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.

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