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The Future of the American Musical?

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In 1997, the Tony award for Best New Musical went to a show named Titanic--which many believed was an apt metaphor for the future of the Broadway musical. Later that year, to soothe the anxieties of musical theater fans, the New York Times published a lengthy piece hailing three young, serious composers--each one a potential Sondheim-in-the-making--who represented the future of the American musical.

Well, the eight years later, the American musical is still with us, but those three composers have yet to have a hit show. Of those three, only Adam Guettel is anywhere near Broadway these days--as his new musical The Light in the Piazza is set to open at Lincoln Center next month.

But don-t expect to hear the future of Broadway in that show--not if Guettel-s most famous musical is any indication. Floyd Collins is considered Guettel-s best show, but sad to say, it-s a dreadful bore. A lively production here in Los Angeles--complete with an innovative set that looks like the aftermath of an explosion at a lumberyard--can-t save this dreary story of a guy stuck in a cave that-s basically a musical knock-off of the film Ace in the Hole with earnest, unmelodic songs and none of Billy Wilder-s caustic edge.

Not featured in that Times article was a young composer who emerged in the late 1990-s and even managed to win a Tony award for his musical Parade. His name is Jason Robert Brown and his work has started popping up here in Southern California with some regularity. His show The Last Five Years has received two revivals in the last year alone and this month the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura has reconceived Brown-s first musical, Songs for a New World.

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera has completely transformed the Rubicon from a theatre into a coffee shop and fashioned the four singing parts of what is essentially a revue into four distinct characters. This is a graceful directorial choice, as it acknowledges the informal nature of the piece--but it also provides the songs with enough context so that the show seems like more than just a composer-s calling card. Brown-s best songs--like the ballad -Stars and the Moon---make it clear that he-s a very good songwriter who-s simply waiting for the right material. Until that happens, this admirable local production of Songs for a New World is probably the best way to witness Brown-s music and his potential.

Besides these New York-based composers and their shows from the recent past, Los Angeles has also been witnessing a number of new homegrown musicals. The most imaginative of this crop has been The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, which just concluded its world premiere engagement at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. This long-titled musical, based on a George Saunders children-s book, was really a kids show, but it was not without grown-up charm--thanks primarily to its lead actress, Jamey Hood, who was in the best local musical of last season, The Shaggs.

The least imaginative L.A. original is a show called Bark!, a musical that calls to mind Cats--minus the spandex, catchy tunes, or literary pedigree. At least Andrew Lloyd Webber set his feline farrago to T.S. Elliot; this canine contraption plays like its libretto was taken from the joke page of a pet magazine. The only thing noteworthy about this shaggy musical is that somehow seems to unfold in dog years--the two-hours spent in the theater felt like a fourteen-hour trip to the vet.

Nonetheless, Bark! is a hit, as it-s been running now for 7 straight months. Sure, it aims low--and with songs titled -Whizzin- On Stuff,- it-s clear that level is about fire hydrant high--but Bark! does prove there-s an audience for new musicals.

It-s unlikely that Bark! or Guettel-s Floyd Collins will be revived or remembered in 50 years, but in a strange way, the future of the American musical depends more on the former rather than the latter. By keeping theaters full and by introducing new generations to the conventions of musical comedy, lowbrow junk like Bark! at least ensures that there will be an audience ready to appreciate good musicals when the next Sondheim finally does come along.

Bark! runs through April 24 at the Coast Playhouse. The Rubicon production of Songs for a New World continues through April 10. Floyd Collins at the West Coast Ensemble closes April 3.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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