Los Angeles Times
A SEASON OF HOPES
The minds behind new Broadway shows share views
NEW YORK – Sure, “Hamilton” had its eyes on us last year. And “La La Land” started a fire this winter. But this Broadway season of new musicals, which crescendoed with a final crash of openings last week, has been a rousing symphony in its own right. The range of original shows is eye-opening. The postwar swing of “Bandstand.” The coming-of-age timeliness of “Dear Evan Hansen.” The Tolstoyan immersiveness of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” The idea-stuffed melancholy of “Groundhog Day.” The throwback theatricality of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” The feel-good foot-stomping of “Come From Away.” These half-dozen shows, all eligible for the top Tony Award of best musical, are among the many new productions nominators will consider for the category before announcing their choices on Tuesday. So The Times gathered key creatives in New York and dissected the season. (All made it but those for “Groundhog,” whose principals live or are working outside the city.) This upstart class of ’17, a number of whom have never worked on Broadway before,
convened last week at legendary theater hangout Joe Allen to talk about the changing climate for musicals, the challenges faced by their shows and a Broadway forecast both bright and ominous. We keep hearing that mounting an original musical is harder than ever. And yet there are so many strong ones this season. So is it easier than people say? Or are you guys just that persistent?
Steven Levenson (“Evan Hansen”): The most exciting thing about original pieces is also the most scary: There’s no book to open, no movie to watch. You have all the freedom in the world; the characters can do anything you want. And that’s terrifying. And that’s before the commercial [risk]. I remember when we first presented our show to a producer. A musical about 16-year-olds — and one of them kills themselves in the first 15 minutes! It sounded insane.
Andy Blankenbuehler (“Bandstand”): I think you have to be especially passionate about the subject matter with an original musical because you’re dealing with so many abstractions early on that if you also have to be worried about the life of the piece you’ll be doomed.
Irene Sankoff (“Come From Away”): See, we had this freedom because we were starting up in Canada. We never expected it to go to Broadway. We wrote it thinking we’d be in high schools and colleges and they’d have to do it because it’s about Canada. It really let us stay true to the [real-life] characters and events.
Rachel Chavkin (“Great Comet”): It’s interesting that you [gestures to Levenson] had a commercial producer from so early. “Comet’s” history is much more aligned with what you’re saying [motion to Sankoff]. We had no dream of the commercial. We had no idea where it was going. We didn’t have the dream of going to Broadway. We never would have written what we did if we did. I had never even assisted on Broadway ...
Jack O’Brien (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) [cuts in]: I have to say, I’m in another country here. There couldn’t be anything more commercial, more encumbered, than my project. We had no freedom. It was nothing but expectation. Way to harsh the vibe here, Jack. [Laughter]
O’Brien: The [studio-driven musical] is just a very different world. It’s a stable of people with properties that are trying to figure out what to do with them. Many of the ideas are very possible. And some of them are idiotic. I listen to what everyone here is saying about all the ideas they could come up with from scratch and think: ‘It must be lovely.’ It’s like I’m watching a zoo. Of course even without corporate oversight it’s not as simple as tossing out great ideas. You have a fidelity to the audience, to the form. Andy, for instance, you’re working within a very hidebound heritage. Did that restrict you?
Blankenbuehler: It’s interesting. With “Hamilton” it was totally new, so in a way we could go wherever we wanted. With “Bandstand” we had this umbrella idea that it was a traditional American musical, so then how do we fit everything into that. It was a different equation.
Sankoff: And you do have to think of other constraints. I remember early on we would want to tell all these stories, tell of so many of the people we met. The first draft of the script was over 100 pages. Being original doesn’t mean you don’t have to make these choices. Many of your shows are reinventing the form in some way. How much are you consciously thinking, “Let’s do something that’s never been done before” when you’re writing or workshopping your piece?
O’Brien: I don’t think of it that way when I’m doing it. I just try to respond viscerally. But looking back, some of it is really outrageous. We do tear a girl [Veruca Salt] apart. We do have the squirrels [giant creatures that impose such violence]. I think that’s created confusion with the critics; they say it’s a problematic blend of styles. But it felt organic to us.
Blankenbuehler: I’m very conscious of something not feeling like my parents’ musical. So even though “Bandstand” is swing, swing is not really different from hip-hop. People didn’t know how to articulate what they were going through [after World War II] and there was a lot unrest. So they went to clubs and they played loud music and they sweated. The trick for us was making swing seem cool like hip-hop. Is that where “Hamilton” helped? You can make the 1700s trendy and so the 1940s isn’t such a stretch?
Blankenbuehler: I don’t think this show would be opening on Broadway without “Hamilton.” I brought ideas to the writing team like, “This doesn’t need a door; she can go into the room without one” because of “Hamilton.” We can take chances and do things because audiences follow in a way they didn’t before “Hamilton.”
Chavkin: But it also drives me a little crazy that people say all these musicals are happening because of “Hamilton.” We started with “Comet” in 2011. I can’t say there’s anything to that except “Hamilton” was so profoundly dominant that some musicals that might have opened last year opened this year, so you get a [backlog] this year.
Levenson: But it did awaken an appetite for the audience, no? It put musicals back into the broader culture.
Chavkin: Yes, it reinforces that it’s popular music. Historically musicals were always standards. And then this weird moment happened when we time-jumped and suddenly you knew immediately you were listening to a “Broadway soundtrack.” It’s very odd. The idea that Broadway musicals as a genre instead of just a platform ...
Chavkin: It became a type of sound. And that’s changing. I loved walking into “Come From Away,” Irene. You feel the pounding on the floor with a whole different kind of music. And “Hamilton” fed that appetite.
Sankoff: It’s funny, there was this contest up in Canada about what’s the worst idea for a musical. And I kept thinking, “There’s no bad idea for a musical.” You could only write a bad song.
Blankenbuehler: The only downside of that that I’d pose is that the emotions have to heighten enough so that audiences can believe people are singing them. And some things get musicalized that are pedestrian. Sometimes an independent film should stay an independent film. On the subject of film: The studios are staffing up to make a run at Broadway. A lot of them basically want to be Disney. This is on top of the revivals Broadway already does. As creators, are you concerned? Is there any way you can adjust to this?
Levenson: [Sighs.] It feels that theater has worked in part because there aren’t that many gatekeepers. There’s a producer but no president and vice president or chain of command. It’s really an old-fashioned industry: And I think in Hollywood that chain of command is what dilutes and, frankly, runs things. So it will be interesting to see what happens when that structure tries to impose itself.
O‘Brien: Well, there will be a lot of headwinds in the next few years, so strap yourself in. So where does that take original creators like you?
O’Brien: It takes you to your own integrity. Making a film for a studio and a musical for a commercial entity is not the same thing. A lot of people justify their salaries in Hollywood by saying, can you change that blue shirt to white, and it’s, “Excuse me, who the … are you and what you do?” And we don’t work that way. We know a bad idea when it hits us. So you either knuckle under or you don’t. Studio invasions on one hand, a lot of shows finding their “postHamilton” niche on the other. Would you say you’re pessimistic or optimistic about where the Broadway musical is headed?
Sankoff: I am optimistic — because of all the young people. That’s the biggest thing. I never would have guessed our show would be popular with young people. There’s no one under 40 in it. But I asked an 18-year-old and they said they like it because it moves quickly. “It’s a pace I’m used to.”
Blankenbuehler: I asked my son, who’s 10, to explain a difficult impressionistic moment in “Bandstand,” and he word for word answered it the way I would have. Young audiences are fast and imaginative and hungry. It seems almost like the audience gives you reason for optimism but the industry … less so.
Levenson: The audience, especially a younger audience, is hungry for original stories. But I’m optimistic in general too. When I talk to people that don’t do musicals, like my family, the refrain is, “It’s all revivals and movie adaptations.” But look at this table. Look at the row of shows just on our block, one after the other: “Bandstand” and us and “Natasha” and “Come From Away.” There are all these brand new things that are being given a real shot. The future is bright. At least for now. firstname.lastname@example.org