Look Back / Look Ahead
There are two important forces in the world of new musical theatre that I would like to talk about a little bit today. These folks are the heart and soul of the industry and the art, though their careers have taken them to rather different places: one of them is rapper, writer, papa and In the Heights-er Lin-Manuel Miranda; the other is musical theatre historian, font of all knowledge and all-round delight Jennifer Tepper.
In short, I think they are both amazing, so gather round while I tell you just why. All too often in the pursuit of new writing, new theatre, general newdity, there is a tendency to eschew the past. Pioneers of original work often strive to be ‘different,’ to be ‘not’ this or that (fourth wall, pros arch, etc.) without having a clear idea of what they do want to do. Not only is this needlessly dismissive of all the giant’s shoulders upon which these writers stand, it is unhelpful – if you do not study the maps, how can you know where the frontiers are?
Miranda and Tepper are different. Both of them are musical theatre nerds to the N2Nth degree, with encyclopaedic knowledge of everything from Starmites to A Chorus Line. Miranda’s writing has been called ground-breaking (#HamilTony you heard the hashtag here first) because he brings all of his love and passion for the genre to the table, fusing it with the new, modern and unexpected with incredible results. He embraces the heritage passed down to him from Rodgers, Herman, Sondheim and Larson, and ensures that his name will feature on that list in years to come.
Tepper is Director of Programming at 54 Below and a fantastic proponent of new writing, including NMT artist Joe Iconis. Her programming at the venue is beautifully diverse: looking at two dates this month at random promises “54 Sings Grand Hotel” one night followed by “24 at 54: NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program in Concert” the next. Jen’s love for her work clearly comes from a deep joy in musicals old and new, niche and known. Her series of books, The Untold Stories of Broadway, is essential reading for lovers of the Great White Way – an anecdotal history of the great Broadway theatres, Tepper’s interviews provide a goldmine of joy and affection, as well as offering a fascinating chronology of musicals past.
Together, Tepper and Miranda clearly recognise that new musical theatre is where the future classics will be. It is their love for the artform that fuels their work, and this shows in the excitement and happiness they bring to what they do. I am always saddened when I hear writers/producers/performers say (with surprising frequency) “No, I don’t really listen to musicals,” or “I’m not actually into theatre,” or “I’m just doing this until my career as a singer-songwriter takes off” (seriously). Musical theatre should not be just a filler, or something you do because you haven’t made it where you want to be. It is a world with history and craft and devotees whose ardour is hard to equal and absurd to dismiss. Jen Tepper and Lin-Manuel Miranda understand this and embrace it – it fuels their fire.
JT and LMM’s passion is something that many musical theatre fans will recognise; to quote Neil Patrick Harris’ rap from the 2013 Tony Awards (written by Lin):
There’s a kid in the middle of nowhere who’s sitting there living for Tony performances.
Singing and flipping along with the Pippins, and Wickeds, and Kinkys, Matildas, and Mormonses.
So we might reassure that kid, and do something to spur that kid,
‘Cause I promise you, all of us up here tonight, we were that kid.
Jen and Lin were that kid, and look at where they are now. And that certainly spurs this kid.