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April 22, 2016


R&H: Relevant & Human or Run-down and Humdrum?

Faithful readers may recall that last week I spoke about my discussion at Penn State with Scott Miller, the august author of wonderful musical theater books and the artistic director of New Line Theater in St. Louis, and Jennifer Ashley Tepper of Feinstein’s/54 Below. The issue then was whether or not perfect rhymes were still an important component in musical theater. I said yes; Scott said no; Jennifer seemed on the fence.

Moderator Richard Biever was amused to see us tussle on another matter, too: Rodgers and Hammerstein.

“I used to like them,” Miller said. “I’m over them.”

“Well,” I said to start my rebuttal, “the public doesn’t seem to be. The most recent Broadway revival of SOUTH PACIFIC lasted a long time and THE KING AND I is still doing well after a year.”

(This is more than we can say for last season’s DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS and IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU.)

Miller was willing to concede one point. “I went to see a show at the Muny,” he said, referring to the enormous 11,000-seat outdoor theater in his hometown. “I think it was SEUSSICAL, and I said to one of the executives afterward ‘I love that there’s no Rodgers and Hammerstein in the season -- anywhere.’ And he said to me, ‘Yeah, but the box office doesn’t love it. Nothing sells as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein.’”

So what’s the problem, Scott? “My objection is that R&H shows don’t tell about the sexual revolution, Vietnam, Watergate, et cetera. They don’t really apply to our world.”

“I don’t see why that’s important,” I replied. “I hate when people say anything is ‘dated,’ a term I never use. I view old shows as time machines. I love going back and seeing what people were thinking at that moment in time. That shows me a lot about what America was. It doesn’t have to be relevant to right now. I want to know what went before. To me, they’re history lessons.”

(And when you think of it, everything’s dated. Go see any movie, and you’ll find somewhere in the credits some Roman numeral from MDCCCLXXXVIII to MMXVI that literally “dates” a show.)

Miller stated “What’s missing in R&H shows – which is why I’m not interested anymore – is irony and cynicism. Those are both in almost all of the shows from 1965 on. I don’t like shows that don’t have them.”

Tepper had a good point: Hammerstein might well have dealt with those situations that Miller craves had he lived beyond 1960.

Miller agreed, but centered on “I want to know what’s going on in the world right now, whether or not the shows are set in the right-now -- and there are lots that do that. I’m not saying any of the R&H topics are bad or the shows are bad,” he hastened to add. “They just don’t apply to my world right now.”

I rebutted that “I’ll bet there are still people who are racist when they enter a performance of SOUTH PACIFIC and whose feelings aren’t as staunch when they come out of the theater after they’ve heard ‘Carefully Taught.’”

Miller did nod in agreement at that.

“And I predict,” I said, “in 30 or 40 years when you’re sitting in my chair and a younger version of you will be in yours, he’ll be saying how horrible the shows are that you now hold dear.”

(I wish I’d added that the shows that Miller lauded -- BAT BOY, VIOLET, AVENUE X -- not AVENUE Q, mind you; AVENUE X – and his favorite musical of all time, HIGH FIDELITY -- might not speak to the next generation. Under those circumstances, should they be discarded – or should they continue to be produced so we can see where we were in the early part of the 21st century?)

Not that I said it at the panel – we segued to another subject – but what I like about classic musicals is the inherent optimism in so many of the songs. The sun’ll come out tomorrow. Put on a happy face. Make someone happy. Once you’ve found her, build your world around her. You gotta have heart. Good times are here to stay.
No one is alone.

And Lord knows that R&H did their optimistic part: You’ll never walk alone. Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk. Climb ev’ry mountain, ford ev’ry stream , follow every rainbow till you find your dream. You’ve got to have a dream; if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?

I understand that these sentiments are no longer in fashion. How can they be? We live in a pretty terrible world. I suspect that’s why rap is so popular today – because rap is inherently angry, and we have millions upon millions of angry people in this country. Sometimes they’re referred to as “the 99%,” which says something about the far-reaching level of dissatisfaction.

If you woke up tomorrow and heard that one country nuclear-bombed another, would you really be surprised? Isn’t there a part of you that’s rather expecting it? It could happen. I hear the human race is falling on its face and hasn’t very far to go.

If that last line sounds familiar but you can’t quite place it, it comes from Oscar Hammerstein. People have been hearing it since early 1949 when SOUTH PACIFIC opened. And I could also argue that there are still couples who engage in cat-and-mouse games that are very similar to the mind-trips that Curley and Laurey play … that some couples marry on the basis of love at first sight, the way that Billy and Julie do in CAROUSEL, and wind up as extraordinarily unhappy … and that parents today who see their baby walk for the very first time get just as excited as the people who watch Joseph Taylor, Jr. take his first steps in ALLEGRO.

What’s more, people who were born in different eras still ask the question Hammerstein posed by both the young and older people in FLOWER DRUM SONG: “What are we going to do about the other generation?” – which may well have occurred to both Miller and me during this discussion. It’s a line that’s ironic because each party in FLOWER DRUM SONG feels entitled to it, and it contains some cynicism, too.

Anyway, I can’t help wondering if our art became optimistic again in the R&H manner it might lead the way to at least a somewhat better world. Art can persuade. The one thing I failed to ask Miller is “Yes, I understand and agree that today’s world is filled with irony and cynicism. Now – do you want it to stay that way?”

         — Peter Filichia



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