The show must go on, Act 1
BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - November 4, 2005 - 12:00am
The musical theater blockbuster, up to a few years back, just seemed like cliched ’80s Cameron Mackintosh nostalgia of singing Jean Valjeans and Munkustraps and Christine Daaes, of helicopters landing on stage and audiences hailing taxicabs on wintry New York sidewalks able to hum verses of On My Own immediately after a performance. The larger part of the ’90s wasn’t able to generate the kind of talked-about European productions fueled by the Lloyd Webber pop and pomp the previous decade did on both Broadway and the West End; only the incredible success of Disney’s The Lion King in 1998, and to a lesser extent Webber’s own Sunset Boulevard three years prior and Jonathan Larson’s Rent the following year were able to transcend beyond Playbill pages into the mainstream media.

And even more of a cliche is to dismiss these multimillion dollar productions as overhyped and all too commercial, lacking the creative genius of the musicals of the ’50s and ’60s that made the medium so popular.

The cast recording of Wicked is spinning in my CD player as I type, and my favorite musical theater actress, Idina Menzel, as Elphaba is declaring that "Nobody in all of Oz, no Wizard that there is or was, is ever gonna bring me down!" She keeps that promise: after two years on Broadway, Wicked is still defying gravity as the highest grossing show on the Great White Way, taking in about $1.3 million every week. The $14 million production was able to recoup its investment in a mere 14 months, almost unheard of in today’s harsh and cutthroat theater world. Wicked, its popularity today spreading as fast as a Munchkin on the run, is one of my favorite stage musicals ever, a powerful and whimsical visual spectacle dancing through the Yellow Brick Road of all-American mythology laced with some of the most hilarious, haunting and heartfelt songs in recent memory. It wears its corporate heart on its sleeve and has fun dissecting itself into a surprisingly deft and timely political allegory. Stephen Schwartz‘s pop-driven score and lyrics are reminiscent of Lloyd Webber grandeur, though its brassy, cheery conviction saves it from a healthy sprinkling ’80s Velveeta.

Speaking of cheese, Andrew Lloyd Webber has forever remained a polarizing figure in the industry: beloved by audiences around the world, the composer‘s relationship to theater critics and colleagues hasn‘t always been as warm. His scores have undoubtedly though been part of some of the most celebrated and financially successful musicals in history: The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats. Despite these, it makes me wonder how and why the Lloyd Webber obsession has kept the curtains down for some of musical theater’s – dare I say – better composers. Sondheim, Larson, Schonberg, all his contemporaries, have of course each received international acclaim, though have not registered in the zeitgeist as widespread as Lloyd Webber that even a non-theatergoer would recognize their name. (The reasons for my frustration with his most recent musical, The Woman in White, which opened in London last September and on Broadway just last week, I’ll discuss in Act 2.)

The new millennium has seen the birth of phenomena like The Producers, Wicked, Hairspray, Avenue Q, Monty Python’s Spamalot, Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You, to name a few. The astounding financial success of the latter two, however, presents one of theaterís biggest problems on both sides of the Atlantic: the trend of the jukebox musical, shows that exploit an audience’s familiarity with established songs to considering all that come our way – earn money or mask the lack of creativity. With the Beach Boys-driven Good Vibrations, Elvis-inspired All Shook Up and most recently the disaster of Yoko proportions that was Lennon losing millions this year on Broadway, you’d have to ask why producers keep littering theaters with shamelessly insipid shows looking for unknowing tourists to trick into their quick cash-ins.

Look at We Will Rock You, which has already spawned productions in London, Las Vegas, Japan, Australia, Spain, Russia and Germany: as a huge Queen fan, it offends me that the most horrible stage musical in the past decade is using some of the greatest rock songs ever recorded to fund their own inanity. The show is a sci-fi joke of cheap lights and trashy, amateurish sets, overtly stylized acting and a nauseatingly ridiculous plot that takes itself so seriously and songs so literally. The only jukebox musical to have actually come close to greatness is Mamma Mia!, which uses ABBA’s disco hits with such self-conscious, tongue-in-cheek charm that it successfully pulls off stringing Chiquitita into a playful yarn that otherwise would have fallen apart.

Broadway’s rehabilitation has brought back the tradition of the musical blockbuster to both good and bad terms. Still, rising ticket prices force producers to employ gimmicks that lure not only tourists but local theatergoers; thus, the strong showing of Hollywood on the London stage this past summer. Films are being adapted to plays and musicals, and A-listers are trading in the camera for curtain calls. Next week, we’ll move to London, where I’ll review the brilliance of Billy Elliot the Musical, the somewhat disappointing Cameron Mackintosh-backed Mary Poppins, and Kevin Spacey, Ewan McGregor and Sienna Miller’s West End debuts this past summer.
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