By Isaac Butler
In the wake of the last Broadway season, New York Magainze's Vulture is doing a big ole roundtable on the future of the musical and what can be done to save it that includes two pieces by Scott Brown (one from the magazine on song writing, one from the website on what can be done. The latter piece also includes a slide show where several big players in the musical theater realm, including Michael Friedman, Jason Robert Brown and Gabe Kahan, talk about the challenges of the form. Well worth checking out.
My knee-jerk thing here is to think about how musical theater songwriting reconciles with changes in popular songwriting. But at the same time, a lot of great musicals-- I'm thinking here of Harnick and Bock's Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Sunday In The Park With George, Bill Finn's Falsettos to pick a few at random-- have little relationship to popular songwriting, so this seems like not the only direction to take this conversaiton. And also it seems to me that schmaltz artists like Webber and Wildhorn are in fact engaging with changes in popular music, they just happen to be changes in a form of popular music that we find distasteful.
Scott Brown's article talks about needing to risk being distasteful, of doing something grand and messy and abusrd:
Musicals today—mindful of long odds, high costs, and the general precariousness of the form—are, I think, resisting their inner madness, and that’s a little like hating one’s own flesh. What basis besides madness can there possibly be for a form that’s as shapeless, idiosyncratic, and painstakingly artisanal as the novel yet as vastly collaborative and consensus-dependent as a Hollywood film? How do we reconcile these things? We do not. We embrace the schizoid totality of it. A true musical is the fissile power of internal contradiction gone critical. It’s the disciplined, rigorous release of madness from the molten core of the human soul, apportioned in meter, disciplined (barely) in song.
Oddly, Brown then segues to talking about subject matter, the story being told rather than the insane telling of it that he desires. Perhaps what' sbeing hinted at here is that one must start with a story ready-made for insanity before one can get to the crazy.