Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Popular, you're gonna be popular ..."

So, I’ve returned from my little hiatus. For the past few weeks, I was attending rehearsals leading up to my performance in Annie Get Your Gun as staged by our director/producer, Mary Meo. Less than two years ago, Meo started Clinton Area Stage Troupe (CAST)—a non-profit that serves the theatrical needs of Clintonians as well as community members from surrounding towns in Hunterdon County, NJ. It was a noble task, indeed, but one that I’m sure nobody would argue was particularly easy. After staging two plays—The Miracle Worker (spring 2008) and The Importance of Being Earnest (spring 2009)—Meo decided to try her hand at tackling a large-scale musical production. The result was Annie Get Your Gun, which opened after just five weeks of rehearsal time. Today, I am proud to report that with only two shows we sold 813 tickets. At that number, we outperformed Meo’s lofty goal of 800. Bottom line: community theater is alive and well in Clinton, NJ!

I joined CAST because my best friend pleaded with me to do a show with her, but also, because I thought having the experience of being an actress—however small the role (I was an ensemble member)—would inform my writing about the theater. And so it did …

With music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, and such recognizable tuners including “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do,” Annie Get Your Gun got me thinking about the popularity of music from musicals. Just where are the Gershwins of today, and what are they writing? Why are we no longer hearing showtunes on the radio?

In December 2006, Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik touched upon this notion of popular music and the theater during our interview. “Initially it was the same world,” he said. “Musicals provided the popular music of the day.” And while times have changed, “every once in a while you have a musical like Hair or Rent or Tommy and now, I suppose, Spring Awakening that bridges the gap.”

Yet, Spring Awakening has since departed from Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. And while members of the cast have gone on to achieve greater commercial acclaim, its music can’t be heard on Z100 or XM’s “The Pulse”. Sheik may have won the Tony for best score, but I wouldn’t compare ‘The Bitch of Living’ to his Billboard mega-hit “Barely Breathing.” (To be fair, here, Sheik told me that he tried quite hard to stay out of the pop limelight. His success with “Breathing” came as a not-so-wholly-pleasant surprise to a man who takes pride in his more alternative musical tastes.)

Spring Awakening may have been quote-unquote edgy—a critics pick that attracted a considerable following among young theater patrons—but statistics show that we may not necessarily be able attribute its lack of mainstream success to its dark subject matter. I should note, here, that Steven Sater wrote the angsty lyrics and libretto for the musical.

A recent article by Benedict Carey in the Health section of the New York Times explored whether our nation’s mood is reflected in song. He writes that with the advent of music genres including metal, punk and hip-hop, there was an increasing tendency for lyrics to feature more gloom and doom after the 1960s. (The article reports that 2003 was the nadir for “depressing” lyrics. Hmm?)

But, a ha!, we’re getting warmer ... We may be feeling bluer these days, but I think lyrics—no matter happy or sad and swearing aside—have a quite a lot to do with the marketability of a song. Perhaps taboo subject matter is, in fact, a contributing factor for why punk and metal bands (even Spring Awakening for that matter) have a more difficult time attaining mass appeal. As for Broadway, though, I think its problem typically lies in the specificity of its lyrics. (Dark subject matter is ancillary.) True, showtunes may have a catchy beat that you can dance to, but just how many of these only make sense within the context of the script?

Let’s look at some of last season’s Broadway musical offerings, shall we …

Next to Normal is one of the most talked about new musicals of the season, but it concerns a bipolar matriarch and characters sing about electroshock therapy. Writer of the Shrek lyrics, David Lindsay-Abaire decided to ditch Smash Mouth’s “I’m a Believer” for expository lyrics that helped to build both character and plot surrounding our beloved green ogre. And the little engine that could, Title of Show, featured tuners that contained so much industry jargon that if you weren’t in the know you were probably left on the outs. Alas, Rock of Ages—a musical of the jukebox variety staring American Idol’s Constantine Margolis and featuring popular 80s tunes—seems like the sure-fire winner in this group. How can you go wrong with Journey and a song about “a smalltown girl living in her lonely world?”

But I would be remiss if I failed to mention that “Electricity,” from this year's Tony winner for best new musical, Billy Elliot, has been played extensively on Sirius XM radio—and not just on the Broadway channel. Elton John wrote the music, and let’s face it, names carry weight in this world. That said, the song is different from some of the others I’ve noted. Lee Hall’s lyrics are simple and universal; he uses simile to tap into our ever-elusive limbic systems. Performed as the 11 o’clock number, “Electricity” occurs after the judges at Billy’s Royal Ballet School audition ask him what it feels like when he’s dancing. Here’s an excerpt from his response:

“It’s a bit like being angry / a bit like being scared / confused and all mixed up and mad as hell. / It’s like when you’ve been crying / when you’re empty and you’re full / I don’t know what it is, it’s hard to tell.”

Perhaps ... but hey! I’ve been there! Haven’t you? We’re no longer in a smelly swamp or revisiting notorious flops on the Great White Way. Instead, we’re somewhere we know. It’s familiar. And isn’t that what popularity is all about?

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