Okay, I'm probably the last to weigh on in Michael John LaChiusa's invective against current musicals. But blame Opera News for not opening up their site! (And as much as I love opera, I ain't paying them for it. I'll save it for my one standing room stall a year at the Met.) But now apparently you can access it here, at least via the Times article on it, here.
Well, what to say. I personally had a blast reading it. And, basically, I "agree" with much--although I can't really say what his "argument" or thesis is. I do find his categories (faux musical, parody musical, etc) very helpful in understanding and sorting out all the things out there now that call themselves "musicals." Where he's gotten in trouble now (see Times piece) is in calling his own peers on the carpet, particularly Marc Shaiman, whose Hairspray he calls a "faux musical." Personally I think Shaiman's one of the most talented tune smiths around (South Park movie, anyone?), and Hairspray is a lot better a show than it ought to be. (Thanks to his, and Jack O'Brien's professionalism.) But LaChiusa's right! It's not an original musical, or even a viable work of theatre--it's an exercise in nostalgia. The audience I saw was bopping to the numbers as if they were listening to the Ronnettes, etc. (So expert is Shaiman's imitative/pastiche skills.) In other words, the difference between the experience of Hairspray and that of a very good revival of Bye, Bye, Birdie is, I believe, negligible. As LaChiusa says:
There's plenty of theatricality to be found in a faux-musical, but no
theatre. It's a theme-park ride copied from an original and authentic
ride.... It looks like a musical. It sounds like a musical. But it's
synthetic. The only organic feature to be found is the performances of its
original stars--Nathan Lane in The Producers, Harvey Fierstein in
Hairspray. Once their replacements take over, the shows reveal
themselves for what they are: machines.
Incidentally, I think this is the best explanation I've heard yet for "the curse of The Producers" and the inability for the show to find any acceptable replacements (from coast to coast to London) for Lane & Broderick. They (their combination of personal warmth and charm plus star quality) suppplied the human interest on stage.
The other aspect I especially appreciated (unnoted in the Times) is this is really a rtract against Broadway. No surprise coming from the B'way-burned LaChiusa, but so what. I'm not sure I even like LaChiusa's work (what I know of it, at least). Musicals don't need to be more humorless, for example. (not that he says that in the essay)... But notice echoes of The Playgoer in this complaint:
What prompts all this eulogizing...? [i.e. "the death of the musical"].
Collectively, the authors of these books and television shows seem to be
canvassing only one place in their search for life: Broadway. What if they've
limited their search to too small an area? What if, instead of dead, the
American Musical is simply missing from the surveyed landscape?...Simply because the real thing isn't on Broadway--except for a very few examples--why presume
Well put, Michael John. Welcome to the fight.
Typically, producer Margo Lion (in the Times piece) takes offense to an attack from this angle on her beloved Hairspray:
What makes my blood boil is the notion that Hairspray was some kind of
contrivance and that the impulse behind it and dedication to creating it was
somehow lesser than things that may be more--I don't even want to use the word
serious--that have a more limited audience, to be honest.
I love that. Let's not say "serious". Let's just call it, even worse, for a "limited audience." Naturally, if you're in the line of work Lion is, limited audience=no good. But for the rest of us who aren't "playing the market" with theatre... thank god for (discerning) limited audiences!
Just a thought: is the point of the Times piece just to give these folks their say? A defense of the B'way Behemoths? (who pay their advertising rates, who put on the shows those coveted "national" Times readers count on seeing their next trip...) Interesting no one was quoted defending LaChiusa.
Anyway, there's lots else going on in his essay. I urge you read it, and not just to agree or disagree about whether certain shows are good or bad. (Don't start yelling at your computer screen that Producers is better than Avenue Q!) Criticism of particular shows is not the point.
And one thing I do agree with the Times on--nothing better than a good spat.