“Money makes the world go round, it makes the world go round,” sings the Emcee in the film version and 1987 revival of “Cabaret.” Indeed it is money that makes the world go round, as well as money that makes the iconic “Les Misérables” turntables go round, the union dues and fair salaries go round, and the revolving crowds of theatergoers cycling in and out of Broadway theaters for eight performances a week.
It is the oft-repeated opinion of this columnist that Broadway and other commercial theater are more constrained financially than other mainstream art forms. Just as I wrote two weeks ago that this gives audiences a unique power over the theater, it also robs audiences of seeing high-quality theater take risks. There is pressure on shows to make returns on investments, which has become significantly more difficult over the years as Broadway shows have become more expensive undertakings. The difference between the current Broadway musical theater climate and the “Golden Age of the Broadway Musical” isn’t just money—money was always a part of it. It is what audiences are willing to spend money on.
There are three trends in Broadway productions that people most commonly take issue with: celebrities on Broadway, jukebox musicals, and musicals based on works that are deemed frivolous. To these I would add a fourth concern: the anti-intellectualization of the Broadway musical. Each of these trends can be lauded as making Broadway less elite and far-reaching, and each derided as the reason so many Broadway musicals are tacky monstrosities.
Does anyone remember Ashley Parker Angel? I don’t. He was a blond pop star for two years in the mid-2000s, and I was Elphaba-colored with jealousy when my sister got to see him in the Broadway cast of “Hairspray” in 2007. Celebrities have long been dragged into or forced themselves onto Broadway, resulting in varying degrees of success. Audiences love the familiar faces of even minor stars, and film actors habitually appear on Broadway, more often in plays, seemingly determined to force us to forget their inarticulate readings of cue cards at live award shows. This season alone features James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, and Leighton Meester in “Of Mice and Men,” Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming in “Cabaret,” Fran Drescher and Carly Rae Jepsen in “Cinderella,” and Daniel Radcliffe in “I Don’t Want You to Think of Me as Harry Potter Anymore,” to name just a smattering of the Hollywood-hopeful crowding 42nd Street right now. The ultimate reality is that audiences come for a name. But they should stay for talent and ability to perform live, and many of these actors (Cumming, particularly) have that talent. Their presences on the Broadway stage are blessings if they are chosen correctly.
Having spent countless joyful hours listening to such golden musical theater standards as “Bring it On: The Musical,” “Grease,” and the full Andrew Lloyd Webber canon in all its polarizing glory, I can still say that jukebox musicals—musicals that feature a story written around an already popular collection of songs (e.g. “Jersey Boys,” “Motown: The Musical,” and “Rock of Ages”)—are a blot on my Playbill collection. They are glorified, overproduced cover-band performances that deviate too much from the thought-provoking, moving reflection of human experience that is theater’s mission statement—to the point that they become a different art form entirely. The monetary benefits of these productions aren’t enough to mitigate their meaninglessness—commercial theater needs to bridge the gap between accessibility, entertainment, and artistic quality.
The objections to “Legally Blonde the Musical” and “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” were virtually the same: “Does that really need to be made into a musical?” They developed out of identically commercial material, but one became a masterful example of the modern musical and the other an international embarrassment. It is ludicrous to complain about the obscure and frivolous source material for musicals. Almost no successful Broadway musical in history was developed from an original idea. “Guys and Dolls” and “Oklahoma” were short stories, “Annie” was famously a cartoon, “Rent” was the opera “La Bohème.” A notable exception is “Bye Bye Birdie” and current original musicals like “If/Then” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (the latter features Neil Patrick Harris, a celebrity). The difference is that far fewer musicals draw from high quality sources, leading to what I would call the anti-intellectualization of Broadway. Drawing from light comedies, comics, and TV shows instead of books, plays, and operas leads to a disproportionate number of musicals that seek to entertain, not to reflect. For “South Pacific,” based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Tales of the South Pacific,” Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyric, “I’m as trite and as gay as a daisy, in May a cliche coming true/I’m bromidic and bright as the moon-happy night pourin’ light on the dew.” Could a lyricist today write lyrics of the same quality? Would audiences walk out humming them?
It is time for the musical, a great American art form, to again toe the line between entertainment value and artistic quality, to tell stories and engage audiences inclusively without always compromising quality for the bottom line. Money may make the world go round, but Roundabout Theater has found a way to make the gruesome, gritty, Holocaust-themed “Cabaret” financially feasible, in part by balancing well-cast celebrities with an exceptional score and libretto. The journey towards meaningful, lucrative theater is a compromise, not a competition.
Jenny Singer is a Barnard College junior majoring in English. Singer on Broadway runs alternate Fridays.