I used to pick on musical theatre a lot in college, and not undeservedly. There is a great deal of musical cheese out there, some of it wildly successful and making piles and piles of cash for its authors and producers.
Honestly, though, in the end, I have to come down on the side of any medium that emphasizes live performance, gets young people and community members involved in the arts across the country and does so much to blend artistic and popular streams of composition. As much as I wish that opera were more relevant to society, there’s a lot to be said in favor of musical theatre.
I got to experience a good shot of that this week with OPSU’s production of Urinetown: The Musical, which closed on Saturday after three fantastic performances. The show’s music is extremely pithy, with a huge debt to Kurt Weill, and not a little bit to Leonard Bernstein (the jump number “Snuff that Girl” is placed in just about the same point in the story as “Cool” is in West Side Story (an aside–my former Cincinnati classmate Karen Olivo is currently playing Anita in the Broadway revival of Lenny’s incredible show, and had a write-up in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. Again, I brush up against fame)). The book to Urinetown is fantastic, with great use of a very post-modern narrator and exactly the kind of snide, knowing, sophisticated comedy. Congrats to director Tito Aznar and a great cast for pulling this off.
It was an absolute joy to play in the pit of this show and listen to my students and colleagues expand their horizons as both performers and as human beings. This is the point of both theatre and college, in my opinion. Sometimes this can be done in the classroom, or through the experience of real life, but sometimes we have to put on a show and band together with others to do so.
Part of what I loved most about Urinetown was its social conscience–a wonderful ability to look at a problem that involves all of us, and to look at it from multiple angles, and to affirm, at the end, that the answer that seems morally right might actually be morally reprehensible. The road to Perdition is indeed paved with good intentions. We need theatre like this in all our lives. If we all lived in New York City, we could experience the Broadway and off-Broadway shows like this that don’t get long runs or touring companies or movie adaptations (although Urinetown has gotten a fair amount of play, and did have a touring company earlier this decade… the movie version could be absolutely fantastic if they made one; I would actually vote for a cartoon by Seth McFarland).
So my plea to community and school theatre directors–choose shows with substance, that make your students make important statements and evaluate them. The world does not need another revival of Grease, or Bye-Bye Birdie, or The Girlfriend, or even Once Upon a Mattress (which is one of my all-time favorite shows). Even though I think it’s a snore, and extremely self-righteous, South Pacific at least confronts racism and imperialism. The Music Man has a lot to say about prejudice and gossip. Find edgy, exciting music–Kurt Weill or Jean-Michel Schonberg or Sondheim–and wry, dry, meaningful dialog (and for Pete’s sake, if you do put on Grease, don’t let the actors play it straight). Shows from the last twenty years or so have nice, tidy little pits based on jazz and rock combos, and let the music have a bite and a relevance that just isn’t achieved when a pianist plays the orchestra reduction (or fills in most of the string parts).
I’ve been asked to conduct Sweeney Todd in the fall here in Guymon, and I’m really looking forward to digging into a difficult score and bringing it to life with a great director (Michael Ask, who played Bobby Strong in Urinetown at OPSU). Will it be a reach for our community theatre? Yes, but I have confidence that it will come to life. Was I a little sickened by the movie version last Christmas? Yes, but, with the chance to dig into Sondheim’s score and reflect on what’s really in the show, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to find the point to the show that justifies all that.
So… this is the time of year that many high schools are putting on their annual shows. Get out and see one and support a hugely meaningful educational experience and a very important American art form.