Thursday, May 12, 2016

Broadway Bluegrass

I saw Bright Star on Broadway last week. My review in two words? Really good. That's not to say it was flawless, and the elements I wasn't too pleased with I will proceed to explain, but you can safely assume that for any given element of the show, if I do not mention it and say otherwise, I thought it was terrific.

On the one hand, there are spoilers for Bright Star ahead. On the other hand, the plot of Bright Star was pretty predictable. Note that this is not necessarily a bad thing. I've talked about this before, citing Il Trovatore as an example of a show that tells you in the first scenes pretty much exactly how its going to end, and still manages to be a terrific dramatic roller coaster. Sondheim had trouble with a plot twist in Sweeney Todd, in that sometimes the audience figured out the twist way ahead of time, and some of them didn't even quite get it when Sweeney did, and there was no consistency from performance to performance. To solve this, Sondheim added in a song a couple scenes earlier that revealed the twist before it becomes important, and that way, the audience can focus on Sweeney's reaction, which is the interesting part. Same with Bright Star. Sure, the audience basically knows what's going to happen well before the characters do, but the main selling point of Bright Star isn't its shocking plot twists.

The first thing Bright Star did wrong was the opening song. This was not immediately apparent, and didn't become apparent until a good fifteen to twenty minutes into Act I. The opening number, "If You Knew My Story" was sung by the character of Alice Murphy, played by Tony nominee Carmen Cusack. In the song, she assures us that "if you knew my story, you'd have a good story to tell." She promises an exciting and interesting story featuring her as the main character. She then proceeds to disappear from the next twenty minutes, allowing us to get fully immersed in the story of Billy Cane, a young soldier and aspiring writer. His story isn't particularly novel, but it's told in an entertaining enough way to forget about the lady whom this musical is supposed to be about -- at least according to the opening number.

Bright Star tells two stories simultaneously. One of them is in the 1940s, about Billy Cane. The other is twenty-two years earlier, and is about  Alice Murphy. It's not immediately apparent how the stories intersect, and since Billy is so much more prominent in the opening scenes of the musical, it seems like the show can't decide who the protagonist is supposed to be. Indeed, even though Alice tells the audience in opening number that this is her story, and while her story is much more dramatic than Billy's, her story is pretty much contained to Act I, and due to the two stories being told simultaneously, it's as though her story is only interesting enough to fill half of one act. The way it seems the story wants to be is about Alice, with Billy's story existing for the sake of closure and a happy ending. The way it ends up being is the protagonist is Billy, with Alice's story being extending backstory. Given that Billy's story isn't very dramatic, this gives way to a bit of weirdness throughout.

The second issue was with the second song in the show. The song, titled "She's Gone", features Billy's father telling him that his mother died while he was off fighting in the war. This song lends a sense of false importance to the figure of Billy's mother, who hardly features at all. The first thing we find out about her is that she's dead. The second thing is that she thought statues of angels over graves were silly. And that's it. All mentions of her might as well be stricken from the script.

Actually, that's not entirely fair. She is mentioned once more. In the penultimate scene of Act II, when Billy finds out (plot twist that we all figured out at intermission) that he was adopted and Alice is actually his mother, he freaks out and mentions his adoptive mother, who, as we learned at the beginning of Act I, is dead. Billy runs off stage, and Alice sings a little. I did not think the music of the song "So Familiar" was particularly suited to the situation, although it did suit Edie Brickell's quirky off-rhymes -- I don't care what Lin-Manuel Miranda says, I am still firmly against false rhymes -- and I think it might have worked better to cut the song entirely, and go straight into "At Long Last". Of course, Billy freaking out at the revelation is misleading to, as in the very next scene, he is completely alright and everything wraps up into a nice happy ending for all.

The other problem with "She's Gone" is in the structure. The song is written like a folk ballad. Well, that's the sort of song you expect from a bluegrass musical. Billy's father sings that while Billy was off in the war, a visitor came by, and his mother left with the visitor. Also, that's a metaphor for death. But we don't need the metaphor, we don't need the story, we don't even need the song. By the time the third song -- the title song -- rolled around, I was a little worried about how the songs were going to integrate into the musical. In a musical, it's not enough for a song to be a good song, it also has to fit into the musical, agree with the pacing of the show, and, unless this is a pre-Hammerstein show, advance it in some way, either through developing character or progressing the plot or something else.

Something bluegrass music is very good for is exposition. There doesn't tend to be a whole lot of subtlety in folk lyrics, and a lot of folk songs are things like ballads, which tell stories in their own right. But when a song is in a musical, subtlety becomes important. I could have done without the repeated chorus of "You're the black sheep/little lost lamb" in the introduction of Alice Murphy's backstory. It felt awfully in-your-face. On the other hand, the song which preceded it was misleading. It showcased Alice and her love interest being snarky toward each other. Now, it's obvious that they end up an item, but the implication from their first duet is that they're going to have some back-and-forth before they finally get together, a la Curly and Laurie in Oklahoma! But in the very next 1920s scene, Alice and Jimmy Ray are together without a bit of conflict. (Well, without a conflict between themselves.)

Fortunately, the next song, which introduced the villain of the piece, was fully integrated, and from then on, most of the songs were acceptably theatrical. Particularly in the first half of Act II, which alternated quite elegantly between the heavy pathos of Alice Murphy's story and the light relief of Billy Cane's story -- although I would have liked to see more development of the Margo-Billy-Lucy love triangle, which was introduced, but never properly followed up on.

That was really the most egregious point of the musical. That certain plot threads were never properly developed, mostly with respect to Billy. The musical could have improved from giving equal focus to both Billy and Alice, but everything seemed to be trying to force Alice on us as the main character. But on the whole, I'd say Bright Star is a very strong contender for many of the Tony categories in which it's up against Hamilton.

Originally, this had spiraled off into another talk about the purposes of songs in musicals, which included a lot of analysis of Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, which is why this review is coming out a week after I saw Bright Star, but I finally decided that that should be its own post, which you can expect... at some point in the future.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Bel Canto Of Broadway

So Hamilton just set a record with sixteen Tony nominations. It's worth noting, though, that seven of those nominations were for actors. So really it's only nine nominations that will apply when it's finally possible to get tickets in three years. Second, because of multiple nominations in the actor categories, Hamilton can only possibly win thirteen Tonys. The record for most Tonys won by a production is held by The Producers, which won twelve. It was nominated for fifteen. The reason Hamilton was able to grab one more nomination is because The Producers did not have any female characters prominent enough to be eligible for the Actress In A Leading Role award.

The Producers swept every category it was nominated for, but I wouldn't get too excited for Hamilton. The Producers was up against very little competition. Look at the 2001 Tony awards and tell me, how competitive was that really? Of course, that may be due to hindsight, but Billy Elliot, which also got fifteen nominations, only won ten, in part due to tough competition from shows like Next To Normal and Shrek The Musical (which, like it or not, deserved its sole win for costumes -- fantasy creature costumes beat out carefully chosen casual attire any day).

A reasonable show to look at for comparison would be In The Heights, which was nominated for thirteen awards -- and really the only spots where Hamilton got more nominations was in the actor categories. It won four. Surprisingly, its competition wasn't from any great new musicals, but from two highly acclaimed revivals, South Pacific and Gypsy -- both highly regarded Golden Age musicals. Lin-Manuel MIranda lost Best Actor to an opera singer making his Broadway debut -- go Paolo Szot! South Pacific was nominated for eleven Tonys that year, and won seven.

Now this season, Hamilton is facing just as stiff competition. Not so much as In The Heights was from any specific production, but around the board. Bright Star snags an award for score and lead actress, She Loves Me manages to get featured actress and set design, Fiddler On The Roof grabs choreography, and before you know it, Hamilton could beat out Scottsboro Boys for the record of most nominations with fewest wins. (Scottsboro Boys was nominated for twelve Tonys -- it won zero -- that was the year Book Of Mormon swept with fourteen nominations and nine wins. Perhaps more familiar, Wicked was nominated for ten awards, and won three. It lost three awards to Avenue Q (which won only those three of the six it was nominated for) and lost three awards to Assassins, which won five of its seven nominations. Wicked, clearly, has since then done considerably better than Assassins.)

School Of Rock got four nominations. Book, score, lead actor, and musical. Now, I've heard a lot of people scoff at School Of Rock, saying it's just too silly an idea, and wondering how this could possibly come from the guy who wrote the score to Phantom Of The Opera.Which I don't think is deserved.

People have compared sung-through musicals like Les Miserables to operas, and while the opera community takes exception to this, the comparison is not without merit. We've gone through the classical Mozartian musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, through musical theater's own Verdi vs. Wagner, Sondheim vs. Webber (although I think Sondheim is more analogous to Richard Strauss), and shows like Next To Normal, Fun Home, and now Hamilton have definitely pushed us into the Puccini era of Broadway. And while I'm all for pushing art into to new territory, I also like the more traditional musicals, and just as elitist opera snobs write articles wondering where Bel Canto has gone, so does the elitist snob in me wonder where the traditional musical has gone.

Of course, nothing is wrong with where musical theater has gotten to, just as nothing is wrong with Puccini. More than nothing being wrong with him, Puccini is terrific. He definitely deserves his place in the pantheon of great opera composers. But there's problem when composers get so caught up saturating their scores with leitmotifs that they forget how to write songs, and then complain about all the people writing songs. This, I feel, is the main thing Kander and Ebb have over Sondheim. Sondheim can write a score, but Kander and Ebb can write songs.

And again, there is nothing wrong with a holistic score, held together with leitmotifs and whatnot. Wagner wrote amazing operas. So did Puccini and Strauss. But it's not good when people get so enthused with Wagner that they dismiss Rossini for writing frivolous comedies with catchy tunes. A frivolous comedy with catchy tunes is just as valid a form of artistic expression as any Verismo drama. And by the same token, there is nothing wrong with School Of Rock being fun, or silly, or not as grand as the musicals Andrew Lloyd Webber is famous for. When was the last time Andrew Lloyd Webber had a hit? I think it's wonderful that he's going back to a more traditional form of musical, a book punctuated with songs.

Mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, who at this point in her career is starting to take on heavier roles such as Charlotte in Werther and Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana has said that she continues to come back to Bel Canto as an important part of a healthy vocal diet. I think Bel Canto is good for a healthy listening diet too. It's so easy to get caught up in Wagner's world building that you forget how much fun music can be -- and even that opera can be dramatic while still being fun!

So, to recapitulate (I did get rather out of hand), is Hamilton worthy of acclaim? Of course it is. And so is Phantom Of The Opera and Sweeney Todd and Cabaret and any other "grand" or "intellectual" or "avant-garde" musical you can name. But they do not deserve to crowd out the Bel Canto of Broadway, traditional book musicals like School Of Rock, The Visit, and, yes, In The Heights.