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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Rock and pop music continues to revitalize Broadway

This story in the current issue of Newsweek is really interesting and very well written. Below is an excerpt:

If you could unscrew the lids of Broadway's theaters around 9 o'clock tonight, this is what you'd hear: the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, the Europop of Abba, doo-wop from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, proto-rock from Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and mixed-up hits from hair bands like Foreigner, Journey, and Whitesnake. Then there's the music written explicitly for the stage: the soul of Memphis; the hip-hop and salsa of In the Heights, which won the Tony Award for best musical; and the rock score of Next to Normal, which just won the Pulitzer Prize. Like never before, the traditional sound of a Broadway orchestra shares the Great White Way with all sorts of once-anathema pop styles, packed together like stations on the dial.

Two recent shifts have allowed Broadway to catch up to the music of the last 50 years. The first is generational: the people putting on shows, and buying tickets to shows, have grown up with rock. (In fact, the most telling sign of a new audience's arrival wasn't a rock show per se: The fact that Avenue Q, a dirty puppet show that riffed on Sesame Street, could sustain a six-year Broadway run meant that something major had shifted.) The other reason that pop musicals are thriving is that gifted artists have worked out a production style that suits the new material—no small feat when you realize how ridiculous the phrase "the new Broadway musical from Green Day" would have sounded just a few years ago. Even now it's a little crazy.

To understand how a trio of rock stars from Oakland could be good for Broadway, it helps to appreciate what a filthy art form the theater is, and has always been. Exorbitant ticket prices conceal—but can't erase—the wonderfully vulgar DNA of every show that reaches these stages: they're descended from the satyr play, the leggy blonde kick line, the seedy vaudeville routine. Theater is a magpie art that needs to refresh itself constantly with the energy that's sloshing around society. When it doesn't, you end up with the Broadway musical of the last few decades: an era in which Sondheim couldn't write his darkly brilliant musicals fast enough to arrest Broadway's slide into a bloated, self-referential style that made the place verge on being a punch line.



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