Making Things “New” All Over Again

A scene from the 1927 production of Show Boat (via Assumption College / The E Pluribus Unum Project)

A scene from the 1927 production of Show Boat
(via Assumption College / The E Pluribus Unum Project)

It can be easy for us to look at certain musicals from the past and claim them to be groundbreaking, revolutionary, or just plain great. But trying to put ourselves in the mindset as those who were in the audience when these shows opened is a different story. One of my all time favorite moments in musical theatre history is that of the opening night of Show Boat. In 1927, audiences were not accustomed to a musical play with serious themes attached to a production spectacle. As a matter of fact, the opening night audience did not applaud after the final song. Instead of a riotous sound of approval, the audience exited the theater in silence. The audience literally did not know how to respond to the work of art they had just experienced. Musical theatre did not exist at the time, only musical comedy. And to see a musical play about racism, alcoholism, and heartbreak was a bit more jarring than one expected. The following morning, Show Boat was met with rave reviews and an explosion at the box office. Creators Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II decided to completely change the formula in which musicals were written. And when it comes to musical theatre, you could not ask for a better example of what constitutes as “New.”

Living in 2014 New York City, I constantly find myself wondering about the “Newest” musicals I’ve seen. I do not necessarily mean the chronology of a show, or the most recently performed or unveiled. But rather a current musical with a new Idea or a new Form. Musical theatre writers (myself included) can often become swept away by different labels when it comes to songs. We know of the “I Want Song” and “The Breakdown Song,” but when was the last time you heard a song that defied a preexisting label? When was the last time you saw a musical with ideas you had never seen represented before on a stage? Not every new musical has to be completely revelatory in every which way, but I always find myself tipping my hat towards a musical theatre piece that catches me off guard.

I moved to New York in 2007. I wanted to become better acquainted with the musical theatre scene that was not represented above 14th Street. I remember seeing shows at The Vineyard or the Public or the Minetta Lane. And then the following year it happened: I saw a musical that left me speechless when the curtain went down. I exited the theater in silence, unsure of how I was “supposed” to react. The show stuck with me for weeks until eventually I had to see it a second time and gain a clearer perspective on what felt like an innovative work of art that ignored any formula I had seen before. That show was Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith’s Adding Machine.

A scene from Adding Machine at the Minetta Lane Theater (photo: Sara Krulwich)

A scene from Adding Machine at the Minetta Lane Theater (photo: Sara Krulwich)

Adding Machine is based of Elmer Rice’s expressionist play. The tone of the piece felt very uninviting. The world of the play completely changed about halfway through. The story (although adapted) was largely unsettling and ultimately shocking. Last and certainly not least, Joshua Schmidt’s intricately designed score was unlike anything my ears had ever consumed. Rather than hearing the protagonist, Mr. Zero, sing an “I Want Song” twenty minutes into the show, I heard a song about his transformation as a person. It was as if he already completed a full dramaturgical cycle in the first few songs (a rather upsetting cycle at that). Long story short, the show felt “Newer” than anything I had experienced prior.

Ever since Adding Machine, Joshua Schmidt has been a composer that is constantly on my radar (he had another commercial New York run at Lincoln Center with his sung-through piece, A Minister’s Wife). As an aspiring musical theatre writer myself, I find it hard to take a step back and understand how an artist arrives at that New idea, or that New formula, or that New form. I have moments in which I let go of all my inhibitions and just write, and then if I’m lucky, something new is born. Other times I simply write so I can continue the habit and practice of writing, whether something novel has been created or something routine. I do believe, however, that arriving at something New can exist simply by writing a whole new formula.

Many New York theatre goers are familiar with successful plays such as Sleep No More and Fuerzabruta in which the structure of a play was heavily altered. Whether the creators of these shows were the first to do what they had done or not, they were certainly the first to bring these forms of theatre to a massive and current New York audience. And while Rachel Chavkin and Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is not necessarily the first musical to use immersive staging or electro-pop beats, it may be the first of its kind in the neighborhood in which it resides.

Phillipa Soo and Lucas Steele in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at Kazino (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Phillipa Soo, Lucas Steele, and the audience – Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at Kazino (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

First of all, before I continue on the explosion of “New” that is Natasha, Pierre, I must strongly encourage any of you who have not seen this show to rush to Kazino and experience it for yourself (the show just received another of many extensions). Composer Dave Malloy might as well have opened Natasha, Pierre at the same time as Show Boat. Considering the show is located on 45th Street between Broadway and 8th, it might be a bit unsettling for its neighborhood. Even the most modern musical on Broadway would have a difficult time reflecting Malloy’s score, Chavkin’s staging, and the overall themes and ideas that exist within the production.

Nine times out of ten, what is the most “New” is also the most uncomfortable. We can be eager to use adjectives such as “bad” or “unsuccessful,” but if a musical theatre writer tries to change the tried formulas of creating a musical, then I salute them. It can take more courage than most can muster to present something daringly “New” to an audience, especially a musical theatre audience that has become accustomed to its own taste. But innovation, more often than not, can be more significant than revitalizing a recycled method. No theatre critic has better described this credo than that of Frank Rich and his review of Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George. Rich wrote, “…it’s anyone’s guess whether the public will be shocked or delighted by ‘Sunday in the Park.’ What I do know is that Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine have created an audacious, haunting and, in its own intensely personal way, touching work. Even when it fails – as it does on occasion – ‘Sunday in the Park’ is setting the stage for even more sustained theatrical innovations yet to come.”

Well, Mr. Rich, Sondheim and Lapine created something New then. Kern and Hammerstein created something New before. And many composers are certainly creating something New today.

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