Sunday, February 26, 2006

broadway

I managed to last 2 and a half years in New York City before going to see a Broadway musical, but the time arrived. A very kind friend had an extra ticket to Chicago, due to some relatives from out of town not being able to attend, and so I went. I've been to off-Broadway theater and dance performances, but not to any musicals, and not to this sort of well-hyped tourist-infested production. It's interesting, all the crazy lights of Times Square. Not a part of NYC I go to often. A nice place to visit, maybe, but I certainly wouldn't want to live there...

I'd seen the movie version of Chicago, twice I think, and rather liked it. In some senses I liked the stage production less. The singing was fine, the musicians were very good, the production (lighting especially) was excellent, and some of the performances were quite good. But for some reason it felt more... manipulative? cheap? something like that, when it was in person rather than on a screen. I haven't seen many musicals, and wonder if I'd have the same reaction in all cases... I did like the two Sondheim musicals I've seen live (Into the Woods at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with Donna Shalala, future HHS Secretary, playing a cameo (!), and Sundays at the Park with George at Parkwood College in Champaign, IL). Maybe there's something about the style of musical that Chicago is that doesn't work for me live? Hard to say...

Incidentally, we had a conversation about the original of "Broadway"-style musical theater, wondering the origin, and whether it was on Broadway or somewhere else. It turns out that musicals have a long history, primarily in the US but with European influences. It seems that American musical theater is a combination of the European operetta (drama and singing, but no "show") and burlesque-extravaganza (singing and "show", but no drama) with the American minstrel show and American sensibilities. Musical comedies became very popular in the second half of the19th century. The idea of a musical that is drama rather than comedy is also apparently an American invention, starting with Show Boat in 1927. Interesting...

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6 Comments:

At 3:35 PM, Anonymous Ben said...

You went too late in its run. I don't think anyone good is in it anymore. I went in its first year. Bebe Neuwirt (sp?) was AMAZING, and when Joel Grey sang "Mr Cellophane," the entire theatre was in the palm of his white gloved hand. So. Good. I haven't seen the movie because I loved the stage version too much.

Chicago can be one of the best musicals, but it has to have the right people. All musicals do. I can't imagine, for example, seeing The Producers without Nathan Lane.

And not all musicals are created equally either. I have a co-worker here who thought the revival of Sweeney Todd (Sondheim) was particularly good, and I might go see that. But, you couldn't drag me to Mama Mia, Jersey Boys, and any of those other "jukebox musicals."

 
At 10:17 PM, Blogger megc said...

Harlan, I've never been to a Broadway musical. Like making it to Carnegie just last Saturday for the first time, I feel this fact of my lacking in the Broadway experience to be scandalous, esp. since I'm a musician. You must have been off to the show when I saw you at the subway that evening!

 
At 11:55 PM, Blogger Harlan said...

Ben, that's a good point, and thanks for noting it...

Meg, yep, that's where I was going! And yeah, sorry, I'm scandalized! :) Although I might be more scandalized if you'd gone to Mama Mia and really liked it...

 
At 9:59 PM, Blogger Tanya Lee said...

Oh, bait a musicologist why don't you. Fascinating history, the American musical. I'm no specialist, but I admit, was a BIG fan as a teen. The thing about tracing the history of "the musical," is where do you draw the line between genres? Opera, operetta, minstrel show, vaudeville show--all forerunners.

The musical as we know it --a single, coherent dramatic or comic story with all original songs composed by one person (or team) especially for that one show--really only got started in the 1940s, I believe (Richard Rodgers was key). From the 19th century till then, it was a gradual shift from total grab-bag of entertaining notions (like the minstrel show), to the coherent drama thing, more like opera. Even in the 1920s, when musicals did occur on Broadway, usually with coherent plots, it was common to plug in popular songs and move songs around from one show to another--the songs didn't even need to relate to the dramatic arc in any particular way.

Now, because I'm an academic and just getting in my stride, I'll diverge onto another tangent. Feel free to stop reading at any time.

Obviously opera is one of the inspirations for American musicals, but was little more than a variety show itself. Italian opera came over in the mid-19th c. and was hugely popular with all social classes--popular arias would be stuck in willy nilly, the occasional Shakespeare soliloquy, and when the audiences didn't like the performance, they were likely to throw chairs and riot! So let no one tell you that rock concerts are a sign of the decline of American civilization.

Minstrelsy--that's a whole other thing, also vital to the musical--but since that would take several books to do justice to, I think I'll just shut up now.

 
At 9:18 AM, Blogger Harlan said...

Woah, thanks for the extensive history, Tanya! Very informative! Now all we need is to combine you with a psychologist to figure out why certain people like some of that amorphous set of related genres, and not others...

 
At 12:47 PM, Blogger Tanya Lee said...

And here's another twist in the history of the musical, though not American:
http://news.independent.co.uk/world/asia/article351352.ece

Whoda thunk.

 

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