Discover — or Rediscover — the Musical

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.

Clark Reed as Max Bialystock in "The Producers." The 2014 show was presented by Lamar State College-Port Arthur and Port Arthur Little Theater.

Clark Reed as Max Bialystock in “The Producers.” The 2014 show was presented by Lamar State College-Port Arthur and Port Arthur Little Theater.

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.

Aaron Alford, as Leo Bloom, performs in "The Producers" in 2014.

Aaron Alford, as Leo Bloom, performs in “The Producers” in 2014.

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).

Yep, that's old Hugh Jackman in a number from "The Boy from Oz." Do you want to tell Wolverine that musicals are bad?

Yep, that’s old Hugh Jackman in a number from “The Boy from Oz.” Do you want to tell Wolverine that musicals are bad?

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.


Art Defines Culture, Even When ‘Degenerate’

As an artist, it is no secret that I believe a culture is defined by its arts, be it painting, theater, film or music. So what happens when a political group strives to both manipulate and destroy the culture of not just a group of people, but an entire continent?

"Poster with Self-Portrait for Der Sturm magazine" by Oskar Kokoschka

“Poster with Self-Portrait for Der Sturm magazine” by Oskar Kokoschka.

The Neue Galerie in New York is currently presenting “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937.” It is not a large show, but it is a very comprehensive overview of the Nazi’s denegration of the modern in favor of acceptable, “classical” style.

For fans of modern art, surely the “Entarte Kunst” (Degenerate Art) exhibition is one of the best shows ever put together. It featured the greatest names of early 20th-century modern art — Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Pablo Picasso, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckman, Otto Dix and many more.

Paul Klee's "Twittering Machine."

Paul Klee’s “Twittering Machine.”

The show consisted of artworks haphazardly hung, with labels that mocked the work on display. The public was expected to see the vulgar work as the product of unsavory Jews and Bolsheviks.

At the same time, the Nazis opened an exhibition called “Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstelung” (Great German Art Exhibition), which would celebrate two thousand years of German culture. The GDK was held in the opulent Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art). Adolf Hitler was very involved with selecting the works for the show, at one point dismissing the panel of nine prominent artists who did not meet his expectations. It is telling of the kind of work on display, that Hitler, in his speech at the GDK opening, praised the artists “decent work and sincere diligence.” [Catalog p. 94] Not exactly stirring words.

By contrast, when Adolf Ziegler opened the “Entarte Kunst” the next day, he said, “You see around us monstrosities of madness, of impudence, of inability and degeneration.” [Catalog p. 116]

The contrasting exhibitions served to highlight the Nazi propaganda that the German way of life — its culture — was under threat, and only by purging such undesirables from the culture could German rise to its pre-WWI power.

Ironically, under the Weimar government of the 1920s, Germany had become center of the European avant-garde. From German Expressionism and Dada to the music of Arnold Schoenberg and the films of F.W. Murnau, Germany pushed the boundaries of modernism.
By 1937, the tide had turned. Anyone producing unacceptable art was subject to sanctions, including being fired from teaching positions (teachers at the Bauhaus were among those persecuted).

It is estimated that nearly 22,000 works, classified as “art of decay,” were removed from German museums, with around a quarter destroyed. Far from preserving German culture, these actions actually undermined and diminished a vibrant and exciting contribution to German culture.

Max Beckmann's "Departure" and Adolf Ziegler's "The Four Elements: Fire, Earth and Water, Air" show the contrast between "degenerate" and Nazi sanctioned art.

Max Beckmann’s “Departure” and Adolf Ziegler’s “The Four Elements: Fire, Earth and Water, Air” show the contrast between “degenerate” and Nazi sanctioned art.

The exhibition does a fine job of presenting the historical background and the context for the show, as well as contrasting the degenerate art with examples of officially sanctioned works.
As that period of art history is a personal favorite, it was a pleasure to see the artworks gathered for the show. It was also frustrating to see grainy images of works that were destroyed. The show is a mixture of celebration and anger — but not in the way the Nazis intended.

It is easy to say that this was an anomaly — that it will not happen again. But how far are we away from that happening again? From Chinese cultural genocide in Tibet to Afghan Taliban destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas, the seeds of cultural destruction are still with us. Even on our shores, it is so far in the past, the 1980s, that Sen. Jesse Helms waged his war on the National Endowment for the Arts.

The arts define us. Suppressing free expression does not save us — it kills us as a people. There is no telling what will stand the test of time, what future generations will look back on and celebrate us for. Remember, the French Impressionists were once considered vulgar and indecent, but it is hard to imagine anybody thinking that way now.

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937” is on display through Sept. 1. The accompanying catalog is an excellent resource.