Musicals: Old Fashioned and New Fashioned

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Musicals: Old Fashioned and New Fashioned

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In the last few weeks, the new Broadway musical Taboo closed, costing its backers millions of dollars. It was also announced that the Broadway revival of Gypsy, starring Bernadette Peters, will also be closing, again losing millions. Taboo was a new show that got bad reviews, Gypsy is a classic that received mainly good reviews-regardless, neither could survive. Musical theater has for years been on the entertainment endangered species list, but this Broadway season has been especially bad.

Here in Los Angeles, however, the past few weeks have been good for musicals, but two recent productions, while they both entertain, also illustrate the problems musicals face in the year 2004.

The first is the REPRISE! Production of Kismet, a Broadway classic that won the Tony for best musical back in 1954. It may seem like an odd time to revive a musical that celebrates the splendor of Baghdad, but REPRISE! billed the show as a 50th anniversary production. Of course, production may be the wrong word, as REPRISE! shows are more of a concert than a real show. Unfortunately, Kismet is the type of musical that needs a great deal of production design to work. It-s not that the book and songs are dull, they-re just very conventional. Like most Broadway scores, Kismet wasn-t written to be played at Carnegie Hall, it needs help from lighting, costumes, and sets to make it come to life.

But most of all, Kismet needs talented cast members who can do everything: sing, dance, act and display excellent comic timing. Anthony Crivello and Jennifer Leigh Warren sound lovely, but are dramatically a bit stiff. Broadway legend Len Cariou has great presence, but his voice has lost power since his days as Sweeney Todd. Only one person delivers the full package, Jason Graae, who plays the conniving Wazir.

The problem with mounting shows like Kismet is that effects driven musicals like LION KING and PHANTOM have dominated Broadway for so long, that too few actors train to be real musical theater personalities. Nathan Lane and Kristin Chenowith are two people currently on Broadway who possess some of that old-fashion moxie, but if old-fashioned musical theater is to again thrive, let alone survive; groups like REPRISE and other regional theaters have to find-and then groom-the next generation of song and dance men-and women.

As old-fashioned musicals struggle with extinction, what might be called &quotnew-fashioned;" musicals continue to struggle to find an audience. A good example of a &quotnew-fashioned;" musical was recently staged at the Laguna Playhouse. The Last Five Years is a two-person show that-s entirely told through song. Its form may resemble a chamber opera, but its idiom is firmly rooted in American musical theater.

Its composer is Jason Robert Brown, who had success with his old-fashioned musical Parade, which won the Tony for best musical in 1999. But in the last five years since then, the Broadway job market has been such that there hasn-t been a lot for him to do. He did work as the musical director to last year-s debacle Urban Cowboy: the Musical; but sadly no one wants to produce musicals that require witty, intelligent character-based songs.

The Last Five Years represents the only option for young artists who want to create musical theater: smaller more realistic shows that don-t require expensive productions or personalities. Shows like Rent and this season-s only real Broadway hit, Avenue Q, indicate that this is where musicals are headed.

This is unfortunate, not just for audiences who want revivals of shows like Kismet, but also for a composer like Jason Robert Brown. One evening after the show, Brown appeared in person to perform a handful of his songs on the piano. His lively performance showcased numbers that have the potential to become standards-unfortunately there-s just no outlet for them.

It-s sad that musical dramas and comedies are being forced into small theaters and cabaret shows to survive. Sure, Sondheim proved that musicals can capture the subtleties of life, but the musical became America-s art form by displaying the grand themes and big dreams of this nation. What does it say about the country right now that no one feels like singing?

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.