Can the Same Old Song and Dance Be New Again?
New York Times
February 24, 2002
A FUNNY thing happened to the modern musical on its way to the theater: it became serious ‹ boy usually doesn't get girl anymore ‹ and the endings are not always neat and tidy. Has musical theater changed in any lasting way? Must an audience always leave a show humming?
The creators and directors of two musicals about to open in New York talked recently about the state of their art form. In their 30's and early 40's, they represent a younger generation in the theater.
Jason Robert Brown's new sung-through show, "The Last Five Years," directed by Daisy Prince and starring Sherie René Scott and Norbert Leo Butz, opens next Sunday Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater. Mr. Brown, who won a Tony Award for his score for the musical "Parade" in 1999, has written the music and lyrics for a story about a marriage that disintegrates.
On April 18, a reconceived version of the 1967 film "Thoroughly Modern Millie" ‹ in which boy does get girl (actually, boys get girls) ‹ opens at the Marquis Theater on Broadway. With new songs by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Dick Scanlan (who wrote the book with Richard Morris), the show is directed by Michael Mayer and stars Sutton Foster, in the title role played by Julie Andrews in the movie.
Robin Pogrebin, an Arts section reporter at The New York Times, moderated
the discussion ‹ held at the offices of Arielle Tepper, a producer of "The
Last Five Years" ‹ excerpts from which follow.
ROBIN POGREBIN Is the idea of a happy musical outdated? It seems that most musicals written now are not upbeat and don't have happy endings.
JASON ROBERT BROWN "The Producers" is plenty happy to me.
DICK SCANLAN "The Full Monty" as well. Last year both those shows were so well received and adored by the public that they bear out the idea that happy musicals are alive and well.
DAISY PRINCE It depends on what you view as happy now. Certain shows are maybe not happy but hopeful.
JEANINE TESORI "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is a coming-of-age story. So would you call it happy? You watch someone literally start their life: a young girl drops who she ever was and begins again, like so many people do in New York. It's hopeful. It's about beginnings.
BROWN For the vast majority of people, when you say the word "musical" they will only think of something that is endlessly perky and involves sequins and tap dancing. I have nothing against tap dancing‹‹
PRINCE I have nothing against sequins.
BROWN But I think it's infinitely more of an uphill battle to write something that's not intrinsically happy, that doesn't end on a note of joy and bells pealing and people laughing. That's a much harder thing to get people to accept.
POGREBIN Do you need to think about how you are going to leave the audience feeling?
TESORI The audience is a character. Michael always says that in rehearsals: "They're the final character in the play." That's the thing "The Producers" did that was so welcome. It says, "We're glad you're here, we need you."
MICHAEL MAYER "We couldn't do it without you." Musical comedy as a form is one of the hardest, if not the hardest to get to work. It's such a delicate mechanism, the balance between the lyric and the scene and then the melody kicking in and the way the scenes need to lead into a song that then has to fulfill the emotional truth of the moment and yet still entertain. It's‹‹
SCANLAN It's like making a soufflé. It's all about chemistry, exact calibration and a little bit of alchemy. And in the end, to have something that's sort of delicious and perhaps light but also sweet and rich and all that stuff, is a very hard thing to achieve.
POGREBIN With the current emphasis on realism in musicals, how do you square that with the traditional musical, where you break into song, which is essentially an unnatural thing to do?
BROWN The songwriting I grew up on ‹ as opposed to Rodgers and Hammerstein and very declamatory and very big ‹ was that 70's singer-songwriter thing done by Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon and even Paul McCartney and Carole King, people who were dealing with emotions that were much smaller I think than the traditional musical concerned itself with. That always seemed to me to be equally fertile ground.
In the content-dictates-form argument, if I'm going to write a musical that is big, then my numbers are going to be big. But I have always believed you can write a musical that has small things in it that are closer to an everyday reality, as opposed to a more grandiose reality that musical comedy typically trades in.
TESORI The challenge of a musical, be it happy or sad, is creating a world, a seamless world, where you come in and an audience comes in and you say: "These are our rules and we're going to lead this way." I think it's more about that and storytelling. My uncle from Long Island says, "You give them a good story, they'll come."
SCANLAN One of the things we talk a lot about in rehearsal is that there can be a difference between reality and truth. It's essential in any story, in any form, to aim for the truth. Reality is another thing altogether.
POGREBIN In choosing what to write or direct, what criterion do you use? Is it, "This is an important work, I have something to say?" When you're doing "Thoroughly Modern Millie," do you feel you have to apologize for doing something that may be just a confection? Do you have to be able to defend the decision to do a 1967 musical today?
TESORI When we had these talks with the cast, I spoke for 15 minutes about how I felt about this piece because I'm so passionate about it. I'm as passionate about the piece as the musical that I'm doing with Tony Kushner ["Caroline, or Change," with book and lyrics by Mr. Kushner and music by Ms. Tesori, is on the calendar for next season at the Joseph Papp Public Theater]. When we open on this girl, she could be a flapper, she could be a prostitute in New Orleans, she could be 65 and black. It's the story that's told time and time again about not only New York but that reinvention. And especially in the time of the 20's.
We approach it from all points of view; industry and women's issues. So it's interesting when people talk about it as a confection. I understand and that's why I initially didn't want to do it. But then underneath it has all the issues about the coming apart after World War I that interest me as someone who cares about storytelling.
BROWN I have to say almost in contrast, I've turned down three or four shows where what they wanted to be was confections but with a mind. You know, "Oh, we've got all these things to say." And I kept backing away and saying, "O.K., you have to make a decision in terms of what you want from me, because I can either write you a rock-'em, sock-'em great-time show and we can have that, or you can try and shovel in all of these pieces of social commentary." And there was a point in all of these projects where it always got to, "Well, this piece is very important about what it has to say." And I said, "I don't think it's more important than just having fun."
TESORI I'm not sure that you understood what I'm saying‹‹
BROWN No, I do‹‹
TESORI No, I just want to clarify. What I'm talking about is coming from a foundation, so that the lightness is based on something true for us.
BROWN No, absolutely‹‹
TESORI Because then it is something. All the research we've done hasn't made it in, but it's made us committed to creating something light. And that's the kind of paradox of it.
BROWN I was responding to the idea of what makes you choose. Would you have to apologize for this because it's that? And my response is, not only do I not have to apologize for it but I, in fact, would choose to do it.
POGREBIN Daisy, why were you attracted to directing "The Last Five Years"?
PRINCE Because I love the music. And because it's about a loving relationship that didn't work out and everybody I know has been in one of those.
POGREBIN Do you worry about people seeing their lives reflected so much that it makes them uncomfortable?
PRINCE I love a good cry, I love a good laugh. Doesn't everybody want on some level to feel, when they pick up a book or see a painting, that someone understands what they're feeling?
POGREBIN Michael, why were you drawn to "Thoroughly Modern Millie"?
MAYER It's wonderful entertainment. I love musical theater and always have because it provides an opportunity for performances. That's one of the things I miss so much in some musicals today ‹ the performers are interchangeable because they're playing cartoon characters and their own personalities are not meant to emerge onstage. It's not about the performance anymore.
"Millie" is a show that has nine principals, which is very rare for a big musical comedy. Each one has a story and songs, and they articulate their desires in completely singular and delightful ways. I thought, "This is a show where you could have a dazzling collection of performers who live to entertain that audience."
PRINCE Oh, I want to go see it now. I'm not joking. I so want to see this right now.
POGREBIN And watching the movie last night, which I dutifully did‹‹
TESORI I've never watched it.
POGREBIN It seemed like you have a long way to go from something that might have felt right in its time in 1967, but involves some ideas that would seem dated today: the white slavery aspect; the title character, whose life is all about finding a husband, someone to support her. How did you use the source material to develop what you have and to what extent did you depart from it?
SCANLAN If you boil the movie down to the basics, it's about a young woman in 1922 who leaves her family in a small town in Kansas ‹ that line was cut from the movie because of Julie Andrews's accent, but she's supposed to be from Kansas ‹ to pursue a life in New York City with an identity of herself, a version of herself, that she's going to create from the ground up.
When that hit me I thought, "That's my story, I understand that." I understand being raised someplace and all I knew at 18 was what I didn't want. The life that I could have there was not a life that was right for me and I needed to come to this place called New York City and begin. And I made huge mistakes, I bleached my hair blond, I smoked clove cigarettes, I wore clogs‹‹
PRINCE Who didn't?
SCANLAN But my initial attempts to change were superficial, which I think is exactly what's happening to Millie. She applies a superficial version of the new her, which includes her goal to marry somebody rich. By the end of the story the lesson she learns is that she was leaving the most important thing out of that journey, which is who she really is. She abandons her prefabricated idea of what the times dictated as what she's supposed to want. I find that something to sing and dance about because it's my own story, just a different gender, a different era.
POGREBIN How much of the show is original?
TESORI It's three-quarters original.
POGREBIN And the white slavery story line is in there in part?
MAYER It's still there, though treated very differently. In the movie the henchmen are anonymous Asian actors who speak sort of pidgin English and are called Oriental No. 1 and Oriental No. 2, which is unbelievably offensive. But there's something about the idea that everyone in this show is an immigrant that really excited me.
POGREBIN Wasn't it hard to create something new out of something that already exists?
TESORI It's like someone saying to you: "You're going to write a novel. Here's the first page and here's the last page." You have to make something that literally goes in between.
POGREBIN Talk a little bit, Jason, about the origin of "The Last Five Years."
BROWN This piece was mainly reactive. I had been working on "Parade" for five years and "Parade" ran for three months. And my response to that was, well, "Hell, this is no way to make a living." It was too exhausting and too hard and the therapy cost more than the royalties. My first instinct was to get out completely. I was not going to write for the theater anymore. I said, "It doesn't nurture new voices, it doesn't‹‹" all this sort of baloney you can really get into when you're down on yourself.
DAISY The good self-pity thing‹‹
BROWN Oh, I was in there! And so I was talking to Billy Rosenfield [former senior vice president for shows and soundtracks at RCA Victor], and I said to him: "I'm getting out. I'm done. I'm moving to Belgium and I'm going to teach." And he said: "O.K., that's great. Listen, why don't you do what Ricky Ian Gordon does and just write, like, a song cycle?" And I said, "Hell, if Ricky can do it, I'll do it, sure."
So I started thinking: "I'll just write a song cycle. That's nice, that's fair, that's easy." It was going to be for two people. And I thought: "Well, this is the anti-`Parade.' It's not a huge musical with 35 people and 20 people in the orchestra. It's just going to be small and intimate and maybe it'll be a theater song cycle. Maybe it'll be Betty Buckley and Mandy Patinkin." And it just seemed like the answer to all my prayers.
But in writing it, I found I couldn't make a piece that was sufficiently abstract that it belonged on a concert stage. Everything I wanted to do and say breathed in a very theatrical way. It was at that point ‹ when I was writing about these two people who literally and physically and metaphorically could not get together ‹ I said: "You know what? I think it's a show and I didn't mean to be doing that, but I guess I am now." And I called Daisy and I said, "I don't know what I've done but I think you have to do my show." And she said, "You'd better bring it over."
POGREBIN And now having done both forms, what do you think you want your writing life to be?
BROWN The only thing I loved more about the big show than I do about the little show is that I am a complete orchestra whore and it's such a bummer for me not to have 47 musicians. Not that, incidentally, you can get that. What do you guys have?
POGREBIN How many do you really have?
BROWN Twenty-four's enormous.
TESORI I'm very happy with my 24 people.
BROWN We have six.
TESORI That's a lot.
BROWN Oh, it is a lot. It's huge. And it's great for an Off Broadway show. But I just love big bands. I love musicians. I love hanging out with them. I love looking down in the pit and seeing them all sawing away.
POGREBIN What about the frequent refrain that new musicals don't send you out humming? Is that a fair criticism?
TESORI The idea of humming has to be redefined. Humming used to mean da-da-da- da, and my daughter could repeat that back. But humming to me now is about the buzz. Like when I went to see "Running Man." Can I hum that music? No, I don't want to. But that music, that story, Diane Paulus's direction in that small theater created something that I will never, never forget. So did it hum to me? Absolutely. It buzzed, it hummed, it ka-chinged. I go out, I carry it with me.
BROWN I don't have any responsibility to hummable. I do have a responsibility
The Last Five Years