Sunday, June 20, 2010

Broadway Grows More Serious

Musical theatre’s shift from being lighthearted entertainment to taking on timely topics such as racism, homophobia, mental illness and nontraditional families was explored by actors and creators during a spirited Drama Desk luncheon panel at Sardi’s on Friday.

“Musicals are rarely pure entertainment anymore,” said Scott Siegel, the panel’s moderator.

Certainly that is the case with the represented shows: Yank! is a World War II era love story between two men, soldiers in an Army where such relationships are strictly forbidden. The Scottsboro Boys portrays the horrific injustice of the famous case in which nine black teenagers where jailed for years on a trumped-up rape charge. Both shows had acclaimed Off-Broadway runs and are planning moves to Broadway. Memphis, which won this year’s Tony for best new musical, creates the challenges and tensions of an interracial couple in the 1950s South. Next to Normal, which won a Tony and a Pulitzer, deals with depression. La Cage aux Folles, which won the Tony for best revival, offers a loving family made up of two gay men, in a longtime partnership, who have raised a son together.

“The passion you bring collides with other passions,” said David Thompson, who wrote the book for The Scottsboro Boys.

In the case of that show, the creators were forced to deal with the facts of an actual episode in America’s shameful history of racism. But composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb “always felt there’s something left to write there,” Thompson said.

Because of the magnitude of the injustice, Ebb believed the only way to stage it as a musical was to tell it as a minstrel show, Thompson said. And then to trust the collaborative process.

“’You can’t write your own reviews,’ Thompson said, quoting Ebb. “’Don’t edit yourself.’”

Musicals are a good way to get a message across, said Montego Glover (in a photo from the show), because they are popular and accessible. Glover was nominated for a best actress Tony for her performance in Memphis,

“There’s a sense of discovery musicals can bring and it’s magical,” she said. And that gets the audience’s attention so a topic like racism can be explored. “We have to remember. We still have work to do.”

Jeffry Denman, Yank!’s choreographer who also plays a gay serviceman in the show, says the shift to more serious themes is part of “the evolution of storytelling, to make it different from the ones that came before.”

But the message should not be the main focus, he said. “As a choreographer, I don’t want anyone doing a step until the know why they’re doing it. It’s story, story; story and character.”

Thompson agreed. “It’s all about storytelling. Sometimes the message emerges much later than you think,” he said, joking, “I had brown hair when we started this.” (It turned gray over the long road to the stage.)

For David Zellnik, Yank!’s book writer and lyricist, the show started political and then became about the characters. In an era of controversy about gays in the military, the musical was a perfect form to bring the issue to life.

“Theatre is an event where you have an intersection with the world,” he said.

Because the message in Yank! is so implicit, the creators were able to concentrate on molding a show that would be a homage to 1940s musicals.

“We could focus on the joy,” he said.

Joy is what audiences seem to be finding in Memphis, said Chad Kimball (in photo with Glover), who was nominated for a best actor Tony for his role as a pioneering radio DJ who introduces black music to a white audience. He said he has never been in a musical for which so many grown men, who are usually dragged in by their wives or girl friends, have come up to him and said they really had a good time.

“Huey is so not your average leading man,” he said about his character. “He’s quirky and annoying at the same time. He’s not unlike me. He’s an every man.”

Next to Normal composer Tom Kitt said creating characters the audience cares about is essential in shows about controversial ideas, such as his is with mental illness.

And the characters must be believable. Denman said his character, Artie, was so different -- a confident gay man -- and seemed so real he asked the creators if he really existed. In making Artie true for the audience, he didn’t think about the theme and how it would play, concentrating instead on the words and music.

“Hopefully the theme will come bubbling out,” he said. “I try just to serve it rather than thinking about it.”

Glover was grateful for the opportunity to shape Felicia, her character, from the time she received the script six years ago. Both she and her character are from Tennessee (she’s from Chattanooga; Felicia’s from Memphis) and both want to be a singer. At table readings she made suggestions about how Felicia would say things and the script was changed because the creators were “relying on the fact I was born and raised in the South.”

“We share the same space, the same continuum,” she said, adding that her grandmother was Felicia’s age at the time the show takes place. ”Every single stitch of her I’ve had a hand in.”

Yet Felicia still speaks to her.

“I discover something new about her every single, spanking night and it’s been six years.”

Having both the actor and audience respond like that is the strength of musical theatre, said Christine Andreas, who plays Jacqueline in La Cage aux Folles.

“Musicals are supposed to reflect your reality. That’s what I was taught. People want to be moved and taken out of themselves.”

For her, the power is so strong she finds musicals are “a better alternative to church.”

I’m sure a great many people would say Amen to that.

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