Tracking the life and death of the musical
By Rob Shapiro (musical theater writer)
Every few years it seems like someone is telling us that either (a) the musical is dead or (b) the musical has come back. This week, an article in the UK newspaper The Telegraph celebrates a new "golden age" of Broadway with the London production of "The Book of Mormon."
Considering the fluctuation of Broadway musicals from year to year (that has nothing to do with the works themselves), I'm always surprised when someone wants to use one show to proclaim something about the State of Musical Theater. So for my final blog, I decided to delve into the New York Times's archives to chart the rise and fall of the Broadway musical.
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(The following quotes are from the NYTimes with hyperlinks to the original articles):
- Musical Comedy Goes On Forever, June 17, 1928
"In America, the musical theatre is either opera or musical comedy. Opera means only the Met; musical comedy is on its last lap. Vaudeville has died a scurvy death; revue is alarmingly deteriorating, one revue a year. If you still have the desire to write for the musical theatre you must find a new form, one which will work in a new way and yet manage to offend nobody by its newness.
- Marc Blitzstein, "Lines on 'The Cradle'", January 2, 1938
"In any case, Broadway--this season, last season, season-before-last--stands well below par; and, if its current psychology is to condition its future output, if it is more and more, and some day all in all, to provide only commercialized mass entertainment, the word "Broadway" itself must go the sad symbolic way of "Madison Avenue."
- Louis Kronenberger, "Why Broadway Is Way-Off-Broadway", February 5, 1961
"It no longer is news that the big noise on Broadway is the musical theater."
- Howard Taubman, "For Better Or For Worse; Unaware of Limitations, Popular Musical Theater Turns to Unusual Themes-- 'Fiddler' Brings One Off," October 4, 1964
"So there it is. The best dancing on Broadway is non-dancing and the worst is a slick caricature of the real thing."
- Clive Barnes, "Dance: Broadway Style; Choreography in Musicals Is Suffering From Sameness--With Exceptions", February 25, 1966
"Wasn't it only yesterday that the musical was cause for excitement as America's most distinctive contribution to theater? Well, today comes soon enough, and today there is little excitement or cause for it: the musical has settled (lucratively) into a predictable, unimaginative mold and must answer the charge of being artistically trivial. Nevertheless, it is still the most popular form of theater in this country... ...I am going to accept that the current musical theater is, in general, guilty as charged of being trivial. Not only because it is almost completely lacking in content, I hasten to add, but also because it is equally lacking in artistry."
- Arthur Laurents, "Look, Girls, There's the Man With Our Tap Shoes!", September 11, 1966
"Nowadays, at times, it seems as though dance itself has left the Broadway scene. One wonders whether it will ever come back."
-Clive Barnes, "On Broadway, Dance Was King," February 11, 1968
"At a time when our musical theater is in a frightful state, devoid of even its traditional professionalism…"
- Martin Gottfried, "Flipping Over 'Follies'", April 25, 1971
"New musical theater is in the air these days"
- Deena Rosenberg, "The Homeless Plight of America's Musical Theater", June 19, 1977
"But the golden age of the Broadway musical is pretty much a thing of the past"
- Jennifer Dunning, "Dance: 'Machine' Keeps the Past Alive; No Relation to Poverty", July 6, 1978
"The wave of musical revivals that has swept over Broadway can no longer be rationalized as an overdue appreciation of classic shows. It is making business of show business and it is growing out the new musicals. Without new shows and a place for new showmakers, the theater is dead."
- Martin Gottfried, "Is Broadway Drowning In Revivals", November 25, 1979
"'The American musical theater is going through a very difficult period,' Jerry Herman remarked."
- Carol Lawson, "'Bye Bye2' Will Say Hello to Sequels", January 17, 1979
"One thing is certain. Whatever its label-or vintage-the book musical is back in the Broadway spotlight once again."
- Bernard Carragher, "What's So Great About Old Musicals? The Books!", September 30, 1979
"When the best two musicals of the season (''The Pirates of Penzance,'' ''Sophisticated Ladies'') are both the work of dead songwriters, you know that the American musical theater is in trouble. Indeed, I can't even remember the last time I attended a musical - on Broadway or off - that introduced a new composer or lyricist of serious promise..."
- Frank Rich, "Stage: 'March of Falsettos,' A Musical Find", April 10, 1981
"The book musical, which was once thought to be an endangered species in the age of the so-called ''environmental'' or ''concept'' musical, is alive and well in the writing room of Joseph Stein, the librettist for ''Fiddler on the Roof.'"
- Carol Lawson "BROADWAY; 'Rags,' a sequel about the people in the 'Fiddler' Story", January 14, 1983
"When future historians try to find the exact moment at which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British, they just may conclude that the revolution began last night. The shot was fired at the Shubert Theater, where a riotously entertaining show called "Crazy for You" uncorked the American musical's classic blend of music, laughter, dancing, sentiment and showmanship with a freshness and confidence rarely seen during the "Cats" decade."..."In 2,000 years, there has been one resurrection, and it wasn't a theater," goes one of the evening's many show-biz one-liners. But in the secular land of Broadway, starved musical-theater audiences can't be blamed for at least dreaming that "Crazy for You" heralds a second coming."
- Frank Rich, "Review/Theater: Crazy for You; A Fresh Chorus of Gershwin on Broadway", February 20, 1992
"...the Broadway musical theater was once in possession of a soul."
- Alvin Klein, "A 'Fair Lady' That Aims to Please", April 25, 1993
"Once the norm, the lighthearted American song and dance show -- rooted in traditional family entertainment values, Broadway style, with a brassy big time Broadway score -- comes around in the post rock-and-roll age perhaps every decade or so."
- Alvin Kelin, "At the Shubert, 'Will Rogers Follies'"
"But even then [17 years ago] musical theater was in decline."
- Alvin Klein, "Roll Call of Champions of Shows", December 28, 1997
"Broadway musicals seem to be leading us forward into the 17th century, an opera-mad time when intricate stage machinery and a repertory of elaborate gears and levers wowed viewers and packed houses. The artificial oceans and flying objects of that time were probably not so different from the tilting multilevel apparatus of ''Titanic'' or the grand pageantry of ''The Lion King.''"
- Benard Holland, Theaters Alive With a New Sound of Music," May 10, 1998
"Like a waking dream, ''Follies,'' Prince thought, should gather up the miragelike qualities that the photograph represented. It would come to signify the death of a certain kind of musical theater and its evolution into one that was going to be more sophisticated, more knowing, more nuanced and entirely devoid of sentimental illusions."
- Meryle Secrest, "A Stage Era's Passing Gave Birth to 'Follies'", June 14, 1998
"True believers dream on, wishing for a renaissance of the American musical, our theater's indigenous art form. At the least, they look forward to revivals.
But since musicals are not really musicals anymore, why should revivals be revivals? Instead, for years now, we have had hybrid forms. In many cases, any old show is resuscitated, title intact, with some songs from its original production, others culled from random shows by the same composer. And there it is -- one ''new Gershwin musical'' after another."
-Alvin Klein, "THEATER REVIEW; Cole Porter With Joy And Glee", November 4, 2001
"Musicals are dying. That's been the theatergoer's lament for decades. How long has this been going on? That depends on whom you ask.
Can anything save this great American theatrical form of glory days past? The answer will be variable. Again, it depends, this time on one's degree of negativity or just plain despair."
- Alvin Klein, "The Musical is Dead? Don't Believe It. Goodspeed Doesn't", November 19, 2001
"Musical theater is arriving late to this game, but that is musical theater's inherent relationship to contemporary pop culture: it has for a while now, with rare exceptions, been stupendously out of touch. Still, for better or worse, that stagnancy is slowly shifting, as a series of recent interviews and a look at this season's musical offerings attest. The creative outcome remains unknown. Pessimists, however, may not be reassured."
- Barry Singer, "Pop Self-Consciousness Finally Infiltrates Broadway", August 26, 2001
"In the end, whatever the success of the current crop of shows, it is indisputable that the landscape of musical theater is expanding and that artistic developments are being accompanied by emerging business and marketing models."
- Bruce Webber, "For Musicals, Big and Brassy Gives Way To Small And Affordable", January 25, 2002
"Nor must you believe that musical comedy is making a comeback in Hollywood (it's barely holding its own on Broadway, where even ''Hairspray'' has empty seats)."
- Frank Rich, "They Both Reached for the Gun", March 23, 2003
"The Broadway musical theater is self-obsessed, solipsistic and backward-looking. We knew that, right? Lately, however, Times Square has begun to resemble a hall of mirrors, with new musicals slyly quoting their elders and (sometimes) betters with campy abandon. The trend arguably began in 2001 with the arrival of ''The Producers,'' a cornucopia of references from Broadway's past. Other musicals have followed its gleefully self-conscious example, all honoring through irony the theatrical genre they are perpetuating."
- Robert Simonson, "Broadway Gives Its Regards to Itself", January 11, 2004
"Future historians of musical theater may point to April 30, 2006, as a tell-tale turning point, a harbinger of fatal decline. Or so one can hope. That date — also known as yesterday — saw both the closing of the ill-received Johnny Cash show "Ring of Fire" at the Barrymore Theater and the opening of "Hot Feet," a dire dance musical set to a soundtrack of songs by Earth, Wind and Fire, at the Hilton Theater."
- Charles Isherwood, "'Hot Feet': A Fractured Fairy Tale Set in Boogie Wonderland", May 1, 2006
"It has been years since the musical theater was known for overblown historical epics with titles ending in an exclamation point (let alone two!). What’s more common these days is the mocking, silly musical that self-consciously references the old clichés of Broadway, you know, the kind of thing you seem to do in between numbers when you define fancy show business jargon like the charm song or metaphor."
- Jason Zinoman, "History, Schmistory! Just Sing" (Theater Review | Gutenberg! The Musical!), December 4, 2006
"In its musical vocabulary Broadway has remained largely hidebound, an artisanal business driven by apprenticeship, allegiance to the same models and ideals and, in a way, immune to outside influences (well, outside influences of more recent vintage than jazz and operetta). This may be one reason for its decline in influence and mass appeal as other forms of music came to dominate the cultural landscape."
- Charles Isherwood, "On This Rock, Build a Future for Musicals", June 24, 2007
"Musical theater is generally a popular form, and much pop culture has a gloss that is essentially reductive."
- Charles Isherwood, "The Aging of Aquarius", September 16, 2007
"To put it bluntly, the Broadway musical seems to have lost its voice. More gently one could say it appears to be in tentative search of a new one, and in the interim has increasingly relied on sounds from other realms of music, namely rock and pop, to provide the central ingredient in the theatrical recipe."
- Charles Isherwood, "The Musical Has Lost Its Voice", June 8, 2010
"If the American musical theater is to have an artistic future, as well as a commercial one, it is likely to come from offbeat talents like Mr. Cosson and Mr. Friedman, small fry themselves at this point, but unafraid to push the form forward, searching for ways to keep it new."
- Charles Isherwood, "Bright Fodder for Future Revivals", December 16, 2010
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So... is musical theater alive or dead?