Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "CONTACT: The American Musical Comes Full Circle"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Wednesday, 16 January, 2002:
"CONTACT: The American Musical Comes Full Circle"

"Three short stories" written by John Weidman and choreographed by Susan Stroman made up the musical "Contact" that won a Tony as Best Musical in 2000. Two of those three pieces included speaking and singing, but the stories were actually told mainly in dance. In that sense, the show brought back to the American musical the major element missing from most of the best musicals to come along in recent years. (How much actual Dance was there in Sondheim's "Sunday in The Park with George"? In "The Phantom of The Opera"?) The feeling that a "pure dance musical" is something New calls for a general survey of the history of American musicals, and the lean times that genre has fallen upon in the past decade.

My answer to the question "What's wrong with Broadway?" is simply "It costs too damn much!" But that's only part of the problem. Here in Boston for decades the major sound in the Broadway Barns was "the long, withdrawing roar" caused by young faces disappearing from the audiences of increasingly costly long-run shows, at the same time try-outs were disappearing and local theatre-managers were saving money by keeping their houses dark. Only Big British Blockbusters got on the boards, over and over again, as the entry-fee rose to over sixty dollars a seat. Only recently has the management of Ye Wilbur Theatre felt it economically prudent to fill that lovely little house with shows without a score --- straight plays! What an earthshaking concept!

But it's the American Musical and its history that I want to concentrate on here.

The first important point I need to make is that theater never happens in a vacuum, so the broader picture needs to be sketched in. Styles in musicals have affected those in fashion, in pop music and in movies, but that was never a one-way street.

While it may be true that Oscar Hammerstein II's book for "Show Boat" and Agnes deMille's dances in "Oklahoma" set a new style for stage musicals, the success of that style was not walled-off from other developments elsewhere.

Important movements that came along with "The new musical" include Jazz (particularly dance-bands), movies, recordings and radio. George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Richard Rodgers and even Stephen Sondheim all wrote music that Benny Goodman and Horace Heidt and Artie Shaw could understand, and Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra could sing (and record) --- music that Fred Astaire, Dan Daley and Gene Kelly could dance to. For a generation or two, a jazz-based style affected most of the music American listened to --- whether on 78's, 45's, lp's, on radio or even in television shows. (The Sid Caesar/Imogen Coca classic "Your Show of Shows" featured, every week, a dance piece by Rod Alexander and Bambi Lynn, done to music infused with jazz rhythms.) Songs from musicals had a whole second life as "standards" and "show-tunes" that were played and recorded by dozens of singers who never set foot on a theatrical stage. So, for a really long time, the Broadway musical stood at the center of a musical spectrum of similar rhythms and key-changes and forms; it was simply one more specific use of the ambient sound. And most of that music was composed on the piano

But the musical fabric of America changed forever when first Elvis and then The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Throughout the late '50s, not only did story-radio (the first and lasting love of my young life) disappear from the airways, but jazz-based music evaporated as well. "Top-40" shows wallpapered every living moment of young Americans' lives with guitar-based background music recorded by small groups armed with electronic gizmo's and overdubs and multitracking that couldn't be reproduced on a live stage without big banks of electronics and amplifiers. Nothing a live performer on a Broadway stage did could duplicate those sounds.

As television grew up, the emphasis was on story-series' until the only variety-format shows left that regularly featured singers were Carol Burnett's and The Tonight Show. The last movie musicals ("The Glass Slipper" "It's Always Fair Weather" "High Society" and "I Could Go On Singing") appeared before 1960.
After that, the Broadway stage musical had to go it alone, without any resonant attention from other popular art forms.

Another interesting strand of this development involves money.
In 1946, with millions of men boiling out of uniform and into industry, America decided to buy things they couldn't through the previous four years of World War II. Salesmen sold people all sorts of things --- particularly radios, record-players, and television-sets. Suddenly more people could listen to more music than ever could before, and the music they decided to listen to wasn't standards, show-tunes, or jazz. Before long people could afford to listen to Elvis in their cars, and they did. They didn't need to visit The Starlight Ballroom to dance to a live swing-band anymore. (In about 1950 my Uncle Rocco bought a juke box so his many daughters could play pop records for their friends in the basement.) And demands for more and more stuff meant higher and higher wages for the people making it --- higher and higher wages for stagehands and ushers and designers and stars. Twenty years of Equity contracts eventually priced out-of-town-tryouts out of existence --- the rising economic tide began to drown straight plays with large casts, and only big, safe blockbusters could pay for themselves.

One fascinating shift in taste came with television: people habitually left the set on when anyone came to visit, and divided attention between conversation and whatever was on at the moment. The t-v-dinner and the second set in the kitchen created an atmosphere in which stories did not demand rapt attention and life could go on at the same time, just as radio and lp record-changers provided omnipresent though often irrelevant background music. [ An irrelevant aside about attention-span: The people who started "Sesame Street" tested kids by showing them both their shows and cartoons, on side-by-side screens, and recording when and how often the kids' eyes flipped off one to the other --- then they tailored the bits in the show to the average attention-span of their audience. These lowest-common-denominator shows have educated a whole generation of children to short bits --- paving the way for MTV-style ever-changing videos. ]

With all that as elaborate background, let's get back to the new new-thing: "Contact."

Well, the two documentary-films called "That's Entertainment" will take some of the shine off that word "new". Consider the "Gotta Dance!" sequence in "Singin' in The Rain" or the ballet that was expanded into "On The Town". The form of a story told in pure dance is the same. And that first piece, which seems only an erotic movement-exercize involving a swing? There's a sequence in "Royal Wedding" where Fred Astaire dances with a hatrack, and one in "Summer Stock" that Gene Kelly does with a squeaky-board and a sheet of newspaper. In pre-Cambrian days dance and song were separate. Besides "Life Upon The Wicked Stage" there's not a lot of dance in "Show Boat". What's more, the Kern music demands that singers face forward, plant their feet, open their throats, and sing. It took a while before performers would be expected both to sing and to dance, often at the same time, and to maintain character and actually Act while doing them.

Not only that, but the different kind of dancing changed the rhythm.
Check out a classic musical like the film "42nd Street" and you'll find that many of the songs are best suited to tap-dancing, and the rhythms and melodies conform to the movements the body makes dancing in that style. Move on to "Carousel" or "South Pacific" and the shape of all the songs, the rhythms beneath the dancing are very different. Performers have to have some familiarity with ballet or modern or jazz-dance, with longer and more fluid lines. Check the many historical styles and rhythms Sondheim uses in the score for "Follies" sometime.

To get back to history for a moment, though, consider the attempts of Broadway to integrate contemporary pop-music trends. (If you can't lick 'em, co-opt 'em!)
The omnipresence of rock records has set the standard for what most people expect in music, and one aspect of that is: Loud. That means when groups play for their fans live (and in this context that should be in quotes) their amplification means their drummers must wear ear-plugs or go deaf, and spectacle is all. Someone standing on a stage accompanying himself with his own guitar is called a folk-singer.

That means the days of unamplified performance in any large space are gone. They began to fade when the cast of "Hair!" brought their microphones on stage with them. They disappeared totally when the stage for "Dream Girls" had every square inch covered by mikes, and were history when the cast of "Rent" came onstage with little black lollipops pasted to their cheeks. One night I was walking down the Wang side of Tremont Street and the music blasting out of The Shubert all the way across the street made conversation impossible. And when Kathleen Turner opened her homage to "Tallulah" at the Colonial, year before last, she admitted her amplification failed amid the first act. The good news was that she experienced not a second of lost concentration and everyone heard every word. But this was a straight one-woman show with no singing or dancing --- yet someone thought it best that her voice come from two big boxes at each side of the stage instead of her own magnificent throat.
Even the tiny Turtle Lane Playhouse feels it necessary to hook their performers up to a sound-system made out of tinfoil and paper-clips no matter how good their pipes are. Ditto The Reagle Players in Waltham. No one relies on the naked human voice anymore.

In that regard, the biggest flap about "Contact" wasn't that it was mostly dance that told the tales, but that the orchestra was just a tape-recorder. And that brings me back to the first thing I said:
The first piece was choreographed to Mozart, and the last piece used as score a duplicate recording of Benny Goodman's "SingSingSing" close to the original live recording made at Carnegie Hall in 1938. Each one would require a totally different orchestra, and the latter would need a whole pit-full of jazz virtuosi. You can't rely on a dozen different cities on the tour to have musicians of that caliber waiting for work, and that many musicians pulling down scale would probably cost as much as the entire cast --- if anyone would play so well so often for the union minimum. So that's really what's wrong with Broadway:
"It simply costs too damn much!"


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide