Why Godspell, why?
With musical theater, you either get it or you don’t
By Jeff Rapsis (email@example.com) and Glenn Given (firstname.lastname@example.org)
What’s to like?
• The big gesture: At its best, musical theater gives voice to powerful emotions that can’t be expressed in other ways. Want heartbreak? Try “Not a Day Goes By,” from Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Boiling-over rage? Few moments rival the blubberingly cathartic “Rose’s Turn” that ends Gypsy.
• The shared experience: Musical theater is a collaboration, and that includes the audience. When everything works, the response of a live audience intensifies the impact for everyone in a way that’s impossible to achieve, say, sitting in front of the tube.
• The vast literature: Like Greek mythology or wine, musical theater is a subculture with history, traditions and legends. The learning never stops. The trivia alone is mind-boggling: What role helped catapult long-time Hollywood Squares panelist Paul Lynde to alleged fame? (Harry McAfee, the harassed father in 1960’s Bye Bye Birdie, which was also the breakthrough show for a young comic named Dick Van Dyke.)
• The human factor: In an age of slick pre-packaged push-button entertainment, musical theater is a throwback to the ancient human practice of making art for ourselves. As such, I find community theater especially compelling because the people involved in it truly love what they’re doing.
To expect perfection all the time is a completely selfish approach to art and entertainment that I feel misses the whole point. If only perfection will do, then you’ll be disappointed not just in musical theater, but in life.
Finally, it’s a mistake to think compelling musical theater somehow has to be wedded to big-budget Andrew Lloyd Weber spectacles in gigantic places like Boston’s Wang Center. In my experience, you’re more likely to find great stuff on a small scale, staged on the most meager of budgets. Start with an open mind, and do what you can to open your heart. Get that far, and I promise you: musical theater will meet you more than halfway. — Jeff Rapsis
It is a mistake to wed compelling musical theater to big budget schlock — unfortunately, we never get the compelling, only the schlock. And then the orgy of stylization that mega-funding affords is noticably absent from local productions. Therein lies the mistep. Locals think that what makes the Evitas and Anything Goes’ worth seeing is their great music and interesting plot when obviously neither of those exist. I could forgive a handful of misguided attempts at musical production but when community theaters pathologically stage schlock I won’t patronize it and suggest that no one enable their filthy addiction by attending. If these people truly love what they are doing they should care enough to rise above the crass hackery and make an earnest attempt at real theater or real music, or, heaven forbid a real musical, anything but Mama Mia! please.
For every community theater performance of Cats there is a high school Godspell; for every production of Carousel we are blessed with a touring company of A Chorus Line. Maybe, if the “artistic” director is feeling particularly risqué we get a Little Shop of Horrors or a Cabaret. But more likely our familial obligations drag us to a third-rate Hair! Or a spine-chilling, eye-gouging ear-burning matinee of Pippin.
Frankly musical theater is an abomination, a cursed Frankenstein’s monster of meriterious artistic intent incestuously bred until the pitiful horrors that slop out of the womb cry to the heavens to be drowned like unwanted kittens. In their best form they are tacky and offensive to the senses. They are the FOX News of theater: cheap, garish affairs that overpolish and sensationalize every cubic zirconian facet of production with their A.D.D.-fueled “jazz hands.”
I’m not saying that the outside possibility of worth has abandoned the idea of Music + Theater. But the worst examples of the form are repeatedly forced down our gullets. High schools, community theaters and the like pick the most splashily Broadway of the trough and violently bleat out a hackneyed Oklahoma! or West Side Story with no regard for what the experience of theater could be. How could they, when they are far too busy lurching through the step-turn-kicking and SINGING!!!!! that spectaclizes the sordid affair?
Excepting the early operettas and follies, musicals (outside the off-off Broadway micro-theaters) are shameful cash cows and tourist traps. Don’t patronize them when visiting NYC, and don’t encourage local theaters to produce them. Hold out for good music or good theater; don’t settle for a misbegotten amalgam. And seriously, Movin’ Out (featuring the music of my fellow Long Islander Billy Joel), you’ve gone too far.
— Glenn Given
Glenn, I can certainly sympathize — there is nothing quite as horrifying as bad musical theater. But that’s no reason to throw the whole form on the cultural trash heap. For every unimaginative or derivative production of Oklahoma!, there are many groups out there, professional and amateur, that are doing good work. However, in a culture dominated by home entertainment centers, most Americans lost the live theater habit long ago, and so it’s easy for stereotyped visions such as yours to take hold. I will say, however, that your primal scream approach to the topic makes you an excellent candidate for success in musical theater’s arena of big emotions.
Have you ever considered auditioning?
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