Something Old, Something New: Revisiting “New” Musical Theater

Beginning this post has not been easy. Every two minutes, it seems, I’m minimizing Word in favor of my web browser, where I’m feverishly refreshing the page in search of reviews for the Encores! Off Center production of William Finn and James Lapine’s A New Brain. I’ve been obsessed with this musical since high school and, having clocked countless hours listening to the original cast recording, am beside myself with glee at the thought of it getting a second life—however brief—with some of New York City’s finest talent. So I’ve decided to change things up a bit; I’ve abandoned my original outline and have decided to write instead about what is so clearly on my mind: the life cycle of musical theater.

When I first meet a fellow MT lover, we establish a bond over our favorite shows. Often times, those shows are relatively well known: Les Miserables, Wicked, Next to Normal, etc. Should I get the impression that said MT lover is really an MT lover, our conversation may shift towards some more “obscure” musicals—a wonderful litmus test to determine how deep his/her passion and knowledge runs. Still, these musicals are drawn from a relatively narrow pool—The Last Five Years, Passion, etc. Why?

The first answer, the most obvious answer, is the cast recording. Theater is an inherently ephemeral medium—it happens, the audience experiences it, and it’s over—but, with a cast recording, it has the chance to grow into something more. A cast recording is a kind of insurance policy that your show will reach a wider audience, as it can be played on iPods and stereos ad nauseam, stimulating interest in new visions and future productions—which leads us to the second answer. The more frequently a show is produced, the more accessible it becomes, allowing it to further occupy a space in our collective consciousness. Even amongst the “obscure” productions I listed above, it’s relatively easy to identify a production happening somewhere in the country at any given time.

But then there are other shows—shows like A New Brain. Even with a cast recording, it’s so rarely produced—which is why a series like Encores! or Encores! Off Center is so important. It gives us MT fans the opportunity to revisit pieces that deserve a second glance and that reflect the trajectory of musical theater as a medium. As with any art form, knowing its history is an important aspect to the contribution of something new.

As a contemporary musical theater fan, I so relish the opportunity to experience an old-time Broadway score, because it’s simply mind blowing to see how much the medium has changed, adapted, and expanded over the decades. And I know that my future self will relish the day that I get to see Dogfight or Jasper in Deadland performed at Encores! Off Center, as it will be a reminder of an amazing chapter in the never-ending story of musical theater history—and an eye-opening look at how much further the musical theater genre has grown.

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