Mu­si­cals are mak­ing a come­back

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Peter Marks

It’s mu­si­cal the­ater geek­dom, for the win.

That’s right, all you show tune skep­tics, you who snicker at the spec­ta­cle of uni­son-danc­ing cats or roll your eyes at the first chords of “Don’t Rain on My Pa­rade”: Who’s get­ting the last laugh now? Be­cause sud­denly, be­ing in and groov­ing on and talk­ing about mu­si­cals is the hippest thing go­ing.

Across the pop cul­ture spec­trum — from Jen­nifer Lopez (cast in a “Bye Bye Birdie Live!” that she pitched for TV next year) to the sexy young en­sem­ble of Fox’s “Grease: Live,” to Ari­ana Grande, ap­pear­ing in NBC’s “Hair­spray Live!” on Dec. 7 — celebri­ties who never fo­cused their ca­reers on this genre be­fore are get­ting in line to sing out, like “Gypsy’s” Louise.

In Hol­ly­wood, one of the most talked-about award­sea­son con­tenders is direc­tor Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” an orig­i­nal movie mu­si­cal with a score by Justin Hur­witz and the “Dear Evan Hansen” team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, that lov­ingly re­calls tune­ful films of yore, such as “An Amer­i­can in Paris.” Its stars could not, in fact, feel more of the mo­ment: Emma Stone and, soft­shoe­ing and croon­ing along with her, that scruffy, soul­ful heart­breaker Ryan Gosling.

On the CW tele­vi­sion net­work, mean­while, “Crazy Ex-Girl­friend” rolls along in its sec­ond sea­son, telling the story of co-writer/co-cre­ator Rachel Bloom’s des­per­ately needy Re­becca Bunch, a woman ca­pa­ble at any mo­ment of segue­ing with the rest of a satir­i­cally gifted cast into a par­ody mu­sic video, a torch song or even a pro­duc­tion num­ber mod­eled on “Les Mis­er­ables.”

And back in its nat­u­ral habi­tat — Broad­way — where mu­si­cal the­ater has long been king, it’s now also queen, crown prince and vir­tu­ally all the other roy­als. This sea­son, orig­i­nal mu­si­cals are pop­ping up at a near-mod­ern-record pace, with 12 of them open­ing, by some ac­count­ings the high­est num­ber since the 1978-1979 sea­son, when 13 mu­si­cals de­buted. A new crop of old mu­si­cals is be­ing sewn, too, star­ring the likes of Bette Mi­dler and Glenn Close. Sight­ings of straight plays on Broad­way, con­se­quently, seem to be get­ting ever rarer.

The resur­gent en­thu­si­asm seems in part a recog­ni­tion of the ex­tra­or­di­nary adapt­abil­ity of this quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can form; its abil­ity to ab­sorb new melodic styles re­mains a fit­ting metaphor for a na­tion of ever-evolv­ing makeup and char­ac­ter. Main­tain­ing its legacy and, at the same time, push­ing the form for­ward, is a chal­lenge be­ing taken up anew by older nos­tal­gists and a younger gen­er­a­tion alike.

“What I loved about it, when Damien pitched it to me,” says “La La Land” pro­ducer Marc Platt, “is that it sounded as if it ac­com­plished its singing in a non-cyn­i­cal way, which is also con­tem­po­rary. I’m al­ways look­ing to find ways to keep the mu­si­cal form alive and rel­e­vant in the world, be­cause I love it so.”

All of this is not even to men­tion the na­tional din­ner-ta­ble de­bate that has been ig­nited by the most ac­claimed mu­si­cal of our time, “Hamil­ton,” a show that has been em­braced by the Obama White House and has even made mu­si­cals safe for hip-hop fans. On the oc­ca­sion of Vice Pres­i­dent-elect Mike Pence’s at­ten­dance on the evening of Nov. 18, the cast and cre­ative team went out on a risky limb, is­su­ing a state­ment read at the cur­tain call by ac­tor Bran­don Vic­tor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr in the show.

The re­marks took the in­com­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion to task for what the pro­duc­tion viewed as its hos­til­ity to­ward mi­nori­ties. The bit­ter re­ac­tion on so­cial me­dia from Pres­i­den­t­elect Don­ald Trump gave the en­tire ex­change sus­tained na­tional me­dia at­ten­tion.

It is a mea­sure of the de­gree of con­fi­dence felt by Lin-Manuel Mi­randa and the other artists in­volved with the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prizewin­ning megahit that they could use the stage of Broad­way’s Richard Rodgers Theatre as an im­promptu pul­pit and not worry too much about alien­at­ing some sub­set of po­ten­tial ticket buy­ers.

These pock­ets of pop­ulist strength for the mu­si­cal have been ex­pand­ing for some time. Mu­si­cal the­ater, a genre with roots in the Euro­pean operetta tra­di­tion, has drawn in­spi­ra­tion from such var­ied in­flu­ences as vaude­ville, jazz and Tin Pan Al­ley. And though it has re­newed it­self when it needed to, by, for in­stance, adapt­ing to the rhythms of rock, it hasn’t for sev­eral decades en­joyed the kind of cul­tural sway it once com­manded.

Im­por­tant song­writ­ers have con­tin­ued to come to the fore, as mu­si­cals have al­ways re­tained a cadre of pas­sion­ate ad­her­ents. But it has taken longer for the na­tion’s en­ter­tain­ment ma­chin­ery to find ways to in­te­grate mu­si­cal the­ater back into the main­stream con­sumer’s diet. “It took on a lit­tle bit of a stench,” pro­ducer Neil Meron says. By which he means that out­side the­ater cir­cles, a musti­ness had crept into the show busi­ness zeit­geist, a sense of the mu­si­cal be­com­ing un­cool, out of step.

Meron has a huge stake in un­der­stand­ing the trends. He and his busi­ness part­ner Craig Zadan are long­time sup­port­ers of mu­si­cal the­ater and more lately ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers of the live tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ta­tions of mu­si­cals at hol­i­day time that be­gan with “The Sound of Mu­sic Live!” on NBC star­ring Car­rie Un­der­wood in De­cem­ber 2013. They fol­lowed that with “Peter Pan Live!” the fol­low­ing year and “The Wiz Live!” in 2015. The view­ing au­di­ence, he said, has grown each year. The “Hair­spray Live!” that they are set to un­veil at 8 p.m. Eastern time on Dec. 7 fea­tures Har­vey Fier­stein repris­ing his role as Edna Turn­blad from the 2002 Broad­way pro­duc­tion, with a cast that in­cludes Jen­nifer Hud­son, Derek Hough, Ephraim Sykes, Ari­ana Grande and Mad­die Bail­lio as Edna’s daugh­ter Tracy.

“It’s al­ways been this se­cret lit­tle mis­sion of ours, to bring this genre back to re­spectabil­ity,” says Meron, who with Zadan has also pro­duced such TV ex­trav­a­gan­zas as the Os­cars. “Which of course we never thought wasn’t re­spectable.”

On TV, se­ries such as Fox’s “Glee,” in which ac­tors play­ing high school kids cov­ered songs rang­ing from hits by ’60s rock bands to the score of “Wicked,” and NBC’s “Smash,” a dra­matic se­ries about the mak­ing of a mu­si­cal, gave mu­si­cal the­ater op­por­tu­ni­ties to carve deeper in­roads back into the Amer­i­can con­scious­ness. (“Smash’s” pop­u­lar­ity in the the­ater world was such that its orig­i­nal songs were per­formed at a live con­cert on Broad­way.)

As Meron puts it, “‘Mu­si­cals’ is not the dirty lit­tle word any­more when it comes to film and TV.”

Justin Lu­bin, Fox Broad­cast­ing

The glee club per­forms in “Michael,” a spe­cial episode cel­e­brat­ing the mu­sic of Michael Jack­son, on “Glee” in 2012.

Eddy Chen, The CW

Rachel Bloom as Re­becca Bunch in “Crazy ExGirl­friend.”

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