“THE MUSIC IS THE MESSAGE: MUSICALS ON TOPICAL SUBJECTS”
DRAMA DESK LUNCHEON AT SARDI’S PANEL INVESTIGATES CURRENT MUSICALS AS EXPLORED BY ACTORS AND CREATORS.
For better or worse (and some might think worse) Broadway musicals have come a long way since the mindless Mickey/Judy “lets put on a show” hayseed romps in a barn. It is as if having a good time in a musical is “hopelessly old fashioned” as many a current reviewer has opined. And extractuble songs from a heavy book musical are increasingly rare and hard to perform oot of context.
Indeed a look at the current crop of significant award winning musicals, both on and off Broadway concern such topics as racism, homophobia, mental illness and nontraditional families.
The Drama Desk hosted a stimulating luncheon panel at Sardi’s June 18 dedicated to this season’s provocative musicals as explored by actors and creators: . The panelists were DAVID THOMPSON, book writer of The Scottsboro Boys JEFFRY DENMAN, choreographer and Artie in Yank! (Drama Desk nominee), MONTEGO GLOVER, Felicia in Memphis (Drama Desk winner, Tony nominee) CHAD KIMBALL, Huey in Memphis (Drama Desk and Tony nominee), TOM KITT, composer of Next to Normal (Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner) DAVID ZELLNIK, author of book and lyrics, Yank! (Drama Desk nominee) and Christine Andreas who plays Jacqueline in “La Cage aux Folles.”
The Moderator was: SCOTT SIEGEL, critic TalkinBroadway.com; TheaterMania.com; creator/writer/host of the acclaimed Broadway By the Year series at The Town Hall
“Musicals are rarely pure entertainment any more,”
said moderator Scott Siegel,
“Memphis,” the Drama Desk and Tony Award-winning musical, creates the challenges and tensions of an interracial couple in the segregated South of the 1950’s. “Next to Normal,” which won a Tony and a Pulitzer, deals with depression. “La Cage aux Folles,” which won the Tony for best revival, offers a loving family made up of two gay men, in a longtime partnership, who have raised a son together. “Yank!” is a World War II era love story between two men, soldiers in an Army where such relationships are strictly forbidden. “The Scottsboro Boys” portrays the horrific injustice of the famous case in which nine black teenagers where jailed for years on a trumped-up rape charge. Both shows had acclaimed Off-Broadway runs and are planning moves to Broadway
“Musicals are a good way to get a message across”, said Montego Glover, co-winner of the Actress in a Musical Drama Desk Award for her performance in “Memphis,” because they are popular and accessible. “There’s a sense of discovery musicals can bring and it’s magical,” she said. And that gets the audience’s attention so a topic like racism can be explored. “We have to remember: we still have work to do.”
“The passion you bring collides with other passions,” said David Thompson, the Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote the book for “The Scottsboro Boys”. In the case of that show, the creators were forced to deal with the facts of an actual episode in America’s shameful history of racism. But composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb “always felt there’s something left to write there,” Thompson said.
Because of the magnitude of the injustice, Ebb believed the only way to stage it as a musical was to tell it as a minstrel show, Thompson said. And then to trust the collaborative process.
“’You can’t write your own reviews,’ Thompson said, quoting Ebb. “’Don’t edit yourself.’”
For David Zellnik,”Yank!” book writer and lyricist, the show started political and then became about the characters. In an era of controversy about gays in the military, the musical was a perfect form to bring the issue to life.
“Theater is an event where you have an intersection with the world,” he said. Because the message in “Yank!” is so implicit, the creators were able to concentrate on molding a show that would be a homage to 1940’s musicals.
“We could focus on the joy,” he said.
Kimball & Gloverwere both blown off by the Tonys while their show took “Best New Musical”. Hmmmmmmmmm. She lost to Hollywood’s Kathryn Zeta Jones in a revival (A Little Night Music) and he to Britain’s Douglas Hodge in another revival (La Cage Aux Folles). Considering they created unique roles in a new musical the resultant awards might be said to reflect Broadway’s infatuation with Hollywood and the Brits.
Montego Glover was grateful she was able to shape Felicia, her character, from the time she received the script six years ago. Both she and her character are from Tennessee (she’s from Chattanooga; Felicia’s from Memphis) and both want to be a singer. At table readings she made suggestions about how Felicia would say things and the script was changed because the creators were “relying on the fact I was born and raised in the South.”
“We share the same space, the same continuum,” she said, adding that her grandmother was Felicia’s age at the time the show takes place. ”Every single stitch of her I’ve had a hand in. I discover something new about her every single, spanking night and it’s been six years.”
Jeffry Denman, “Yank’s!” choreographer who also plays a gay serviceman in the show, says the shift to more serious themes is part of “the evolution of storytelling, to make it different from the ones that came before.”
“But the message should not be the main focus”, he said. “As a choreographer, I don’t want anyone doing a step until they know why they’re doing it. It’s story, story; story and character’.
Actor/choreographer Jeffrey Denman said his character, Artie, was so different – a confident gay man – and seemed so real he asked the creators if he really existed. In making Artie true for the audience, he didn’t think about the theme and how it would play, concentrating instead on the words and music.
“Hopefully the theme will come bubbling out,” he said. “I try just to serve it rather than thinking about it.”
“Next to Normal” composer Tom Kitt said creating characters the audience cares about is essential in shows about controversial ideas, such as his is with mental illness. And the characters must be believable. : “It’s all about storytelling. Sometimes the message emerges much later than you think,” adding “I had brown hair when we started this.”
With Christine Andreas, who plays Jacqueline in “La Cage aux Folles.” “Musicals are supposed to reflect your reality. That’s what I was taught. People want to be moved and taken out of themselves.”
For her, the power is so strong she finds musicals are “a better alternative to church.”
Joy is what audiences seem to be finding in “Memphis,” said Chad Kimball, who was nominated for a best actor Drama Desk and Tony for his role as a pioneering radio DJ who introduces black music to a white audience. He said he has never been in a musical for which so many grown men, usually reluctant theater goers, have approached him and said they really had a good time. “Huey is so not your average leading man,” he said about his character. “He’s quirky and annoying at the same time. He’s not unlike me. He’s an every man.”
One of the producers of Tony award winning “Memphis” – a happy man indeed
James Behr – pushing his new musical (book & Music) a new Tony hopeful
Offstage, in normal clothes, and without the quirky mannerisms he created for the role he originated, Kimball is very huggable.
Gossip guru Michael Musto of the Village Voice and I were caught sharing some “insights”. My lips are sealed.
Jeanne Lieberman is editor of Theaterscene.net