Thursday, January 3, 2013

800 Words The Survival of Les Miserables - Part 3

 (Bombastic, insipid, yet amazingly fun. Everything in Les Mis that seems new to musical theater is owed to its composer’s obvious knowledge of a predecessor hardly anyone performed after 1930. Like Les Mis, Meyerbeer couched his operas with liberal, anti-monarchist pieties in the midst of the most decadently expensive and exotic spectacles his audiences would ever see. In the 1840’s, Giacomo Meyerbeer was thought of as the greatest opera composer in the world. A century later, he was a footnote to history.)

Les Miserables is not just opera, it is French Grand Opera, the dumbest variety of theater ever perpetrated on an allegedly intelligent public. It is pure musico/theatrical junk food: insipid melodies, bombastic orchestration, one-dimensional characters, exotic settings, decadently lavish sets, and non-stop opportunities for celebrity singers to showboat. French Grand Opera is so stupid as to render you dumber for having heard it. Like any junk food, it’s wonderful in small doses, and can warp your brain if you consume too much of it. Just as how the French musical theater at the time Les Miserables is set took a turn from the Italian lightness of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini to the grand German bombast of Auber and Meyerbeer, the English-speaking music theater took a similar turn from the light (Jewish?) touch of Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim to the grand “European” bombast of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude Michel Schonberg. Of all the eminent modern musicals, the two which pay the most extensive tribute to its French forerunner are Les Miserables, and its almost exact contemporary - The Phantom of the Opera.

(The last three minutes of this clip must be heard to be believed. It’s from The Italian Girl in Algiers, light opera from Rossini, the greatest composer of the Opera Comique/Opera Buffa style which dominated opera in the early 19th century. Rather than the expensive spectacle of Meyerbeer, this music depends on lightness and the dexterous virtuosity of its performers. It was sometimes so cheap to produce that it could be written and rehearsed in the span of three weeks.)

The term used for such productions is the ‘mega-musical,’ which reached utter domination of Broadway and London's West End with the release of these two musicals between 1986 and 1987. In large part, the ‘mega-musical’ is the result of economics. The costs of putting on a show have escalated enormously in recent decades and the mega-musical is a direct result of 1970’s inflation. Before the 70’s, a piece of theater piece could run for a year and recoup all its costs. But in order to compensate the amount of money invested to pay the escalating costs of both salaries and materials, every new piece of musical theater has to be staged with an eye towards running indefinitely because it takes at least a three-year run for costs to recoup. And since it’s impossible for most shows to run more than three years, every new piece of Broadway and West End musical theater has to be staged in a manner that can recoup all the costs of the failed musicals that came before them. The musicals of the postwar era, which many still feel to be the Golden Age of Broadway, were already larger in scale than those which came before them. Anyone who's ever seen the ballroom scene of My Fair Lady or the Siamese Palace in The King and I can figure out that costs were already escalating by the alleged 'Golden Age.' Nevertheless, the true transition from regular musical to megamusical began in the early 70's with Kander & Ebb musicals like Cabaret and Chicago, or with the Marvin Hamlisch/Edward Kleban musical – A Chorus Line, all three of which were simply larger in scale than anything by Rodgers and Hammerstein (Oaklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel, The King & I) or the Gershwin Brothers (Porgy and Bess, Funny Face, Of Thee I Sing, Strike Up The Band). And it continued through the Cameron Mackintosh-produced British megahits of Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Phantom of the Opera) and the Mackintosh produced French megahits of Alan Boulblil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Martin Guerre).

(Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote memorably beautiful songs by any standard, but the general optimism of their shows and their veneration for ‘Ordinary Americans’ makes them absolutely out of touch with the contemporary American experience. And thus their musicals have gone out of fashion. They will return.)

The loss is ours. Mega-musicals are simply an inferior product. Like the ‘Golden Age’ musicals, the mega-musicals are relentlessly middlebrow, meaning that they do little if anything to challenge the tastes of their respectably middle-class audiences (with a few glorious exceptions). But the difference is that during the ‘Golden Age’, many members of the English-speaking middle class were better educated than their children and grandchildren eventually became. They may not have had as many college degrees, but they had far greater ambitions for self-improvement and read far more voraciously. The result was that the content of middlebrow culture (mid-cult) used to be far more intelligent than it became in the generations that followed, and the culture which all Americans shared was not the corrosive lowbrow ldiversions of voyeuristic reality shows and tabloid magazines. It was what we now think of as Classic Movies, Golden Age Musical Theater, Reader’s Digest books, Life Magazine photography, and educational television - all of which were consumed by a general public of 10-20 million people around 1950’s America.  And in spite of the Movies’ unremitting dominance over 20th century America, each of these industries was able to flourish without being subsumed by the American taste for cinematic spectacle. Cinema was still learning its own language, and could only do so by absorbing examples from the older arts.

Between roughly the early 1920’s when American Musical Theater emerged from its roots in the European Operetta, and the early 1970’s, when Music Theater began to assimilate the spectacles of cinema, music theater was an entirely independent, and uniquely American, tradition. Opera singers would take time off from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera to sing on Broadway, and Hollywood viewed Broadway as at very least an equal partner. Movie musicals aspired to have all the properties of the stage shows which audiences loved – not the other way around. Today’s mega-musicals are created for a gullible American public which now requires cinematic spectacle even in their music. By the 1990’s, musical theater producers could barely afford to put on show that wasn’t based on a commodity that wasn’t as known as a previous hit movie (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Big, Billy Elliot, Catch Me If You Can, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Color Purple, Once, Newsies, Ghost, Sister Act, Spider Man, Mary Poppins, The Full Monty, Footloose, Flashdance, Fame, Elf, Aladdin, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Peggy Sue Got Married, Hairspray, The Goodbye Girl, Legally Blonde, the Little Mermaid, Little Miss Sunshine, My Favorite Year, The Opposite of Sex, Saturday Night Fever, Shrek, The Wedding Singer, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Sweet Smell of Success, Sunset Boulevard, Spamalot, Edward Scissorhands, Smile, Reefer Madness, Nosferatu, Love Story, Honeymoon in Vegas, Heathers, High School Musical, Carrie, Pinocchio, Evil Dead, and Debbie Does Dallas).

Music theater is yet another American industry grown so expensive to produce that it teeters on the verge of collapse. Yet there are signs of hope: not least of which is the partial decamping of Trey Parker and Matt Stone from South Park to Broadway so they could make The Book of Mormon – though while I haven’t seen it live, the Original Cast Album of that musical is a surprisingly touching and humane treatment of the subject, and as intellectually ambitious as anything performed on the Broadway stage since the retirement of Stephen Sondheim… yes, it’s uneven and musically not at all distinguished, but of course it also helps that the show’s goddamned hysterical.

(The best hope for Broadway in twenty years? The greatest Broadway song in more than twenty years?)

No comments:

Post a Comment