Thursday, June 05, 2008

Broadway’s New Golden Age? Reenter the Populist Composer...

Gotta give it to you, Gotham, Times Square today looks like a traffic jam of hit musicals — your modernized marquees ablaze with acclaim. “Ground breaking!” Broadway may never seem the same!” “Brilliantly ridiculous!” “Best new musical in years!” On and on it goes, and I get dizzy trying to decide which shows to take a chance on.

Although I never walked Forty Second Street during the fifties — still remembered by the old guard as the greatest of “golden ages” — how can it compare to these booming nights? When West Side Story opened in 1957, during its modest nearly two-year run it would compete with maybe half a dozen musicals of viable value — among them, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Flower Drum Song, The Sound of Music, Redhead. Most of these shows lasted three or four seasons at the most.

Fifty years later, the Great White Way wracks up one box office record after another on a new paradigm: the long running smash that never goes away. Phantom, the grand champion of longevity (hatched across the pond, mind you), celebrated 20 years last January; Lion King is going on eleven; Rent, 12. “Hit” song and dance shows today number in the dozen: Avenue Q, Spamalot, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, In the Heights; Mamma Mia, Mary Poppins, Little Mermaid, Spring Awakening, Wicked, Young Frankenstein — not to mention lesser holdouts like Legally Blond and Curtains. Nor to factor in the annual slate of revivals, some from the last “golden age.” South Pacific is nearly turning them away. Sunday in the Park with George and Gypsy both earned critical kisses. And, ah yes, I think Grease and A Chorus Line are also back.

Then you have off Broadway, which has found a persuasive path into audience awareness, thanks in part to the half price tickets booth. Altar Boyz, a nearly perfect 90 minute romp, is one of the best new musicals I’ve seen in decades. It is still on the boards.

What is so arguably wonderful — perhaps superior in today’s market —are the eclectically wide ranging scores, and that’s why, I suspect, Broadway houses are doing so well. Theatregoers have always wanted music that moves them, and Broadway has figured out how to advance beyond Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter, even beyond Stephen Sondheim, into more recent melodic territory. Once the new songwriters broke free of the abstract Sondheim concept musical mold, they found their own voices, and younger audiences have responded in droves. While I left Spring Awakening less than completely sold (it is so commercially calculated), I’ll be the first to admit it has a handful of terrific rock numbers. Light in the Piazza offered a more serious operatic intense score that dug deep and sang high. And the very affecting In the Heights moves on a kind of hot salsa/ ersatz hip hop beat. The public has so much more variety from which to chose at the box office in 2008.

How good are these shows? Some that knock me over(Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) don’t even last. Others that manage to hold on (Aida) leave me totally unimpressed. As for the “critics,” they toss out so many marque-ready adjectives, that I wonder if they are thinking at all. One thing is resoundingly clear: Times Square is working its magic on public taste. Broadway has always been a popular market place for middlebrow entertainment seekers. It has found its way back in the key of now (and relative now), and that’s why it’s booming.

[photos, from top: In the Heights; Jersey Boys]

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