This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Last week the New York Times—a newspaper with a good deal of influence on American theater—published an article which stated the following:
"Patti Lupone's enormous success in Evita in 1979 permanently pegged her as a musical star just as musicals were starting their final descent into cultural irrelevance."
Similar statements about musicals and irrelevance are often parroted in the media, but the death of the musical has been greatly exaggerated. It is true that around 1969, the rise of rock-n-roll and the counter-culture movement, combined with two spectacular failures—the movie musicals of Hello Dolly! and Paint Your Wagon—demoted show tunes to a less prominent role in American culture. However, despite the multiple obituaries for the art form written every year since then, the musical has survived.
One of the main reasons musicals have survived is because of high school and regional productions. Broadway lost its mass appeal in the 1970's—and perhaps lost its soul in the 1980's courtesy of the mega-musical—but amidst all this turbulence, one thing remained unchanged: the modest, but dogged march of the amateur musical.
Let's put this in perspective: Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1962. There's been countless revivals, touring shows, and a Hollywood movie. You'd think people would have had enough of this...but take a guess at how many high school and regional theater productions will be taking place in just the next months? Eighty-five stagings of Fiddler on the Roof. Thousands of people will get up, leave home and pay money to see an amateur production of a 45 year-old musical. Lots of these people will be friends and family of the performers, but this hardly suggests that the musical is irrelevant—quite the contrary, the musical in 2007, to quote Fiddler on the Roof, remains part of our tradition.
Anyone who doubts this should look at the phenomenon of Disney's High School Musical. Its massive success on TV (and now in live versions that tour the country!) suggests that for the first time in a generation, musical theater is not just being enjoyed by kids in drama club, but by large swath of young people.
I thought about all this quite a bit while watching the new filmed version of the musical Hairspray—and not simply because it's set in a high school with lots of singing and dancing kids. Hairspray is an old fashioned movie musical being released as a summer blockbuster. You'd have to go back almost 25 years, when Columbia Pictures released the movie of Annie in June of 1982, to find a film musical released outside of Academy Awards season.
This suggests that Hollywood, and more importantly Hollywood marketing experts, feel that musicals are culturally (i.e financially) relevant these days. Hairspray the movie musical is many things—but most of all it is a big fat advertisement for live theater. If Hairspray is a huge hit, it will likely encourage Hollywood to make more movie musicals, but even if it isn't a box-office smash, the movie solidifies Hairspray as a mainstream piece of entertainment, ready to join the pantheon of feel-good shows, like Fiddler and Annie, that never go away.
Don't be surprised if in 10 or 20 years, high school productions of Hairspray will be playing across the country. Which means you don't have to run out and see the movie—even thought it is relatively fun, it still doesn't quite match the experience of seeing it in a theater. And one day you'll no doubt have to go out and see Hairspray live when your son or daughter or grandchild is part of the show.
The film based on the musical based on Jon Water's film Hairspray opens tomorrow at movie theaters everywhere.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.