Mark N. Grant, over at NewMusicBox, has an essay on the legacy of “West Side Story” which starts out well but then descends into a pretty unreasonable hatchet job on modern Musical Theatre.
“Clearly Bernstein still matters, but does West Side Story, in today’s musical theater world? Broadway never really picked up his cue, that symphonic continuity could meld the gutbucket vernacular.”
I’m not quite clear on his meaning of ”symphonic continuity,” but there are a couple of options. If he means “stealing specific melodies from classical composers,” I’m not enough of a musical theatre fan to cite examples but I’d be shocked if there aren’t plenty, and using that as a metric for the health of the genre seems pretty odd. But if he means “thinking about the whole piece as a cohesive, musically interrelated work” or “applying the aesthetics of classical music” (and I think that’s probably what he does mean) then it’s simply not true. Some of the biggest hits of the 80s and 90s — Phantom, Les Mis, Miss Saigon, etc. — are more through-composed than West Side Story, are heavily indebted to both the instruments and the aesthetics of classical music (again, more so than WSS, which is more jazzy than any of those three) and rest heavily on long term structural elements (borrowed, to a certain extent, from opera) with different songs and themes returning in different contexts and combinations. And speaking of “through-composed,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” is basically an opera, with recetative and everything.
Mark also cites Bernstein’s ballets. I can’t speak to the question of whether there have been Broadway ballets in recent history, but again I don’t see why having composed a ballet is a fair test of whether a composer “thinks symphonically,” and there’s certainly plenty of dance of many different types in modern musical theatre. Incedentally, in the aforementioned “Sunset Boulevard” I don’t believe there are any actual dance numbers, but the whole show was not just blocked but choreographed by an actual dance choreographer.
“Bernstein may perhaps not be our greatest songwriter or opera composer, but he is arguably our greatest theater composer, if “theater composer” means the polymorphous compass embracing The Age of Anxiety (excerpts of which Kogan also played at the Guggenheim), On the Town‘s ballets, Trouble in Tahiti, Candide, Mass, et al.”
First, if we’re counting Bernstein’s Mass as part of the evidence of his versatility as a “theatre composer” it’s only fair to note that Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote a Requiem. Second, using versatility as a metric for “greatest theatre composer” is silly. Wagner wrote almost nothing but opera, and yet most people think of him as far greater than any number of composers who worked in a much wider variety of forms. I’m not going to engage the claim that Bernstein is our greatest theatre composer–I agree that he’s great, but such questions of personal aesthetic preference have no place in this sort of argument, as they tend to foment bad reasoning. In fact, Mark goes on to say:
“The Cameron MacKintoshes, Disneys, Nederlanders, and Shuberts have ensured that there is no room for this kind of composing in the commercial American theater today.”
If you start from the premise that Bernstein is objectively the greatest, and that the kind of work he did was objectively the greatest, then of course any work that diverges significantly from that archetype will be inferior by definition. But Mark doesn’t get to declare who and what is objectively “greatest,” so he’s starting from a false premise. Anyway, moving on:
“That’s a scathing indictment of the entrenched philistinism of our marketing culture and the downtrend of 50 years of audience ‘development.’”
The idea that the marketing culture was ever not philistine is absurd — “West Side Story” was a commercial product, and a highly successful one at that, which appealed to its target demographic. Mark just personally likes and respects that target demo more than the target demo for contemporary musical theatre. The people who paid for it and marketed ”West Side Story” were no less trying to make money than the producers of the Lion King are; and furthermore, the producers of modern Broadway shows are every bit as much believers in the artistic value of their product as any producers in history–which is to say they believe, but they also want to make a buck.
I’m not a big musical theatre fan, but it remains a valid artform, and Mark’s criticisms don’t have legs. There’s a big difference between saying “I don’t enjoy modern musical theatre and I wish it were more like X” and claiming that the people who do enjoy it are the defective product of a 50 year “downtrend in audience ‘development’.”
To me, the greatness of Leonard Bernstein as a cultural figure is not that he somehow elevated crass popular culture by trying to transform it into something of greater value; instead by being equally comfortable in both worlds, and by bringing them together, he undermines the very notion that popular culture is somehow inferior. “Phantom of the Opera” is in many ways a perfect example of the legacy of this marriage. Perhaps my favorite iconic example of Bernstein’s melding of the popular with the classical is how he stuck a giant “Mahler Grooves” bumper sticker across the inside cover and title page of his copy of the Mahler 6th Symphony. I’ve seen it. It’s awesome.