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The Broadway Musical in the 21st CenturyProvocative Article


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#1 Ari

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Posted 01 June 2005 - 08:07 AM

The British critic Norman Lebrecht is always interesting, even when he's off base. In today's Scotsman, he argues that the Broadway musical, which by general agreement has been dead for some time, is undergoing a rebirth.

The resurgence of the musical as a creative form is no mere coincidence. Seeing several hits in close succession suggests a chain reaction, a common attitude. The Producers introduced a genre of self-mockery in which the action halts momentarily to reflect sourly upon itself. This hiatus device appeared at the NT as the so-called Jerry Springer Moment, and now, in Billy Elliot, the episodes at the start of each act when the audience is exposed to the legend of coalmining without the requirement of empathy that came with Daldry’s film.

The music in each of these shows amplifies this element of separation, licensing us to stand apart from what we are seeing and enter a third dimension where each of us can individually decide whether to take the plot literally or sardonically, whether to take offence or giggle. This degree of Ironic Detachment is the making of the post-modern hit musical.


It's a matter of debate as to whether embracing a tone of ironic detachment is enough to ensure new life to the musical as a form. But Lebrecht doesn't stop there. He goes on to argue that the seeds of this happy development can be found, in its earliest form, in Guys and Dolls, which opened in 1950.

Now, I love Guys and Dolls as much as Lebrecht, but when he writes that "Runyon sanitised and humanised his petty hoods, Loesser disinvested them of character, building his musical around situation alone," I have to wonder what productions he's been seeing. While I've never read the Damon Runyon stories on which the show is based, I would say that it was Loesser, not Runyon, who "sanitised and humanised" the characters, and that this was something the musical as a form was notorious for doing. I have no problem with it, since it helped produce glorious shows, but for Lebrecht to rewrite history to support his thesis is going a bit far.

Anyone want to comment on this?

#2 Mel Johnson

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Posted 01 June 2005 - 08:31 AM

Guys and Dolls is based on the Runyon short story "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown". The show was written by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, with Ben Hecht as a sort of "scene doctor". Runyon's original text was full of irony, and based on the principle that there IS honor among thieves. It was sort of like "The Sopranos" with very clean language. The picaresque crowd has very, very middle-class values, and even when they transgress those, they do so in the name of OTHER middle-class values which points out the hypocrisy of the "respectable" world. It's probably, of all Broadway musicals, THE perfect show, and like all such classics, it can absorb a lot of theorizing and interpretation, and everyone will be right!

#3 dirac

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Posted 02 June 2005 - 10:20 AM

Elton John hasn't been in peak form for decades now, but leaving that point aside, it's interesting to note that Billy Elliot, The Producers, and the current hit Spamalot are all derived from movies. In Broadway's glory days, the movies were constantly plundering the stage for material.

I've read only a few Runyon stories, but my recollection is that the characters are funny and quite harmless -- I remember one called "Butch Minds the Baby" about some robbers who get stuck babysitting during a heist. It's not as if Loesser was adapting "The Godfather."


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