cusack ably executed the difficult task of playing Alice in both youth and middle age and brought a powerful voice to the many anthemic ballads. The richness of her characterization went some way toward countering the material’s platitudes. As with Tuck Everlasting, however, audiences seemed uninterested in the material, and box office woes ensued.
Retro in a totally different way was the spoofy musical Disaster by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick, in collaboration with Drew Geraci. As the title suggests, the show parodied the notorious series of all-star disaster films popular in the 1970s, including The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno. Set on a floating casino that goes up in flames and then turns upside down, Disaster was as much a satire of ’70s fashion and sensibilities as it was of the films themselves. Much humor was wrung out of polyester plaids and dated sexual politics. The jukebox score, comprised of junky pop songs from the era, included “Muskrat Love,” “Three Times a Lady,” “I Will Survive,” “Hot Stuff,” and the immortal “Feelings.” Disaster also fielded an impressive all-star cast of its own, including Broadway stalwarts Faith Prince, Kevin Chamberlin, Roger Bart, Kerry Butler, Adam Pascal, and Rachel York. Best of all, however, was non-star Jennifer Simard as gambling-addicted, guitar-playing nun Sister Mary Downey. In one of the true breakout perfor- mances of the season, Simard brought the house down with almost every line. Disaster was frequently hilarious and was never dull. Having started as a low-budget, off-Broadway lark, it couldn’t quite expand into its Broadway-sized theater and perhaps shouldn’t have tried. This was the sort of material that SCTV reveled in back in the day, but at Broadway prices it felt slight. Inevitably, it closed quickly.
Another satirical musical that succumbed to an indifferent public was the much-anticipated American Psycho, with music and lyrics by Spring Awakening’s Duncan Sheik and a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, based on the notorious novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The ultra-violent story of serial killer/investment banker Patrick Bateman spoofed ’80s culture, fashion and mores, but whereas Disaster’s take on the ’70s was goofy and loving, American Psycho’s attitude to its era was both portentous and silly, angry and ironic. A quarter century after Ellis’ novel became a zeitgeist phenomenon, the musical adaptation didn’t quite find a tone that worked and thus felt insubstantial. Ellis certainly intended a darkly comic exposé of Wall Street culture, and moments of the musical fulfilled that goal. Too often, however, the writers over-emphasized the distance between that time and ours, pandering with cutesy ’80s references, styles and dance moves, instead of finding the congruencies and letting the trenchant commentary work without forcing. Instead of outrageous provocation, the effect was one of sophomoric irritation.
American Psycho did have a sleek production in its favor. Rupert Goold, artistic director of London’s Almeida Theatre where the musical had its world premiere, knows from bloody violence: he directed the best Macbeth I’ve ever seen. Working with brilliant scenic designer Es Devlin, Goold utilized vivid projections on a metallic backdrop and staged his company in geometric compositions, creating an ice-cold sense of a culture that valued luxe style over substance. As Bateman, Benjamin Walker carried the show on his broad shoulders, singing and dancing splendidly while often wearing nothing more than white briefs. Walker also has sanguinary bona fides, having created the title role in the musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. He managed to keep Bateman compelling despite the intentional blankness at the character’s core. The supporting cast (including the criminally underused Alice Ripley) overplayed their simplistic characters, making it too easy to hate them all. American Psycho’s score was definitely from the composer who gave us Spring Awakening’s mordant cross between Kurt Weill and Radiohead, but it’s not up to that unique musical’s level. The opening number, with lyrics consisting of a catalogue of brand names, was a catchy way of launching the show, but ultimately what seemed on paper an exciting mix of unlikely topic and innovative artists was ineffective in the theater, and the show closed after only two months.
Significantly more effective is the charming Waitress, based on the popular 2007 indie film, with music and lyrics by coffee-shop alt-rock mainstay Sara Bareilles and a book by Jessie Nelson. American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus staged the show up in Cambridge last year and brought it to New York at the end of the 2015–16 season, just in time to scoop up a raft of Tony nominations and audience goodwill. The story of Jenna, a pregnant, unhappily married, pie-baking coffee shop employee in the Deep South, the show is a vehicle for an actress who can sing gorgeously and attract an audience’s adoration effortlessly. Luckily, Waitress stars the indispensable Jessie Mueller who, in several short years, has become one of Broadway’s most beloved performers. Mueller has the uncanny ability to seem perfectly ordinary and absolutely luminous at the same time. She is something truly special in the galaxy of modern musical divas, with a presence that is less tremulous than Audra McDonald’s, quirkier than Kelli O’Hara’s, softer than Idina Menzel’s, less opulent than Marin Mazzie’s. As she traces Jenna’s journey to self-awareness and actualization, a journey that is not particularly original as written, Mueller finds sharp edges and quirky corners that ground the character in a believable specificity.
Paulus surrounds Mueller with a strong supporting cast, including scene-stealers Keala Settle and Kimiko Glenn as her fellow waitresses—both characters refreshingly cast without reference to race, unlike the all-white original film. Christopher Fitzgerald walks away with his few scenes as an eccentric suitor to Glenn’s introvert. Nick Cordero makes the best out of a one-note role as Jenna’s husband. There is nothing particularly electric or deep about Bareilles and Nelson’s work here, which is perhaps why the show, which captivates in the moment, doesn’t linger long in the memory. Bareilles’ music is lovely but a bit generic by theatrical standards. There is not much differentiation amongst the musical voices of the various characters, all of whom end up sounding a bit like the singer-songwriter herself, much as actors in Woody Allen movies always end up sounding just like Allen. Nevertheless, many of the songs land well, particularly Jenna’s searing 11 O’Clock Number, “She Used to Be Mine.” In much of the show, Mueller echoes Bareilles’ crooning, slightly mushy-mouthed vocal style, but here she lets loose with a real Broadway belt that centers and elevates the character’s desires in truly theatrical fashion.
Other than Hamilton, the most ambitious, exciting show of the season was undoubtedly the flawed but fascinating Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, a reclamation of African-American cultural history on a scale never seen previously on Broadway. This new show was inspired by the smash hit 1921 musical Shuffle Along, notable in its day for being written, performed, and produced entirely by African-American artists, for depicting a serious romance between two African-American characters, for popularizing syncopated music in a theatrical score, and for bringing a new style of dancing to Broadway. This new musical is, among other things, a re-creation of many of that show’s iconic moments, a documentary about its making, an academic exegesis of its cultural import, and a (lightly fictionalized) old-fashioned backstager filled with the requisite romances and rehearsal dramas. Conceived and with a book by George C. Wolfe, the show utilizes Shuffle Along’s original score by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (augmented with Sissle & Blake songs from other shows and a little specialty material), but completely dispenses with the original book by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. All four original authors are major characters in the new show, as is original cast member Lottie Gee.
The first act details the financial and logistical hurdles overcome by the artists on their way to a Broadway opening, capped by a re-creation of the original show’s hit tune, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” The second act depicts the fallout from the show’s success, including broken romances, quarrels over copyright ownership, and the difficulty of trying to make lightning strike twice (Lin-Manuel Miranda can probably relate). When announced at the start of the Broadway season, Shuffle Along was the prestige item, thanks to the pedigreed participants. When the first preview ran three hours and forty-five minutes, eyebrows were raised. And when the production cancelled a week of previews and shut down for retooling, the rumors of disaster were rife. In the end, the show opened to generally positive reviews. The talents of the formidable creative team combined to create something that, while undoubtedly problematic, is a must-see, especially for fans of theatrical history.
The opening number, “Broadway Blues,” which introduces the cast and sets the stakes, might be one of the most exciting I’ve ever seen, and a handful of numbers that follow capture the same electricity, particularly “Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle,” an epic tap re-creation of a train trip through the heartland. Wolfe’s not-so-secret weapon is choreographer Savion Glover (the two worked together previously on Jelly’s Last Jam and Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk) who does his best work ever here. Glover is the reigning maestro of tap, and he imbues that style with an uncommon muscularity that conveys the weight of history, both joyous and tragic. Best-in-class sets by Santo Loquasto, costumes by Ann Roth and lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer further bolster the effect, combining tropes of antique Broadway with modern technology. And then there’s the cast. Tony winners Audra McDonald (as Gee), Brian Stokes Mitchell (as Miller), and Billy Porter (as Lyles) headline, along with the equally superb Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry (as Blake and Sissle) and the marvelous Adrienne Warren as Florence Mills, the most famous performer in the original production. The cast is impeccable, particularly the triumphant McDonald who, as always, manages to convey an almost infinitely complex inner being, no matter what material she works with. A live wire of emotional energy, McDonald weds extraordinary craft with the most lusciously rich and beautiful theater voice of the day. In addition, she’s wonderfully funny in this role, and her dancing is surprisingly adept.
The new Shuffle Along is sort of like the musical version of a Wikipedia article about the making of a musical. I say that as someone who really enjoys reading Wikipedia articles about musicals. But there’s no question that the show is didactic. Wolfe’s book is choppy and overloaded with exposition—a problem that might have been alleviated had he not been his own director. Wolfe and his collaborators have created an extravagant spectacle, and I was engaged throughout, but I can’t say I was ever moved. The telling of the personal stories—and they are indeed told, not shown—is sketchy and one-dimensional. The “making of the show” plot is shapeless, with no real insight or drama. Shuffle Along tries to cover too many topics. It concerns itself with the personal lives of five principal characters, the making of a show, the after-events of said show, race in America, race in the theater, the revolution in popular music and dance, and so on. In the end, none of these subjects is covered with enough depth, leaving the whole show feeling unfocused. The second act is particularly problematic, descending into fractured, gloomy digressions focused on characters whom we barely know, let alone care about. In addition, the fact that the authors rely (mostly) on existing Sissle & Blake songs means that they can’t really musicalize many of the key dramatic moments, so the songs become in-between filler or, at best, commentary on what’s happening. The peppy score can’t really carry the weight of the show’s intentions in any case. In the second act, Billy Porter’s character, the touchy, anguished Lyles, expresses his feelings with a big ballad, “Low Down Blues,” and the number sticks out like a sore thumb, partly because, to make it work for his character, Porter performs it indulgently and anachronistically. An original score would have allowed for a more appropriate song in the spot. (A word of praise, however, for Musical Supervisor Daryl Waters, who does heroic work in creating continuity from a lot of disparate sources. The result is so smooth and integrated that it feels almost operatic.)
The new Shuffle Along is truly something to see: a glorious mess; both too much and not quite enough; a failure in its overall conception but magnificent in its individual elements. There is a throwaway moment in the second act in which the characters, stepping out of the narrative as they frequently do, accuse George Gershwin of stealing a brief fragment of melody from African-American composer William Grant Still, who played in the original Shuffle Along pit, and using it in “I Got Rhythm.” The ideas of the influence of black musicians on their white colleagues, of appropriation of minority culture by the mainstream, of the intersection of Uptown and Downtown culture in the fervid cauldron of 1920s Manhattan, even of the stylistic and social overlap of Jewish and African-American music, are fascinating concepts that the new Shuffle Along seems ideally situated to explore. But in the event, the moment is vaguely tossed away, unsupported by any illustration or evidence, and so it feels like a calumny, not a political statement. As he has done in many previous works, Wolfe wants to reclaim the forgotten and hugely influential work of African-American artists, a noble task. Shuffle Along popularized syncopation on Broadway, and there’s little that’s more important to the sound of Golden Age theater music than its syncopated rhythms. But the failings of Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed are clear in its pedagogic title.
The 2015–2016 Broadway musical season is a microcosm of all that the art form can be: wan and limp at its weakest, entertaining and innovative on good days, and electrifying and culturally vital at its best. It’s heartening to see the commercial theater addressing important issues, particularly the questions of race and diversity that continue to preoccupy our country. Shuffle Along tackles these concerns directly and provocatively, if pedantically. Many of the other musicals, and none more so than Hamilton, incorporate their socio-politics into their casting, structure and staging concepts, a more provocative—and therefore more lastingly effective—way of moving the cultural conversation ever forward.