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A Slushy in the Face

Musical Theater Music and the Uncool

An abstract illustration of three faces with an outstretched set of hands.
"Slushy Face," an original illustration by Skye Murie.

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?

Many actors in white surround a central actor in pink.
2014 San Francisco Opera production of Show Boat, directed by Francesca Zambello. Photo: Scott Suchman

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.

Many actors sing onstage in flamboyant costumes.
Hair National Tour cast, 2010. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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.

Many actors dance with their hands raised.
Cast of Fela! on Broadway. Photo by Monique Carboni.

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.

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"Real rock and roll is about camaraderie, it's about drinking, and it's about fucking party time" -- Cocked N' Loaded drummer Rob Davol in this week's Boston Phoenix.

(I posted this but maybe it got lost in the shuffle. If not, sorry for the repost.)

Thanks for this because it might clarify some of the cloudy stuff going on right now.

You are writing specifically about Rock Musicals but not every musical is a rock musical.
The 2008 B’way production of South Pacific ran for over 1000 performances. No missed lyrics there. Well-crafted music, book and lyrics with songs that serve a dramatic purpose sung by good actors. Authenticity.

You want “audiences that will let a missed lyric go”? But it’s Musical Theater: music and lyrics are crafted together so that the audience hears every word. Because every word is important. Because the song is important to the story or the character. That’s what the form is about. Good lyricists work hard to craft their lyrics. Why would they tolerate even one line being missed? Even in a Rock Musical.

If you want to see a band groove, go to a concert. Passing Strange is a concert of songs with some theatrical “stuff” around them. The songs are peripheral. The songs do not turn the scene or explain what a character is feeling. I would not call it Musical Theater.

Musical Theater is a specific art form. Why complain that it is not more like rock? Do you complain that jazz is not more like rock? That opera should be more like jazz?

Why SHOULD musical theater singers be like rock or pop singers? Why should there be shame in NOT being like a pop/rock singer? And of course actors don’t want to be themselves – they are playing roles. Did you see Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens (one example of many)? Audiences raved because she BECAME that character with her voice, body and soul: Authenticity.

I could go on, (your short treatise on musical theater history is misleading and sorely lacking) but I urge you to see more good traditional book musicals before you exhort others to destroy the art form.

Hi Ann,

Thanks for your comment; but I think you're missing my central point. I adore South Pacific and most great traditional book musicals and have no conceptual issue with musicals that are not rock musicals. I do not need musical theater to be more like rock. What I have issue with is musicals that say they are rock musicals but actually sound nothing like rock music (or say they are hip-hop musicals but sound nothing like hip-hop, etc).

And I'm NOT saying musical theater singers should sound like pop singers; in fact, I'm saying that all too often musical theater singers *try* to sound like pop singers (and musical theater composers *try* to write like rock composers) and that the results are often unfortunate.

And yes, it's a very short treatise on musical history and thus quite lacking! Just trying to hit some major signposts as I hear them.

OK, thanks for clarifying, because a few friends who read this were getting the same idea I did.

But what about the lyrics?
If there is one troubling aspect to new musicals, it's the lyrics' inability to do the work they need to do in a book musical.

I saw this in a musical recently: Something devastating emotional occurs; character sings a a poetic lyric about butterflies. I then lose consciousness. I get aggravated. It's a pretty song, but I don't know what it's about and I am much more interested in the story.

"Spring Awakening" was a perfect example of this.
In no way do I want to say that the musical should not have been produced: it was kind of fun. It got very young people in there.
But "Song of Purple Summer"? It's a nice song, but what does that have to do with the story?

I believe musicals will be better when they are new and fresh and much more like the old ones. (Book of Mormon is is exactly that!)
Thanks again.

I was driving around with Andy Strain and we talked about your use of "authenticity." Then I punched his arm because the word "identity" slipped out of my mouth, interchanged with "authenticity" - an actor/performers/composer's identity gets/has gotten bleached out with the current "musical theatre" sound/formula. No hegemony! That clarified it for myself. Go Dave!

This is obviously an immensely thought provoking article, and I've enjoyed it and the responses. I also thank you for your praise of my work on "Fela." You've really got me thinking - please pardon this very long response...

One of the advantages I had on Fela, as a sound designer, (and the actors playing the lead also enjoyed this advantage) was the fact that the essential story of the musical was not told entirely in song - we had many well crafted "Yabis" where Fela would yab with the audience. And the words that were sung were in pidgeon - indeed, many fans of the original Fela never knew what all his lyrics were, and this never interfered with our love of his music. Add in the controlled openess to improv and the absolutely killer band, and, while my job wasn't easy, it sure was fun.

But I do think this points up one essential difference between contemporary music-musicals and the mainstream music (specifically rock & blues) they resemble. So often, for many rational and traditional reasons, lyricists are attempting to tell very complicated stories over music that doesn't support detailed information. It was years before I knew the lyric was "She caught the Katy, left me the mule to ride" - I didn't even know a Katy was a train. But I sure loved singing "she's complicated..." along with the tune. And, to be honest, it in no way interfered with my love of the song.

As a sound designer in musical theater, I am often in the uneviable wedge between the lyricist and the composer - the composer wants the score to really rock, and the lyricist wants every syllable to be understood. And then I've got to find the space to create a design that actively serves the world of the play on top of that...

The freedom from the burden of complete comprehension allows many great music acts of our time a total embrace of their musical integrity. Indeed, Sigur Ros invented a nonsense language so as not to interfere with the music on their albums.

You cite Hedwig as another example of great contemporary music in theatre. And, again, honoring the essence of that music demanded that the writing be immensely particular - much information is conveyed in the dialogue with the audience, in the imagery projected, and, when vital and inside a song, with great repetition - in "Angry Inch," not every detail of the surgery may come thru, but you hear "6 inches forward and 5 inches back - I got an angry inch" at least 10 times in the song.

As a designer (and indeed, as the composer of my own, slow-growing musical), I think its really important for composer/lyricist teams to maintain a consciousness of this essential fact - if you're aiming to write a modern-music musical, you must embrace some degree of lyric-slur, or lyric loss - otherwise, you are putting a burden of over-enunciation on your performers, and asking your sound designer to either squash, or "trick" the music underneath the lyrics (yes, we have tricks.)

I think its also important to remember that, even before amplification, rock's direct ancestor, the blues, put a very high value on repetition - a three minute Robert Johnson tune might be 3 4-line verses and 4 go-rounds of the chorus. No one was sitting in his concerts asking themselves what a particular word might be - they were listening to his voice as a musical instrument first, and as a storyteller second.

So, maybe one question to ask is - does the use of rock, blues and afro-beat require a different way of structuring the storytelling, for the music to retain its authentic feel? Do we lose something by sweating comprehension? I have a friend who used to sing "Big old Chad in a line-up, don't carry me too far away!" at the top of her southern rock lungs. It'd be a sin not to hear "jet airliner" in a musical theater setting. But it sure didn't bother anyone in the car with her on road trips...

One last thought - this whole premise does suggest one thing - rap IS a medium with immense clarity of lyrical flow. Maybe its time for some of the fantastically gifted MC's and spitters out there to get something going on the stage.

Hi Robert,

Thanks for writing! Very glad you found your way here, truly the band in Fela! sounded awesome.

I think you're totally right about the lyrics in rock music, and that for a rock musical to be effective the lyricist really needs to be aware of this stuff- that simplicity and repetition are key. As a composer I've found myself using tricks to achieve this too, making sure that the orchestration thins out when key pieces of information are being communicated, etc. And lyrcially it's important to remember that rock is (as Kent was suggesting) truly better at communicating emotion than narrative. One of the reasons I love The Wall so much is that the story is kind of there, around the edges of the songs, slightly vague but you can still get it. Without the songs ever going into exposition we get the full story of Pink and his family, his withdrawal and trial.

And yeah, rap shows us that you can communicate an immense amount of lyrical information but still have the music sound cool...Bob Dylan does it too.

Hi Ken!

Thanks for writing. Again I don't mean to dismiss Broadway singing outright; as I mentioned in the article and in my comment above I truly do think it can be done wonderfully, and that the people that can do that are astounding musicians. I've absolutely been moved to tears by Broadway voices.

But unfortunately I feel like it is a style that lends itself really well to unconsidered imitation, that it is often executed so poorly that it sounds like a parody of itself, and that we tend to hear that A LOT. I think the influence of pop music as presented by American Idol has definitely added to this phenomenon, and Glee simply capitalizes on that fact (I should also confess here that, much as the sound of the music in Glee sometimes hurts me, I'm actually pretty into it). So for my ears, I'd much rather hear someone singing idiosyncratically and sincerely, then someone attempting to parrot a Broadway style without the technical skills and artistry to sell it. I've been lucky enough to work with a ton of untrained singers who, as a result of their lack of training, have truly individual and amazing voices, and also with a lot of trained singers who use their training on a technical level but let their ridiculously unique personalities shine though, as opposed to emulating a Broadway sound.

I hear the two issues you raise too, but I think they can both be surmounted. I would love to hear more musicals that embrace improvisation ("Fela!" did this a bit), or that use lyrics as rock music does, to convey feeling rather than plot ("Hedwig" does that)...(and by the way, I'm DYING to hear the Mellencamp/Stephen King show). Of course that's not what an audience expects from musicals, but I also think that the way to develop new audiences is to take a chance and put up radical new work and see what happens. Two of my favorite shows in NYC last year, Gatz and Sleep No More, defied all expectations of what an audience wants, yet both were huge successes.

And I am, I am a proud maker! I stand by my work and my amazing collaborators and will continue to write for years. Just wish I didn't have to do so much explaining when I'm asked what I do at parties.

Thanks for the reply Dave. My issue with your appraisal of Broadway singers is that you are selling them short. Most of the people I have worked with can do anything you ask of them... it's what is being asked of them that's in question. And I don't disagree that there might be problems inside that. But I work with self-loathing musical theater makers all the time who dismiss wonderful performers because they "don't want it to sound like a musical", when in reality these performers are great musicians/actors who aren't faking anything and are much more capable of transforming their voices than people think. I also agree that sometimes untrained people can bring something great to the party. It's always been thus (Rex Harrison anyone?)

I completely agree with you that the other issues are surmountable. And the way to develop new audiences is to do the risky work. I guess I would argue that it's happening. You cite New York Theatre Workshop's ONCE. I would add THE SHAGGS at Playwrights Horizons (my employer), Suzanne Vega's show at Rattlestick. Most things by Duncan Sheik. Josh Schmidt's work. SLUG BEARERS OF KAYROL ISLAND at the Vineyard. Your own BEOWOLF. STRIKING 12 by Groovelily. All of it approaching the work in new and interesting ways. The trouble is, partially, that its not often the work that gets the most attention. Change has always happened slowly in the theater. But as the music industry changes and the recording industry falls apart, more and more composers from other mediums are realizing that musicals are a legitimate form of expression. That's why so many people are making the cross-over. As that happens, we may find that musical taste-makers (i.e. music critics) will pay more attention. But no matter what, we will still be beholden to narrative and theatricality. Otherwise we're really just giving a concert.

Dave, you've written a tremendous article for the new play community who dismiss musicals because of the all-to-often sentimentalized or goofy versions of themselves that people often associate with the form. As others have pointed out, you certainly are not alone in your desire to see other forms of music embraced and point out the outright disdain that the straight play community has for the form. But there are some big misunderstandings in your piece as well.

Among them is the grousing on the stylistic choices musical theater singers make in the performing styles. Mostly this underestimates what a large group of people are capable of and it surprises me. I have personally heard you rock out on Beowulf and play Schubert wonderfully. A good musician can embrace several different styles and Broadway pop is a legitimate style. American Idol style singing comes from the popularity of the TV show not the Broadway stage. As a cast member on Glee told me, their voices are auto-tuned because the producer wants it to sound like the radio. We owe that stylistic triumph more to T-Pain than to the in-authenticity of Broadway. Most musical theater singers are terrific musicians first and I am constantly amazed at how often people dismiss their ability to transform and protect their voices, choosing instead the more "authentic" performers whose voices can't stand the strain of 8 performances a week.

There are two major problems in bringing alternative forms of music to bear in the musical theater world. The first is the rigidity of the form. Musicals are about architecture, but most forms of music that you cite, jazz, rock, etc. demand a certain amount of improvisation to remain authentic. Lyrically, characters are as defined by what they say while singing as to how they are singing. Rock music does not necessarily embrace lyricism as a value. There are, of course, ways around this and there are many great people writing music in a variety of styles. Regina Spektor, John Mellencamp, Mike Doughty, The Scissor Sisters, Suzanne Vega, and many other "authentic" musicians are at work on pieces. And of course there is Bono and the Edge, both of whom recently admitted publicly that it was a lot harder to write for the theater than they thought.

The other major problem with bringing new forms of music to the theater is the audience. Say "it's a musical" and you are going to get a certain number of people who come to your theater with a certain expectation. This rigidity in the audience creates far more problems than the lack of people trying to experiment with the form. If we are truly going to be able to bring musicals into the 21st century, then we are going to have to stop making them only commercial entities. More than any other form of theater, the Broadway expectation of musicals drives the form. And this in turn is driven by the people who want musicals to be traditional. They want the powerhouse voices, the want the sus chords and when they don't get it, you better pack your bags.

So first and foremost, we need to develop new audiences. We need to convince people that musicals can look and sound any way you want them to. That the form is no different than any other form of theater, it is simply another form of stylization. We need people like Dave to stand up and say I am a proud maker of musicals.

Two points, Dave's suggestion that "authenticity" is sometimes sacrificed by musical theatre composers is directly addressed by Stephen Sondheim in "Finishing the Hat." See his excellent preface "Rhyme and its Reason." Second, yes, musical theatre has its share of inauthentic singers. As Scott Miller states above, that's called BAD ACTING. But there is nothing finer on any stage, musical or otherwise, than Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin singing "Move On" or Barbara Cook singing "Losing My Mind" or George Hearn and Angela Landsbury singing "A Little Priest" and on and on. Good acting in musical theatre is GOOD ACTING. It's authentic, it's cool, it's moving.

Hi Ron,

Totally agree! That's why I mentioned Liza Minelli and Lea Salonga in my article; they're just two examples to in addition to the ones you mention and several others. And yes when it's being done badly it is bad acting and bad singing and bad everything. Just trying to get at what exactly is it that makes it bad, and why musiclas theater seems to so many ears to be so prone to badness.

And yes, loved the Sondheim book, am working my thru Volume 2 right now.

I agree with your final point -- that authenticity is always the primary goal. Getting at the truth is the whole point of storytelling.

But holy crap, there's so much here that you get wrong... You need to read my books -- Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals; Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre; Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of Hair; and the others. And then pay some attention to what's actually going on in the musical theatre...

You write as if you're living in the Rodgers & Hammerstein era of the 1940s and 50s. Most theatre music today is nothing like what you describe. Almost no new works today follow either the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical model or structural model. Today, shows like American Idiot, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love Kills, bare, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Passing Strange, The Blue Flower, Lysistrata Jones, Next to Normal, High Fidelity, The Bomb-itty of Errors, and so many others have rejected the old-school Broadway sound for authentic rock and roll, some also crossing over into alt pop, hip-hop and emo along the way.

Also, musical theatre as we know it today did not start with vaudeville or Gilbert & Sullivan. It was largely created by George M. Cohan in the very early 20th century with his rowdy, slangy, intensely American musical comedies. They were like nothing that had ever come before. The establishment was horrified by his shows, but the public loved them, and they jump-started the American musical theatre as we know it today, well before Show Boat. And no, we didn't have to wait for Show Boat for orchestration. What a bizarre notion. And the score of The Threepenny Opera has very little to do with classical music -- its roots are mostly in German cabaret and folk music...

Also, Galt MacDermot was not a rock composer before he wrote the score for Hair. He was a jazz composer with a background in African music.

And if you think theatre composers didn't used sustained 2nd or 4th chords before the 70s, you need to do some reading and some listening. That's just silly.

And Little Shop didn't invent the ironic self-referential musical. That happened in 1937 with The Cradle Will Rock, and continued through many shows over the 20th century, including Love Life, Allegro, The Fantasticks, Cabaret, Man of La Mancha, Rocky Horror, Follies, Hair, Company, and so many others.

Your dismissal of "acting" as inauthentic is also bizarre. That's the core of storytelling, becoming a character. And yes, pop and rock singers do it often. Remember Ziggy Stardust? Slim Shady? If the acting gets in the way of the music or the storytelling, then it's bad acting. But acting, in and of itself, is not inauthentic, anymore than a well-rehearsed rock star on stage with lighting, stage effects, an amp, a mic, and other things that technically get between artist and audience. There's artifice in almost all performance -- the trick is getting to the truth despite the artifice.

You should take a break from chronicling musical theatre history for a while -- there's too much about it you don't understand...

Hi Scott,

Thanks for your passionate response. I think that many of your quibbles are just misreadings or semantic issues: Cohan grew up as a vaudeville performer; I used Show Boat as an example to illustrate an early example of intricate story and G & S an early example of full orchestration, that would have been clearer had I used the word "respectively"; Weill studied with Busoni and has a lot of symphonic and chamber music pre-dating Three Penny that borrows heavily from Mahler and Schoenberg, and the harmonic language of Three Penny borders on atonality at times. Galt's "Shape of Rhythm" from '66 has a pretty heavy rock feel throughout. I didn't say that sus chords weren't used before the 70s, or that Little Shop "invented" ironic theater (though the shows you list here, Cabaret, La Mancha etc, don't do the thing I'm talking about: make fun of musical theater). I stand by my assessment of Bowie as Ziggy or any of his other personas, and well I just don't like Eminem.

But I take biggest issue with your claim that I'm living in the Rodgers & Hammerstein era; nothing could be further from the truth, I'm well aware of what's going on and that's what troubles me. Of the eleven shows you mentioned I've seen or heard eight; two I mentioned in my article as good things, and I'd add Hedwig to that list; the other five all struck me as doing exactly the thing I'm lamenting, impersonating music rather than actually making sincere, interesting music. Just compare "Bomb-itty of Errors" to anything being put out by Odd Future, The Roots, Jay-Z, Kanye West...or really *any* good hip-hop album. The difference is palpable.

I truly look forward to reading your many books.

Ann wrote, "Passing Strange is a concert of songs with some theatrical 'stuff' around them. The songs are peripheral. The songs do not turn the scene or explain what a character is feeling. I would not call it Musical Theater." That's one of the most profoundly ignorant statements I've heard about new musical theatre since I first read this silly column...

Here's how wrong you are about Passing Strange -- http://www.newlinetheatre.c...

EXCELLENT! My first exposure to great musical theatre was the soundtracks of Fiddler on the Roof and Inner City. Two very different musicals, but I think great examples of how music and story are working together AND (in the case of Inner City) uses the music sounds of the day quite well.

Thank you for sharing!

Dave, thanks so much for bringing up so many issues which, as you say, are left to the sidelines so often when discussing the state of musical theater. I think Rob Weinert-Kendt brings up a great many issues, and I agree with almost all of his points as well - specifically the idea that pop/jazz/rock music of the time had long since digressed by the time Miles Davis recorded "Porgy" (which was recorded almost 20 years after the opera was written - and I would argue that it was very much an opera that played in a Broadway house).

The most interesting point you bring up is the one of vocal style and how it has changed over the years, and how a lot of Broadway singing is now quite similar to many pop singers of today than it has been in the past. I think "belting", riffing and other vocal "pyrotechnics" so to speak of of pop music has found itself more rampant among Broadway singers now than ever and while I don't always enjoy that style, it is evolving in a way in which we can't always keep track.

The one thing I take issue with is your demarcation of different styles of music as "cool" or "not cool". That is a clear bias that you can't relegate without statistics. Yes, I agree most of my non-theater friends don't think most Broadway scores (even the interesting/different ones) aren't cool, but at the same time, I don't think most of the new pop music they're listening to is cool. A lot of people think of Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown's or Michael John LaChiusa's or Adam Guettell's music as "cool", and many theater people still want music to be written in the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein or Jerry Herman. It's a question of different sets of values. Lyrical intelligibility, dramatically compelling scenarios, interesting music, etc. It means different things to anyone, theater-savvy or not. By cool do you just mean popular? You use the term "authentic" a lot, but whenever I hear that term I always immediately ask "authentically WHAT?" Authentically rock? Authentically meaning the lyrics they perform? I feel like your aesthetic for what you want musical theater to be like is a reflection of your own specific tastes, which is a wonderful hybrid of rock/pop/classical/theater music, but which many other people don't necessarily like or want to write. (As a side-note, I am a huge fan of your music and aesthetic - I saw BEARDO in Berkeley three or four times.)

I feel like the most important thing to do is encourage theater composers and lyricists to find their own voice, and if it happens to sound like what a lot of musical theater sounds like, then that's okay. If it sounds like something totally different, all the more better. If their music or shows suck, then they won't have an audience. Otherwise, it'll just be like Sondheim trying to write a rap (I would actually argue that he tries to imitate a rap, consciously, which is indeed a little embarrassing, but at least he's honest about it.)

I also think the elements of Broadway music is much more richly detailed than just the sus-chord (though I think that is a very interesting element) - I would actually say the issues of instrumentation and rhythm have more to do with the divergent evolution of Broadway scores from pop music than the use of harmony.

I'm assuming the answer is yes, but are you familiar with the books and articles of Elizabeth Lara Wollman? She wrote a great book titled THE THEATRE WILL ROCK: A HISTORY OF THE ROCK MUSICAL FROM HAIR TO HEDWIG which covers all of these topics in great detail. She also has written many great articles about this very subject (trying to get at describing how the music for rock musicals is different and why it works sometimes and doesn't work for other shows). She also has been an editor for the JOURNAL OF STUDIES IN MUSICAL THEATRE (published by Intellect Press) which is written and edited by musicologists, and increasingly comprised of articles about many of the topics you bring up, and very well written.

Once again - great article, and although I disagree with a lot of points, I agree with more than I disagree with and applaud your passion and desire to change the form into something palatable and popular and moving. Keep on writing - both great articles and great shows! If any of your readers want to see some amazing music theater (and Dave's ideas here in action), go see any of Dave Malloy's shows!

David Moschler has written a wonderful comment and addresses all the things that bothered me about Dave Malloy's article. The biggest problem was the confusion between "popularity" (when large segments of the population think something is "cool") and "authenticity" (when creators of popular art are following their own voices and instincts).

Jazz is cool, but it's not one of the most popular American art forms right now. What should we do to save jazz, to make it more popular? Nothing. Just have people who are composing and performing it do it as well as they can. We should take same approach with our musicals: accept the fact that, like non-musical theatre or network TV, the musical is now a pop art form for a minority. We can make that a bigger minority if we write the freshest, most "authentic" to our own lights) musicals that we can, and innovate with form and content where appropriate. But we shouldn't fret because we're not as popular as Lady GaGa.

Hi Dave!

I totally hear you on "cool," and I know I'm in tricky territory here; still, I think there's a big difference between the terms "cool" "popular" and "good" as they are usually used in pop culture. I'd argue that "good" is purely subjective and "popular" purely statistical, but that "cool" lies somewhere in between. I don't think it's a completely subjective term. I think American pop culture society has some pretty clear benchmarks which it uses to define "cool": Stevie Wonder or Quentin Tarantino are, I would say, pretty unequivocally cool. That doesn't mean that you have to like them, but to say that "cool" just means things you like reduces the word to un-usability. There are plenty of things I love that I truly don't think are cool (Billy Joel, Doctor Who, wine coolers).

But maybe a better way to come at this is to go back to the idea of musicals just not being on the radar of the larger music community; that people I talk to outside of the theater world just don't listen to musical music, that it's never reviewed by any of the dozens of music critics I read; and these are people that have a truly all-inclusive view of music, ranging from rock to jazz to classical to country to hip-hop to black metal. That's the thing that saddens me, that there is such a disconnect, that a form that is supposed to be all about music rarely produces music that people who love music find interesting.

Definitely agree that there's way more going on than sus chords! And most importantly that we should encourage composers to find their own voice; that above all is what I mean by authentic: not "authentically rock" but "authentically the composer". It's the thing that I think ties what most people think of as "cool" together; a blind adherence to one's own drummer, creating art that is non-imitative. All I'm advocating is that composers listen to the entire world of music for inspiration, rather than continue writing in "musical theater style". And yes, some people do! And that's great! But it seems like that's the exception, and an awful lot of quite imitative music is being written.

Masterfully written.

I just have one question: Isn't the idiom of a character "breaking into song," by definition, inauthentic? I understand that, according to convention, the song is supposed to be a "heightened reality," but that doesn't change the fact that in reality, people (well, sane people) don't do that.

I cite the movie, "The Commitments," as one "musical" that provides an effective end-around to this: The characters ARE musicians. The story is indeed moved forward by the music, but not through the convention of a heightened emotional outburst. The music is coincidental to, but still dynamically intertwined with the action. And the songs stand on their own.

Still, one can't expect all musicals to be stories about musicians.

Maybe there was something to the early vaudeville shows loosely stringing together popular songs of the day with a few jokes. That sounds entertaining, and there aren't any outsized artistic pretensions.

There's a definition for music and theatre integrated into a narrative—opera. The form can withstand inauthenticity because, frankly, classical music has always aspired to transcend quotidian reality. There is an inherent pretense in that. Maybe the problem with musical theatre is that it attempts to be opera, but, you know, without all the opera.

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks! I guess I was simply talking about authenticity as it relates to the music and the performances, not the context; how characters break into song is a whole 'nother issue, one I'm actually pretty at peace with. I love "The Commitments" and other shows that use musicians to explain the conceit ("Cabaret" I think blurs this line really well), but I'm just as happy when characters sing from out of the blue. I guess I'd argue that theater is full of such conceits...sure no one breaks into song in real life, but they also don't break into iambic pentameter.

Great read, Dave, it's a subject dear to my heart, too. I agree that the link between pop and theater has been broken, but I would quibble with your reason for it and the date of when it happened. I know you're an attentive listener, so I really have to ask you: Are the cast albums of "Guys and Dolls" or "Oklahoma!" really indistinguishable from the pop and jazz of the 1940s? The *cool* pop and jazz that you actually want to spin, not the Mitch Miller kind? And yes, the original "Hair" and "JC Superstar" records do rock, in their way, but they still sound like show music to me. I think that when music started really serving fictional characters and narrative, as it did after Rodgers & Hammerstein made the musical into a fully integrated form in the early '40s, it stopped being synonymous with the pop music you'd listen to or hear on the radio; there's a reason that only cover versions of theater songs ever made it on the radio. And that's not just about the sound of it or the background of the players and singers (and by the way, Bernard Purdie played on the 2009 "Hair" record--you do not get more rock cred than Purdie) but with the *intention* of the music. There are way too many lyrics, and yes, even sharp diction in "Hair" or "JC" to be played on a classic rock station. (I digress, but even the old Sondheim cast albums sound better, don't they? It sounds like those people smoked and drank and didn't take perfect care of their voices.)

I agree with so much else here: The way Broadway singers sing drives me batty (I loved "Tommy" in the theater, for instance, but I could not listen to that cast album), the sound design in theaters does suck, "Fela!" was special for exactly the reason you cite, most pop/rock composers suck when they write for the theater (though you should check out Randy Newman's "Faust"). For me, the only "rock" musical that has ever actually rocked is "Hedwig," and I think that's because it was styled as a cabaret/concert by a particular person, and missing lyrics didn't matter very much. That said, when I spin the record now, it still sounds like show music to me...I guess 'cause that's what it is. I support your mission to improve the music we settle for in the theater, but I feel like we have to make peace a little bit with the fact that even the hardest-rocking theater music is not pop music anymore, and that's OK.

Hey Rob!

Was hoping you'd chime in, we truly need to have a 6 hour conversation about all this one day...

When I was talking cast recordings of the 40s I meant the actual pop stuff of the day, Billboard #1s: Mitch Miller, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, the Dorsey Brothers etc...I'm listening to the OBC of Guys & Dolls right now and it sounds pretty close to those guys to me. Definitely it didn't sound like bebop or whatever was "cool" in the 40s...but the point is that bebop musicians (and later The Beatles) were in dialogue with the music, recording cover versions. But we don't hear jazz musicians or Radiohead or Amy Winehouse doing covers from Next to Normal, or anything from the last 40+ years, and Next to Normal doesn't sound like Adele or Rihanna.

I didn't know about Bernard Purdie, thanks for that! But it doesn't change what my ears tell me, that the revival version sounds significantly washed out when compared to the original. Purdie is above all a consummate studio musician, and he's doing his job admirably, but he and the whole band sound a lot looser in '67. (and I should add that I did indeed have a blast at Hair when I saw it).

And I guess it's not that I want theater music to sound like pop music...I just want it to stop sounding like musical music! (and it sometimes does, and for that I'm ever giddy).

Fantastic article. Your historical knowledge and insight are greatly appreciated. I've played around 75 shows and 99 percent of them have consisted of a watered-down mimickry of major genres: rock, swing, classical. When I turn around and play a true jazz gig or a rock show, the grit of playing real music for music's sake--and not for the perky hams on stage--is palpable, something of a culture shock. I'm currently playing a production of "Avenue Q" and your segment about the inherent irony, and I would say satire, of its music really struck home. There is a show called "Always, Patsy Cline" that includes an onstage band of experienced country musicians that faithfully reproduces her songs, and when I played that show the salty old guitarist told me to imagine I was playing in a bar in Houston. But it was difficult for me to get out of musical theatre mode and play with the joy, rage and honesty a great band plays with, since I technically was still playing a "show." It would seem like a simple thing for someone to step in and change musical theatre to express music honestly, but it will take someone with a lot of chutzpah to do so, and they will need a lot of like-minded cohorts who didn't graduate from musical theatre academies. Wonderful read, Dave. I could talk about this shite for hours.

You put the finger on why I have mostly remained a director of straight plays. In trying to pitch myself to a local musical theatre company I've had to defend myself: "I *do* direct musicals—-Kurt Weill musicals, and I have music written for the Shakespeare I direct." And I'd direct your musicals too if Maya and Shotgun hadn't gotten them first. Always longing for the gritty, the "ugly," the connected, the "Rough Theatre" versions of musical theater. And I'm not the only one. But is this post mostly a plea for people to understand that musicals can be cool? for more people to write cooler musicals? or are you concerned that the cooler musicals won't be produced? Seems like there are a few people writing this kind of work. Are you having a hard time selling them? They are playing at smaller theaters, but they are getting good reviews and good audiences, right? How can we help?

Hell yes!!! I'm so glad you wrote this. You are spot on about the different kind of theatricality and authenticity employed by rock musicians. Long live the non-genrefied authentic and extra-institutional musical. I'm trying to make January National Musical Writing Month to encourage exactly the kind of experimentation you are talking about.