A Slushy in the Face
Musical Theater Music and the Uncool
I’m a musical theatre composer. It’s with considerable pain that I write that statement; for while I love music, and I love theatre, I am acutely aware of the stigma of the term “musical theatre,” of all it has come to connote and the kneejerk reactions the genre tends to elicit. My community is largely one of experimental, downtown theatre artists and musicians, for whom the love of musicals is either nonexistent, highly qualified, or a shameful secret.
The music of musical theatre has evolved into a highly stylized and specific “genre” of its own, instantly recognizable. And yet this “genre” has little to do with the rest of the world of creative music-making. Musicals are not reported on by Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, or The Wire, or reviewed by music critics, or devoured by people who love music. Instead, they are devoured by people who love musicals, the archetypal “musical theatre geeks” celebrated in Glee.
Glee, in its presentation of Broadway songs as contemporary pop music, shamelessly auto-tuned and lip-synched, has helped to make musical theatre more popular now than ever—The Book of Mormon reached #3 on the Billboard charts (the first Broadway cast album to break the Top Ten since Hair), High School Musical is an institution, and Spider-Man continues to make astounding amounts of money in spite of everything. But, as the high school microcosm of Glee tells its characters (and by extension its fans), musical theatre is still decidedly uncool. Why is this?
Musical theatre began with the vaudeville acts of the 1800s; popular songs of the day were woven into slight plots with little concern for narrative logic. Both Gilbert and Sullivan (H.M.S Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado) and Show Boat (1927) brought orchestration and story to the form, but by and large music heard in the theatre was music that might be heard anywhere—in a concert hall, tavern, or living room. Recordings of show tunes from the '40s are indistinguishable from other contemporary recordings of popular music. There are some notable exceptions, shows in which composers drew from other simultaneously evolving genres, including contemporary classical music (Threepenny Opera, 1928; West Side Story, 1957), and Rodgers and Hammerstein gave the genre a deep narrative richness that was often reflected in the structure and style of the music (Carousel, 1945). But there remained a strong connection between musicals and the music of the day. Miles Davis recorded Porgy and Bess in 1954; that same year, Rosemary Clooney’s “Hey There” was already a hit on the radio when the musical from which it was from, The Pajama Game, opened. The Beatles covered The Music Man’s “Til There Was You” in 1963—one of the last moments of true musical/pop cross-pollination. But the great revolution of rock music hit Broadway hard. The performer-driven music of rock overtook the composer-driven music of theater, and musicals began to fade from the popular consciousness.
It’s worth looking at the first rock musical, Hair (1967), because it gets so many things right. It’s written by Galt McDermott, an accomplished rock and jazz composer long before he wrote for the stage. He won a Grammy for Cannonball Adderley’s recording of his tune “African Waltz” in 1960, and his non-theater recordings have been sampled by Run-DMC and MF Doom (neither of whom, I’m pretty sure, have ever sampled a Broadway show tune). But it’s fascinating to listen to the sound of the music devolve through its recorded history. The original Off-Broadway recording is indistinguishable from popular rock of the day. “Easy To Be Hard” could be a Jefferson Airplane song. The 2009 revival version however, sounds nothing like rock music—it is clean, antiseptic, highly produced, and devoid of rawness. In 1967 the score was recorded by rock musicians; in 2009 it was recorded by musical theater musicians. Other early rock operas have a similar sound; the original Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) (which, in my own informal research, is the one album that lots of musical theater haters seem to know and love) sounds like an amazing early 70s rock/funk band swinging their asses off, because that’s just what it is (Jesus was the lead singer of Deep Purple).
As rock worked it’s way onto Broadway stages (mostly with dazzling failure), the inevitable counter-movement led by Sondheim and especially Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line (1975) continued to expand on the traditional Broadway sound, while also experimenting with extended forms and lyrics that tended to be more specific than those of the past. Proper names and context-specific references abounded, making the songs harder to present in isolation (which is why Sondheim has really only had one “hit,” “Send in the Clowns”). Also in this era, there was a great harmonic innovation: the sus chord.
It’s hard to communicate just how singular the sus chord sounds without playing one. Essentially a sus chord is one in which the third of a chord is replaced by a more unresolved, “suspended” note, the second or the fourth. (So while a C-major chord is spelled C-E-G, C-sus chords are spelled either C-D-G or C-F-G.) If major chords are “happy” and minor chords “sad,” suspended chords are uncertain, hanging in anticipation. It’s actually pretty insane how ubiquitous this chord (which can also be heard in lots of Copland and Hindemith) has become in musical theater: it’s the sound of much of Into the Woods, of “Defying Gravity” from Wicked and Rent’s “Seasons of Love”; composer Jason Robert Brown uses it constantly.
Meanwhile, a world away, people were listening to Led Zeppelin II and Bitches Brew, Steve Reich and Kraftwerk. There were still some great shows avoiding the new trends by reverting back to genre studies (Chicago, 1975; Grease, 1972), but by and large, Broadway was defining a new, unique sound of its own. As shows and box offices got bigger, the music did too. Phantom of the Opera (1986) took the harmonic discoveries of the '70s and jammed them back into recognizable “hit song” forms, smoothing over the lyrical complexities and generously applying schmaltz. Les Miserables (1985) often gets lumped together with Phantom, for their role in creating the Great Broadway Spectacle Tradition, but musically it’s quite different with it’s epic marches and aggressive embrace of 80s rock creating a weird hybrid that one could argue leads directly to Rent (full disclosure: I’ve music directed both Les Miserables and Miss Saigon and loved every second of it. I did get rid of all the synths though).
Also in the '80s, a new brand of self-examining, ironic theatre was being born, with shows like Little Shop of Horrors (1982), in which songs aren’t presented as honest emotion but rather as detached and critical references to another thing. In recent years this trend has become a defining trait: the musical as parody, inherently ironic. This style was crystallized in Urinetown (2001) and continued with Avenue Q (2003), Mel Brook’s musicals and of course Book of Mormon (2011). Good as these shows can be at what they do (I love “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors), they significantly alter the role of the music itself, from one of authenticity to irony. Larson fought this tendency with 1996’s Rent, a highly acclaimed (by theatre critics) rock musical that many believed would be the crossover hit Broadway had been wanting for thirty years. But Rent and its imitators have remained relegated to the affections of musical theater fans only. For rock fans, there remains a deep disconnect between this style of music and “authentic” rock.
Authenticity. And here we have a thesis: that the reason so much musical theatre sounds bad and “uncool” to so many ears, particularly when it flirts with rock, is because it lacks authenticity. Because it is being sung by people who aren’t rock singers. They are acting.
So much discussion about musicals centers on the function of the music, the way the music relates to the book, the narrative arc, etc. All these are important things, but the music itself is paramount and all too often it’s an afterthought.
It’s an obvious but critical fact; actors perform in fundamentally different ways from musicians. When a non-theatrical singer sings a song, they are of course performing, but even when they are “playing a character,” the actual performer is still center stage. You know you are listening to David Bowie, and that is the character you care about—Bowie, with all his untouchable chic and unknowable fame. It’s the same for an unknown guy playing open mic; when he’s singing you are watching him, the actual human being singing, and he is trying to show you himself as sincerely as possible, to commune with you in a way that transcends the words. Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday do the same thing; so does Beyoncé. The greatest insult you can lay on a rock, country, folk, jazz, soul, or hip-hop musician is that they are “faking it,” or “being theatrical”—if a singer starts overemoting in way that seems premeditated and/or insincere, the audience checks out. Acting is anathema to music. I’d even argue that the best Broadway singers do this too. Liza Minnelli singing “Maybe This Time” is astonishing, because it’s working on several levels; sure she’s Sally Bowles, but she’s also clearly Liza. This is probably the reason so many people criticized Lea Salonga’s Éponine but she’s by far my favorite; she’s barely “acting” at all, she’s just being Lea Salonga.
But Liza and Lea are the exception, and even they are working within a style of singing unique to the world of Broadway musicals. The worst musical theatre singers adhere to a very learned, imitative, uniform style that has evolved over years of fusing classic Broadway singing with jazz, rock, and pop. It’s a style that is usually the result of years of training in over-articulating, over-enunciating, and over-emoting, presumably to insure that the words are heard and understood. Most every other style of music embraces idiosyncrasies, champions subtlety, celebrates its mumblers and growlers, and doesn’t care if we can’t hear a word here or there if the overall feeling is visceral. But musical theater remains chained to an orthodoxy of diction, projection, and extroversion.
The composers, too, frequently sound as though they are acting. Great rock musicians spend years finding their sound, but most rock musical theatre composers sound like they are composing inside a bubble, without ever having played in rock bands or spent any time immersed in the music they are imitating. And you can hear it. One of the reasons Sondheim commands so much respect and reverence is his good sense to stay clear of rock because he doesn’t like rock on stage, and he knows he’d be a liar if he tried it. He’s a classicist and true to himself (his one flirtation outside of his realm, the witch’s “rap” in Into the Woods, still makes me cringe).
Of course there are musicals being written by famous rock musicians too: Elton John, U2, the slew of artists rearranged into jukebox musicals. But there’s a different dishonesty here—one of manufactured emotions and corporate sponsorship. In a way I almost forgive these shows, because they seem to not pretend to be “great art,” anymore than Hard Rock Cafe pretends to serve “great food.” Disney shows are designed to do a very specific thing, and by most accounts they do it very well, making many tourists happy. But the music in these shows—manipulative and trite—is a far cry from “Tiny Dancer,” or The Joshua Tree.
The authenticity rule goes for the sound design too. Most Broadway shows are performed in houses that are not rock venues with sound design that is so concerned with making the lyrics audible and the audience comfortable that the actual sound of real rock music is completely washed out and lost. In the Heights (2008) got a lot of attention from the musical theatre world for being the “first rap musical.” But it didn’t get a lot of attention in the hip-hop world, because it didn’t sound anything like the hip-hop you’d hear in an actual hip-hop club. Hip-hop needs bass, way more bass than In the Heights had.
Probably the best music I heard on Broadway in the last five years was in Fela! (2008), and the reason is quite simple; the show’s house band was an actual Afrobeat band, Antibalas, and they had a fantastic sound designer, who was allowed to let the music sound like Afrobeat music. There have been other signs of hope: Passing Strange (2006) was built around a nontheatre musician, Stew; Once (2011), at New York Theater Workshop right now and Broadway bound, has some awfully beautiful indie rock songs performed by a stage full of string-playing actors; and of course there’s Billie Joe Armstrong. But I long for so much more. I want to hear a musical sound as unique and new as Radiohead, Björk, or the Dirty Projectors. A piece for the stage that tells a story as well and as musically compellingly as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or Danny Elfman’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. I want to hear a musical that’s cool.
So how do we get that? How do we get musicals that break the musical mold? So much discussion about musicals centers on the function of the music, the way the music relates to the book, the narrative arc, etc. All these are important things, but the music itself is paramount and all too often it’s an afterthought. We need composers and singers that come from rock clubs, cabarets, basements, not undergraduate musical theater programs. We need singular, creative musicians, playing music that is inventively arranged and not beholden to any preordained sound. We need to never allow a digital piano to be used again. We need to get more bands out of the pit and onto the stage, so we can see them groove. We need sound designers that blow the rooms up, and we need directors that will let them. We need audiences that will let a missed lyric go.
But above all, we need authenticity; composers, lyricists, singers, musicians and technicians all doing what they do because they couldn’t possibly do it any other way.