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.

7 Responses to “Okay for me in America”
  1. Tom DePlonty says:

    I should probably read Mark Grant’s essay before commenting, but maybe his problem with Lloyd Webber and recent music theatre is just that the music is so awful.

    Sure, “West Side” and “Phantom” were both produced with the intention to make money. But would you seriously argue that, musically speaking, they’re on the same plane?

  2. It depends on how we mean it. Personally, I like and respect the music from West Side Story more than the music from Phantom, or even the music from Sunset Boulevard, which I think is Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece. But I don’t think the Lloyd Weber, or the Claude Michel Schoenberg (Les Mis, Miss Saigon) is bad — I think it’s quite good, even when I don’t much care for it. Take “All I Ask of You”: I hate that song, and yet I can’t deny that it is very well crafted. And if we want to compare “musical sophistication” it’s worth noting that one of Webber’s talents is making more complex time signatures flow naturally and accessably. It’s also interesting to note that in the original French concept album for Les Mis, the slow pretty songs are arranged in a much less sacharine fashion and are much more to my taste. Which brings me to my thesis–taste is not the same as assesment of objective quality, as much as it might feel like it. If the modern Broadway style isn’t to your taste–and it’s not particularly to mine, overall–it’s easy to write it all off as “bad” but it’s not really fair to do so.

    I’m also pretty skeptical of the very idea of objective goodness or badness of music, but I don’t think we even need to go there to have this discussion.

    Incidentally, I’m not sure why both of my recent posts were so bitchy — I’ve actually been in a pretty good mood lately. Love you all :)

  3. Deb says:

    I find it interesting that Lloyd Webber is being used as today’s Broadway standard and that this totally overlooks some really good stuff coming from Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa, and Adam Guettel (especially the last two). Guettel’s “Light in the Piazza” is a beautiful, well written (and very well received) piece of musical theatre with much more depth than anything (except admittedly, Sunset Boulevard) that Mr. Lloyd Webber is writing. Those of us who LIVE theatre know that ALW is not the be-all and end-all – nor is he the thermometer of today’s musical theatre. He just happens to be – short of Disney – the most commercial. I’m not – to quote (*gasp*) Galen Brown -being “bitchy” – I’m inviting you to open the horizons a little broader than the obvious. Musical Theatre of quality is alive and well – it just doesn’t have a TV show attached to it! What I see as thrilling is that there is a huge fan base for Musical Theatre in young people. That’s what will keep it alive. And many of those same young people are the musicians – and composers – of the future – of all types of music, not just theatre.

    Thank you for listening!

  4. Deb — I’m confident that you’re right about the current state of musical theatre. I’m using Andrew Lloyd Weber and Claude Michel Schoenberg as my examples largely in order to show that even if you ignore the musical theatre that the theatre snobs (I use the term with affection) think is great and focus on the biggest, most broadly popular, most commercial, most mass produced broadway shows my argument still holds. I figure something like Phantom is the most vulnerable to Mark’s argument, and so if I can demonstrate that he’s mistaken there it’s all the more clear that he’s mistaken about the “good” musical theatre.

    I’m not particularly knowledgeable, it’s true, about the areas of musical theatre that you’re talking about — my own loss, I’m sure. But I certainly respect it as a genre and strongly disapprove of the sort of classical music chauvinism that leads many people in the classical world to write it off. Same with film score, incidentally. Anyway, thanks for the tips on where to find some of the material that might be more appealing to me than the stuff I hear about in the mainstream media :)

  5. Deb says:

    You’re welcome! And I agree with you – just wanted to point out that there’s more out there to listen to (and see) that might appeal to more knowledgeable musician types such as yourselves! Speaking as a musical theatre snob, of course! ;-)

  6. Personally, I find “Guys and Dolls,” written seven years before WSS, more complete and exciting musically, almost a perfect musical. WSS didn’t come out of a void, so the underlying concept is misconceived. Also, I’ve never had a chance to see it, but doesn’t “Rent” come out of that tradition? (disclaimer – since having a bad, really weird experince working with YIP Harburg, I’ve only seen musicals that I’ve worked on Off Broadway, so my current knowledge is nil.)

  7. Robert Jordahl says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the thoughts of Mary Jane Leach.
    ” Guys and Dolls ” is a treasure!