As far back as I can remember, I have loved musicals. I love theater. I love music. So obviously, musicals must be good, right? Yet there seems to be an increasing disconnect between people and this uniquely American art form.
I spend some time in the summers helping to promote a big summer musical in Southeast Texas. Not that many years ago, just a mention of the name of a show — was enough to guarantee a core audience. “Oliver!,” “Annie,” “My Fair Lady,” “Fiddler on the Roof” — these were classic musicals that had an inbuilt audience, an audience who grew up watching the movie versions with their families, even if they had not seen the show on stage.
But it is getting harder and harder to attract people to musical theater — although once they are enticed through the door, they almost universally have a great time.
This year’s summer show, presented by Lamar State College-Port Arthur and the Port Arthur Little Theatre, is “The Producers.” The Mel Brooks-penned musical stage show, based on Brooks 1968 movie, is a witty, clever, mildly offensive — in the best possible way — parody of the shenanigans involved in putting on a Broadway show. Not only is the play itself only 13-years old, there was even a 2005 movie version.
All of these factors point to good recognition that will draw a crowd — but so many are unfamiliar with the show.
Part of the problem may be the sheer number of alternatives available nowadays. This will not degenerate into one of those, “In my days…” diatribes, but when I was growing up, with a whopping three channels to choose from, a musical on TV was reason for the family to sit together and watch. There were no iPods, iPads, smart phones, etc., to distract from the entertainment at hand. We all watched these shows. They became part of the family dynamic.
Often times, they were part of a holiday experience. The Monty Python song “Christmas in Heaven,” refers to part of the heavenly experience featuring, “’The Sound of Music’ twice an hour…,” a joke about the frequency of this holiday staple growing up in England.
I often hear people say that musical are stupid because people don’t just walk around and burst into song. Let’s ignore the fact that anyone who has ever spent an hour with me knows that bursting into song is a definite possibility, admittedly without the full orchestral accompaniment (although in my head…). It’s entertainment — suspend your disbelief and enjoy. The last time I checked, gangs of mutants weren’t traveling back and forth through time, nor were there vampires wandering around drink artificial blood, yet “X-Men” and “True Blood” fans have no problem embracing these shows (and even Wolverine actor Hugh Jackman is an award-winning musical theater star, and it doesn’t get more macho than that).
There has been a slight musical resurgence over the past few years with the so-called “juke box musicals,” whose forced narratives are twisted around familiar pop songs — “Mama Mia!” and “Rock of Ages,” for example. I hope these shows, with their dependence on the audience’s familiarity with the songs, serve as “gateway” musicals, a way to get audiences to visit shows where the songs advance the storyline.
It’s not as though the combination of music and story is completely out of time. Shows like “Glee” are popular, and NBC’s “The Sound of Music” with Carrie Underwood got solid ratings. Even the past week’s video releases by Weird Al Yankovich are mini pieces of musical theater, as parodic as the songs in “The Producers.”
I am a great fan of live theater, and watching a musical live in the company of a laughing, cheering audience, is a unique experience. All of the local theater companies, both community and professional tours, will present musicals in the fall. Check them out.
Meanwhile, I feel a song coming on.