Monday, June 09, 2014

Tony Awards 2014: Fantastic and Fun, but...

I got to watch the Tony Awards on a big screen TV 21 floors above Atlanta with the Frank Boggs, the teacher who, 40 years ago, informed my interest in Broadway theatre.  We felt hometown pride seeing Kenny Leon's win for the play Raisin in the Sun, and we enjoyed hearing the playwrights speak for their own dramas.  For the musicals,  we appreciated much of what we saw, while noting a few trends in the samples.

We appreciated several intentional shouts - out to teachers who had influenced the achievers we saw on stage.  

We appreciated host Hugh Jackman.  Frank, who is easily within three degrees of separation from anyone famous you care to name, remarked from experience that the host Hugh Jackman is "such a nice young man" who "is still just a regular guy."   Indeed, all of Jackman's efforts seemed to be focused on using his star power to focus attention on stage actors.  That was the effect of his opening number as he simply hopped past performers backstage who were dressing and stretching.  As he passed a video display of Van Johnson's hopping number from an old MGM film, we were assured that this goofy idea at least came from somewhere in the tradition.  During the rest of the show, he sang parodies to introduce nominees in major categories.  A highlight was his dancing in the aisles with the women nominated for Best Actress in a Musical, each lady getting her own tailor-made treatment.

That kind of thoughtfulness, uninhibited energy, and technical precision characterized every second of the televised show.

Jackman also promoted Broadway itself, "rapping" with a couple of hip-hop celebrities to show that The Music Man's classic opening number and our current pop music are much closer in spirit and technique than one might suppose.  That seems like a good thing, but, I feel like something is being lost.  More on that later.

Frank and I were struck throughout the show by the expertise and athleticism of the dancers, pleased that tap shoes entered into the action.   Tap had fallen on hard times for a awhile, but it was a highlight in almost every musical number.

We both enjoyed seeing Carole King.  Naturally, Frank had a personal connection, having once sat at King's feet when she was the opening act for an intimate show with James Taylor before Tapestry was released.  She sang a duet with Jessica Mueller, who portrays her in the musical Beautiful

Now, it may be that the efforts to make a stronger connection between pop and Broadway is diluting what's best about musical theatre.  Of all the new shows that presented excerpts for us last night, only A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder presented music integrated with drama.  Singing with Edwardian diction, one young man tried to keep two lovers apart from each other in a farcical number (complete with slamming doors -- see photo) that immediately immersed us in a story.

I wonder if A Gentleman's Guide won Best Musical because it was the only example of what we used to think of as the defining characteristic of a musical, the integration of music, lyrics, dramatic action, ambiance, and theme?   All the other songs from new shows were either presentational songs -- in which the performer presents an emotion to the audience directly, as a sermon or essay or personal statement -- or else the songs were diagetic, i.e., performed as performances in the context of the play.

We see diagetic music when "young Carole King" sits at a piano to sight-read sheet music for "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"  She's watched by a young man (first husband Gerry Goffin) who looks like he may not still love her tomorrow, so the song certainly relates to the story, on a tangent.  That dramatic layer to the song is lost when tinsel curtains drop and a pop group sings the words. The song becomes a stepping-stone in the story of King's career, but not part of its flow.

The Genie's song from Aladdin was a borderline case, because the character is ostensibly demonstrating his magic to the young man.  Still, it's presentational, breaking down the fourth wall between audience and performers, as if to say, "We're taking some time out from the story to sing you this fun song."  At one point, the Genie asks Aladdin, "Can you tap dance?"  The answer is no, but magic makes it happen -- for the sake of the number, not the story.

A song from Hedwig was diagetic, a transvestite rock singer performing at a club within the context of the stage show, though he stepped out to the Tony audience to lap dance with an astonished celebrity guest.

We saw a montage of moments from Rocky while the cast sang "Eye of the Tiger" as part of a living backdrop.

Sting sang an ersatz folk ballad from his upcoming musical, backed up by some men in costume who raised their fists at the end. 

Jennifer Hudson in a sequined gown belted a song about "Neverland," not once looking at four young boys in pajamas who gaped at her, the world of their story left unintegrated with anything the diva was doing.  Some other R&B divas of decades past presented songs from another era and then a troupe of dancers in period costume did some great gymnastics and tap, but it sure didn't look like part of any story. 

For Bullets Over Broadway, a chorus of tap-dancing gangsters were very impressive singing the old blues number "'T'ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do" re-purposed to convey the ruthlessness of a gangster character.

Of the revivals presented last night, only Les Miz integrated music, lyrics, and staging to advance the story and present character.  Factions of the play's immense cast of characters sang their signature tunes as they prepared for confrontation -- expertly modeled on the "Tonight" Quintet at the end of West Side Story's act one.   

In songs from revivals and other recent shows, the same trend was clear. 

Wicked gave us "For Good," a fine pop-styled ballad expressing gratitude and friendship at a time of parting.  The characters' words are couched in general terms about times we may have disagreed, and similes ("like" a something something in the wood, "like" a comet that something something... etc.).  Glinda sings the song with Elfeba (a.k.a. witch of the West) in a magic land called Oz, but it would work equally well sung by Carole King and her ex, or Aladdin parting ways with a Genie, or any two girls graduating high school in Atlanta, Georgia.  It's well-crafted, a great opportunity for the actresses to show off their singing chops and earnest emotion. Expressive as it may be in a general way, the song didn't "go" anywhere. A telltale sign was the lack of anything for the actresses to do:  They took turns peering at the spotlight, as if to picture whatever simile the other was singing about, the comet, or the tree, or whatever.

A song from "Violet" looked like it was going to integrate music and drama:  There were a woman in a plain dress, and two soldiers, and a couple of others, singing about going somewhere, but they didn't interact.  They presented face-on to the audience, until a church choir in robes intruded to sing a gospel song -- more diagetic music.

One other number in the Tony show last night, "Wilkommen" from Cabaret, plays on the difference between songs diagetic and dramatic.  We, watching a play, see a show staged for characters in Berlin during the late 1920s.   Every element of the song reflects on the decadence of the cosmopolitan society that would stand by, blase and self-absorbed, while the Nazis took over.   This interpenetration between worlds of the play and the audience purposefully connected 1920s Berlin with theatregoers of 1960s Manhattan who sought escapist and salacious entertainment at a time of social turmoil.  Underlying the whole effect is the knowledge that, in Berlin of the 1920s, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill were using the same technique to "distance" audiences from their musicals.

I'm not complaining, exactly, but feeling some regret.   I love cabaret performances as much as anyone.  Let a woman sing about "the man that got away" and then let her sing "I got my man, who could ask for anything more?" and I'm happy.  A well-formed song like "For Good" is a pleasure. 

In a play, however, a song can do what dialogue does.  A character uses song to persuade another person, or to persuade oneself to reach a decision.  Songs may reveal layers of a character.  Musical plays can offer something more when plot, character, ambiance, emotion, and overall theme are all integrated in music, words, and dance. 

At least this year we were not treated to ironic songs from musicals that said, "Look!  We're characters singing our thoughts in stereotyped Broadway melodies with overblown dance numbers.  Isn't this stupid?" 

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