Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The New Life of the American Musical

The Light in the Piazza—with its romantic score of memorable songs, elegant setting and delightful moments of humor—has everything that SCR audiences might expect from a classic American musical. Yet its mixture of subtlety and complexity makes it a noticeably modern addition to the canon. In Piazza, the famous razzle-dazzle of the genre gives way to modest elegance; songs erupt not just from extreme emotions, but also from complex ones; and extroversion gives way to introspection. In his 2004 review of the pre-Broadway production, John Lahr of The New Yorker remarked that The Light in the Piazza “doesn’t want to make theatergoers feel good; it wants to make them feel deeply.” The depth is realized through balance; in Piazza, audiences will find warm heart and humor accented by sophisticated music—and a complicated ending that reveals both happiness and challenges on the horizon.

The attempt to give audiences more than just an evening’s entertainment seems to be a growing trend in mainstream musical theatre. Recent Broadway productions of more meditative pieces—like 2004’s Caroline, or Change; 2006’s Grey Gardens; and 2012’s Once—are gaining significant followings and holding their own against their showier counterparts. In this growing number of contemporary musicals, style is no longer beholden to the conventions established during the art form’s “Golden Age” (the 1940s through the 1960s), like flashy production numbers dropped in as a means to mollify the more challenging content. Now, musicals like The Light in the Piazza are dispensing with extraneous convention-flexing to make room for something deeper.

This evolution, however, is not without reverence for what came before. The works of composer/lyricist teams like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe certainly aren’t lacking in substance, and musicals like 1945’s Carousel, with its troubled protagonist Billy Bigelow and its bittersweet ending, and My Fair Lady, a musical adaptation—albeit a sunny one—of Shaw’s Pygmalion, both legitimized and popularized the genre. They also inspired future composers and lyricists like Stephen Sondheim, who’s known for developing a more intellectually stimulating brand of musical theatre. Even Piazza’s book writer, Craig Lucas, looked to the musicals of the Golden Age for inspiration, saying, “To me, what distinguishes all of those shows…is that they’re about people and human yearning.”  These masters created a model for the American musical and paved the way for today’s artists to move the genre forward.

Amidst the revivals of classic musicals and the spectacular contemporary epics (like the long-running Phantom of the Opera and Wicked), these more delicate works find their staying power through thoughtful content. Instead of demanding attention with stories of monumental significance or tragic love affairs, they entice audiences with subtle and intricate relationships often ignored in the genre. In Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, for example, Caroline Thibodeaux, a black maid in 1963 Louisiana, carries the musical on her weary shoulders; her story is one of everyday routines, but it’s thoroughly compelling nonetheless. And the quirky mother-daughter relationship in the musical Grey Gardens may bait audiences with elements of camp but ultimately satisfies them with subtle pathos.

Piazza’s story is also centered on a mother and daughter. The musical tells of their vacation abroad, and in doing so gets to the very heart of who they were and who they’re becoming. It trusts that audiences crave complex relationships on the stage, and that those should be the engine of the musical. In his New Yorker review, Lahr expressed concern that a commercial run of The Light in the Piazza might not come to fruition because its powerful delicacy lacks flash, but he asserted that, “[Composer/lyricist Adam] Guettel’s kind of talent cannot be denied. He shouldn’t change for Broadway; Broadway, if it is to survive as a creative theatrical force, should change for him.” When The Light in the Piazza went on to a Broadway run at the Lincoln Center Theater the next season (where it earned six Tony Awards), it only proved that the change was well underway.

Read more about The Light in the Piazza

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