AISLE SAY New York

MUSICAL CONFLICTS—
OF INTEREST

THE STORY OF MY LIFE
Book by Brian Hall
Music and Lyrics by Neil Bartram

HAPPINESS
Book by John Weidman
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korrie

ROOMS
Music and Lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman
Book by Goodman and Miriam Gordon

NEXT TO NORMAL
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt

Not exactly reviewed, but nonetheless considered
by David Spencer

The Story of My Life had been workshopped and produced in its authors’ native Canada, but it started its initial development in the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, where I teach, and after Canada, very pointedly began its Broadway journey after, in a Master Class I moderated at BMI, where the guest panelists were Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. The show fascinated Richard, who soon thereafter took it on as director.

               Come the Broadway debut, the reviews were bewilderingly dismissive and the producers decided not to fight a losing battle at the Booth Theatre, but rather direct their funds toward the release of the album and other efforts that might encourage future licensing of the musical. Thus it was set to close on the first available weekend after the opening.

               I'd been out of town, only learning about the closing upon my return the night before—my press seats scheduled for the following week—but an early Sunday-morning email sent to the press agents elicited, surprisingly, a timely response and a generous one: With mere hours to spare, I was given a pair of seats (and very nice ones at that) for the final performance.
              
               Which is how I came to bump into Richard Maltby in the lobby of the Booth Theatre that Sunday matinee. Whereupon he embraced me and enthused, “This is all because of you!” He effusively informed me that he'd mentioned my role as touchstone to many—I think that had to have included the press agents too, all things considered—so I didn’t feel the chill that might normally have accompanied hearing such a tribute while holding reviewer’s tickets in hand. Nobody was expecting me to review it, so I could safely attend as a friend.

                Ironically, though, as I sat watching the show, I thought there was something desperately important to say about it. I had a similar feeling about  watching Rooms, Happiness and Next to Normal.

                  Now, I usually try to consider “conflict of interest” on a case by case basis. I have no set rule for why I’ll opt to consider that my roles as either musical theatre teacher and/or musical theatre dramatist render me inappropriate to review one production or another—I go by a gut instinct, combined with a consideration of the feelings and politics that may be involved. And I’m usually pretty loose about it.

                  But a week or so ago, that gut instinct told me strongly that, with The Story of My Life being only recently gone, and Rooms, Happiness and Next to Normal opening within such close proximity to each other, I’d best avoid detailed public analysis of any: All the aforementioned shows were co-authored by prominent past and present veterans of the BMI Lehman-Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, where I’ve been a member since 1979 and a regular teacher for roughly the last decade, and some of the shows even took their nascent steps there.

                  But as I say—all four shows and their receptions had me thinking about the state of musical theatre criticism in general. And to that end, I will discuss them a bit because I think there’s a larger issue than any one show to bear in mind as you—as all of us—scan the landscape of new musicals, present and to come. And that’s the importance of factoring in what the audience is “saying.” For even though all the singing and dialogue emanates from the stage, a musical, more perhaps than any other form of “legit” theatre endeavor, is a communal experience, because the “exchange” the musical has with its audience in development is usually more ritualistic and more apparent and thus so much more crucial to its frozen form. And it’s less than ideal to assess the frozen form without taking in the audience reaction that does…or doesn’t…support it.

                  Thus a critic simply can’t review a musical comprehensively or altogether fairly—whether he likes the show or not—without taking the reaction into account, tacitly or specifically. But ironically that’s not always a skill available to even the most responsible and articulate of critics. And true enough, sometimes it’s rejected: in eschewing reaction as a barometer, critics will cite the suspicious nature of the too-friendly crowd (friends? ringers?), the trap of being swayed from your own convictions by the seduction of a populist response, etc. etc. All potentially legitimate caveats, yet none really so. And that’s because when all is said and done, the musical thrives on being a populist medium, that only succeeds when it communicates in a populist manner, whether you’re presenting something as lowbrow as The Rocky Horror Show or as highbrow as Pacific Overtures; and the reaction of the audience—the subtleties that let you determine truth from fiction—is essentially a lie detector that virtually testifies to the degree of the show’s effectiveness. But the detector’s “printout” tends to be read best by those who’ve been in a creative team on the firing line. Most critics don’t have access to that experience, or even to musical dramatists who can teach them about it.

                  So for any interested—and for you—the following is something of a primer. It’s only a place to start…but I hope it’s meaningful, however basic.

                  There are several barometers savvy creative teams use to determine how well their shows are going over. I hasten to add, this doesn’t account for considerations beyond audience reaction, that inspire the quest for excellence, for following a muse and a vision…nor does it always attest to quality (though it usually does, in a basic and visceral fashion)…when you’re talking about a show like Rock of Ages, which is strictly about nostalgia, style and adrenaline, different standards and degrees of demonstration apply than those you’d desire a seriously intended book musical to live up to. The patrons don’t scream and talk back at 1776. (At least they’re not supposed to!) And smart creative teams aren’t interested in pandering to get the best response…but this is how we begin to determine if things are clear, coherent, landing properly and maintaining interest:

                  The first and perhaps most important is concentration. There’s almost a sound to it, perhaps it even is a sound on some low, vibratory level. You can literally feel when the audience is engaged; indeed you can feel it in your own body. And you can feel when it leaves the room, when bodies in chairs start to shift, to relax, when you become conscious of a deadness in the air. This can happen when things go on too long or audiences feel their expectations betrayed (i.e. when the hero of Sweet Smell of Success pimped out his girlfriend and became irredeemable).

                  The second is applause and laughter. Not just their existence, but the speed and confidence with which they arrive—and, with applause especially, its volume and its length. There is a profound difference between applause that is dutifully in keeping with the ritual…and applause that says Yes! You’ve delivered the moment satisfyingly.

                  The third is the universality of the response. Is it coming from the house entire? From pockets? Are there dead sections refusing to respond or responding only mildly and occasionally? Are you noticing different age/class/ethnic demographics? Old? Young?

                  The fourth is the most subtle, and happily, none of the musicals cited here needed worry over it: Is the production up to the material? Or is there a disjunct of vision and competence? And is that affecting audience response?

                  The wild card, of course, is that a creative team, a professional and competent one, clocks these things from the first staged reading right through the last full-production preview, over a period of, often, years. A critic, most times, only gets a single performance. And what if it’s a bum performance? (You can only cross your fingers.) What if it’s the dreaded “house full of blue haired ladies”? (You can beg your producers not to invite critics to the theatre party performances. But shit happens.) But in most cases—most cases—if there’s a full house and a smart creative team, the reactions you get are the ones that have been cultivated over time.

                  The question is—what do they tell you, what can they tell you, taken on aggregate, about a show in general? The answer is—rather a lot.

                  The Story of My Life, in particular the entertaining, polished but credibility-straining book by Brian Hall, about two men, a bestselling novelist and the always-supportive, maybe too-supportive friend and muse he left behind—had certain inherent qualities that guaranteed at least controversy where opinion was concerned…but you couldn’t deny the “silent sound” of concentration throughout its intermissionless 90 minutes. Nor could you deny the quick bang of applause that greeted any of composer-lyricist Neil Bartram’s elegant songs that ended with a “button” (the musically articulated bang, pluck or hit that signifies time to clap). The jokes consistently landed, the majority of the audience were visibly and demonstrably moved where they were supposed to be, and the rousing ovation at the end told you that, whatever else was a factor, the audience clearly felt they were in good hands and were glad to have been there. All of this may not necessarily a hit make, but it indicates unequivocally a show that deserves to be cut a certain amount of slack in any appraisal, and a run longer than 5 performances. What does “slack” entail? Not suggesting that every discrete element is tainted by what may or may not be a central flaw. (i.e. Just because you dislike the premise doesn’t mean it’s badly delivered; just becauser you think [as Ben Brantley did] that a number of key ideas are hackneyed and generic, that doesn’t mean the songs are, nor the quality of their execution.) Indeed, the literacy, artfulness, tunefulness, catchiness, sophistication of the score was beyond question. The libretto was intelligent and precise—whatever “mistakes” it made, it made consciously and boldly. Certainly the production and performances were first rate.

               Why were those things not mentioned often or prominently enough in the major reviews? At a guess? Because some critics don’t know how to separate the critical assessment from the quantifiable data (that, I suspect, is most common). And because sometimes—when the appropriately sensitive critic is sour enough about a given project—because he doesn’t want to let on that he can. Because that compromises the delivery of his opinion. And that’s the one that makes me angriest. I don’t know what was in Brantley’s head and I won’t project motivations on him; but if there’s anyone in the critical community with the faculty to recognize an artful and well-crafted score, despite any antipathy held for the show in which it resides, it’s he.

                Much the same thing happened to Happiness, the issue of lyricist Michael Korrie, composer Scott Frankel, librettist John Weidman and director Susan Stroman—though at least that has the advantage of a subscription Lincoln Center run to play itself out (just winding down) and giving the public a finite but respectable window in which to discover it and allow it to have its fair say. Not a show without its problems, not perhaps, ultimately, hitworthy…but that’s not the same as being unworthy of a dedicated patron’s time, interest or theatre dollar. I cannot tell you how often, in the last several months, I’ve heard variations on this speech: “After the reviews, I went to Happiness not expecting very much at all—but I was really surprised!” The level of surprise, the nature of surprise, these are things that vary from speaker to speaker. But not once did I hear: “God, I was so bored.” “What were they thinking?”, “I hated the score”, ”What a mess” or anything to suggest the slightest level of incompetence, negligence, lack of taste or mismanagement. The problem here is that the showmanship is always first rate, even as, at times, the narrative strains the delicacy of its premise—deceased characters on a subway to afterlife, getting to choose the most perfect moment of their respective pasts in which to spend eternity—to the breaking-and-disbelief point (i.e. discovering that the innermost desire of an Ann Coulter-like conservative is to return to her free-love, crazy-lefty days of ‘60s rebelliousness—it’s not a truthful revelation, but rather a glibly comic one, a left-wing fantasy, and it pulls you out of the story); so the audience reaction never tells you when the show jumps the rails. Yet, if the show’s energy, performances, execution and style keep the audience in its grip, isn’t that worth noting as a real asset?

                  Strictly speaking, Rooms should not have been regarded any more fondly or been given more of a break—but it brings with it the pop music factor (which critics are so eager to embrace), and the autobiographical novelty of its two lead characters (stand-ins for composer-lyricist Paul Scott Goodman and his co-librettist/wife Miriam Gordon, chronicling their early relationship) being Scottish Jews with thick Glaswegian accents. And—hugely important—a cheaper off-Broadway ticket. Which lowers the pressure to prove yourself. Now I’m not saying better or worse, but attend this one and if you’re attuned, you’ll notice something that is/was not in evidence at either The Story of My Life or Happiness. Moments where concentration drops. Moments where, because this two-character musical’s story is so inevitable, it’s impossible to sustain adequate dramatic tension. It’s as if air pressure leaves the room and you can indeed feel it. And though the reaction to the show’s score is enthusiastic, the enthusiasm is not felt by the house in tandem, but rather by very vocal, dedicated sections of audience, alongside others less inspired. That these sections exist is meaningful; that Rooms deserves them is unquestionable; but that this too is not reported as part of the experience—because it isn’t recognized as part of the experience—makes any kind of review, pro or con, potentially deceptive.

                  Though Next to Normal (book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, music by Tom Kitt) has the ability to also inspire a range of audience opinion, the live audience reaction turns controversy into an asset, because it’s wall-to-wall, not merely the silent hum of concentration but the electric buzz of being in on something a little bit dangerous. As indeed, a musical about a manic depressive wife and mother, and the toll her illness (and treatment) takes upon her family, would have to be. Interestingly, though, despite across the board raves in major venues, the show is struggling to sell out, largely due to its subject matter, and a word of mouth more controversial than the notices (though tending strongly toward the positive). And that brings up another consideration.

                  Each of these musicals is pushing the envelope of subject matter and structure. Despite its renegade nature, Next to Normal encompasses more of the traditional principles than the others (i.e. the main one: we follow a central character’s forward-moving journey, and all other characters play out the reverberations of her effect on their lives) which in large measure accounts for the electric buzz and the better reviews—traditional structure makes even a renegade musical easier to grasp very quickly, and a musical, because it’s such a heightened dramatic form, has to grab the audience faster than straight plays do, or it loses them—but if it has more of the checklist elements that support a hit (and I’m not being arch; I’m a huge proponent of that checklist) it’s certainly no more nor less worthy of attention. And that really should be at the hub of musical theatre criticism…over and above questions of taste, subject matter, even opinion…the first bottom line is, with what quality and craftsmanship, with what passion and how infectiously, are the creative team doing their jobs?

                  And when the audience (as well as your own objective sense, if you have it) tells you those qualities run high…it’s just not fair or responsible to suggest comprehensive failure, to suggest, for example, that something as nobly rendered as The Story of My Life is a Rachel Lily Rosenbloom-type train wreck, or an In My Life industry joke.

                  That a show misses the mark of its own objective? Sure. That it’s compromised by a false premise in the basic concept, or an inconsistency of execution? By all means. But a lack of value? An attitude of glib dismissal?

                  The musical theatre community deserves better than that.

                  As do you.

                  Which is, of course, easy to say, but once said, what’s to be done about it? How can you, in future, get a critic to deliver his fairest report of the experience, whether it represents or isolates his subjective feelings as a professional analyst?

                  Well…by taking advantage of the internet age. On those majour-outlet websites that invite reader reviews—and The New York Times is among them!—add to the voices. If you feel the reviewer has neglected to report everything (over and above his opinion, you can’t castigate him for that, but about the communal experience of being there) politely say so and request that in future it factor into his appraisals. When you give your own opinion, likewise leave room for a more objective account of what the audience as a whole seemed to be demonstrating.

                  The more this becomes the norm, the more such discussions, appraisals, considerations, become part of the landscape, part of the vocabulary, part of the expected data…the more it will find its way into professional criticism across the board. Simply by osmosis. Slang and idiom get introduced into language in exactly the same manner—by frequency of appearance.

                  There used to be a time when all anyone could really do about drama criticism in NYC was be content with, or complain about, the power of the guy at the Times, and be frustrated other critics were or weren’t as competent, that other venues than print didn’t mean as much, and that a consensus of appraisals rarely had the same industry punch as the one man’s opinion—and etcetera. The press did what the press did, theatrefolk did what theatrefolk did and audiences could only reap the fallout.

                  But the game is very different now. Because now you’re a part of it. An active part of it. And if you let it be known what you want—in force, consistently, cogently and reasonably…you’ll actually make a huge difference. I’ve seen it happen in other contexts; no reason it shouldn’t work here too. For the first time, you, we, all of us, actually have the power.  And how cool is that…?

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