Monday, March 28, 2005

Life Upon the Wicked Stage

This NYT Theater article is all over the map in enumerating ill-defined complaints it has over the current state of Broadway. The only unifying theme I can see is that popularity = TEH SUCK: Close your eyes and listen as their larynxes stretch and vibrate with the pain of being an underdog and the joy of being really loud. Bet you can't tell them apart. For that matter, bet you can't distinguish the heroines of the current Broadway musicals "Wicked," "Little Women" and "Brooklyn" from the average female finalist on "American Idol."[...] The style of vocalizing that is rewarded on "American Idol" - by its panel of on-air judges and by the television audience that votes on the winners - is both intensely emotional and oddly impersonal. The accent is on abstract feelings, usually embodied by people of stunning ordinariness, than on particular character. Quivering vibrato, curlicued melisma, notes held past the vanishing point: the favorite technical tricks of "Idol" contestants are often like screams divorced from the pain or ecstasy that inspired them. The Broadway musical has always had its share of big-voiced belters, from Ethel Merman to Patti LuPone. But they have usually belonged to the tradition of Broadway as a temple to magnified idiosyncrasies, to performers for whom song is an extension of individuality. Which is why when Simon Cowell, the most notoriously harsh of "American Idol's" judges, describes a contestant as "too Broadway," it is meant as a withering dismissal. Carol Channing, Robert Preston, Jerry Orbach and Gwen Verdon wouldn't stand a chance in the court of Cowell. And if they were starting out today, they probably wouldn't stand a chance in Broadway musicals either. That should be the best argument against such a joyless, puritan attitude, right there; volume is no reason to disqualify an entertaining performer. (Although he does make a point, in that those more unique singers would be dismissed out of hand, trying to break into the business nowadays.) But what's the real reason the Times' theatre critic so upset? By the 1980's, however, a homogenizing force had begun to steal over the Broadway voice. It started with the invasion of the British poperettas by Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Cats," "Phantom of the Opera") and the team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg ("Les Misérables," "Miss Saigon"). Their swoony, ever crescendoing music required voices that were pretty and strong, but not much else. It seems appropriate that the ultimate Lloyd Webber star was Sarah Brightman, who possessed a register-testing but anonymous soprano. Lord Lloyd Webber's spiritual heir in the United States, Frank Wildhorn, came up with cruder versions of the poperetta formula. "Jekyll and Hyde," "The Civil War" and most recently "Dracula" were costume musicals drenched in ersatz blood and ersatz passion. Though his characters were intense, as mad scientists and vampires tend to be, when it came to selling a song they all sounded pretty much the same, especially with their voices synthetically processed and amplified by the aural equivalent of Sensurround. These folks at least had vitality, especially compared to the cipherlike sounds of the jukebox musicals that came to the fore in the 90's. Whether the source was rock opera ("The Who's Tommy"), feel-good rock 'n' roll (the songs of Lieber and Stoller, for "Smokey Joe's Cafe") or the sublime standards of Duke Elllington ("Play On"), the performers largely registered as cute, eager and personality-free, like peppy summer interns in a Disney World pavilion. Even singing gritty ballads like "On Broadway" or rock anthems like "Pinball Wizard," their voices came across as shiny, smooth and antiseptic, like those of grown-up Mouseketeers. The upside for the producers of such shows is that their cast members are eminently replaceable. Sui generis stars are not necessarily advantages for investors hoping for long, sold-out runs. (And a full-scale Broadway musical needs to run and run and run just to break even.) Ah, there we are; now we're getting to the heart of the matter. Anything which smacks of a fun evening for the lumpenproletariat is to be shunned by those who know better, such things necessarily being constructed around the premises that a) making a profit is necessary, and b) the laws of supply and demand remain as ironclad concerning art as any other commodity. The audience (myself included, though I also enjoy works in the earlier styles) likes Lloyd Webber-ish grand guignol spectacles, but those aren't usually showcases for quirky, deeply personal performances by all the cool kids; ergo, sneer like mad. I think what upsets Ben Brantley so much is the crystal-clear way American Idol has demonstrated that performing on Broadway is a job like any other, one that can be done by anyone with the ability to - as he notes - "carry a tune and turn up the volume." Anything beyond that is stuntcasting, branding for marketing's sake. To some extent, I'll admit, it bothers me too - but the solution isn't to scoff at popular productions simply because they are. That's out-of-touch elitism of the worst kind.

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