By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
And what’s described above doesn’t include the new musicals recently premiering in our midsize and larger theaters: The Drowsy Chaperone, 9 to 5: The Musical and Minsky’s — all at the Ahmanson; Vanities, Stormy Weather and Ray Charles Live! at the Pasadena Playhouse; Ella at the Laguna Playhouse; and Atlanta at the Geffen. Press releases rolling through the Weekly show a 12 percent increase in musicals opening in 2008, while the total of all theatrical productions has remained constant.
It must be noted, however, that the serious-themed musicals were presented on stages of 99 seats or less under economic circumstances — including token payments to actors — that are favorable to producers here, rather than in the financial pressure of New York. Producers there have concluded that dark-hearted musicals aren’t viable on Broadway or Off-Broadway; even our own larger theaters steer away from them, perhaps because they have Broadway on the brain. (Vanities and Stormy Weather both danced with nostalgia, while Minsky’s — about a burlesque house in 1930s NYC — revolved around the virtues of theater as diversion.) In fact, the economics of doing theater in New York are now so brutal, off-Broadway offers hardly any musicals at the moment, while Broadway musical fare consists of revivals and/or works that are comparatively escapist and lighthearted.
There’s nothing escapist about a large proportion of new musicals generated in L.A.’s smaller theaters. They take human agony by the horns and, utilizing song and sometimes dance, wrestle it to the mat. Is it the blinding sun, or the way it sets into the Pacific, that encourages such dark musicals on L.A. stages? And do they have a viable future?
“Dark times engender dark works — not just in musical theater but in all art,” says Stephen Schwartz, composer-lyricist of Wicked, Pippin and Godspell. “Witness the popularity of such nihilistic movies as The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men. Musical-theater artists and audiences, like everyone else, are finding their own way to respond to this very dark time in our history, some through escape, others through confronting it, and many through a sort of combination of both.”
Composer-lyricist Rob Kendt, former editor of Back Stage West and now a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist, remembers how, after 9/11, there was a burst of escapist theater, “and all the critics said, ‘This is just what we need right now.’ Very soon after came a wave of really dark plays and all the critics said, ‘This is just what we need right now.’ The truth is, in dark times, what we really need is art.”
All right, but what type of art? Theater in NYC is much more of a business due to all the unions and restrictions and extreme financial costs. David Elzer produced Roger Bean’s hit off-Broadway musical, The Marvelous Wonderettes, in both cities. “The budget for a new musical in L.A. can be as lean as $50,000,” he says, whereas “that same musical, in the current off-Broadway marketplace, couldn’t run for a standard four-week engagement, including previews, for less than $500,000.”
Adds Kendt, “I think there have been a number of musicals [on the East Coast] that challenge the escapist norm, but [producers] get scared off by that heart-of-darkness place. It’s like walking onto the [Wall Street] trading floor and trying to do art, but there’s no escaping the sense that because this is the commercial capital where musical-theater franchises are minted or validated, shows that depart from that and don’t become hits have the stink of failure about them.”
Kendt notes that there is some recognition in the East that there’s an audience for “edgy” or “useful” musicals, but those usually aren’t the works that become the kinds of nationally branded and enduring, touring megahits — like Wicked, The Producers, The Lion King, Mama Mia, Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray, Jersey Boys and A Chorus Line — on which the market has come to rely.
“If you put on a [darker work like] Road Show or Grey Gardens or Parade or Assassins and it closes without making its money, the conventional wisdom is: ‘See, you can’t write a musical about dashed dreams, or racism, or mental illness, or the hollow promise of capitalism.’” Especially now that the hollow promise of capitalism is hitting home. Even the few megahit shows with an edge of darkness, such as Rent and Urinetown, have failed to upend the prevailing commercial-production bias toward escapism.
“I can’t say that I feel optimistic about the state of, shall we say, serious musical theater — based on complex themes,” says Erik Haagensen, playwright-lyricist and reviews editor for Back Stage in New York. Although Haagensen was, for a while, worried that market forces and aging theater patrons would eventually kill off commercial musicals, his concerns have subsided. Now, he anticipates that the genre will further separate into profit and nonprofit mutations.