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Jesus Christ American Musical Theater Please Make Me Give a Fuck Again: A Personal Essay

Last Friday night I saw the opening of Broadway Idiot, a new documentary about the making of the American Idiot musical. As a documentary Idiot was mediocre at best. But come Saturday afternoon, sitting on a park bench and staring down the gullet of a new theater season, American Idiot — a show long closed — was still on my mind.

So what gives?

It’s not just that I loved American Idiot, though I did. No. It’s that Idiot, which closed in 2011, is the last original musical on Broadway that I really loved. Some days, looking back,  American Idiot feels like it was the last bastion of hope in the bleak modern landscape of American musical theater on Broadway. The most recent truly great original American Broadway musical.  And it opened in 2010.

That is, of course, not entirely true. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Scottsboro Boys both opened the following season, in the same calendar year. And like Idiot, both musicals — regardless of how long they ran — said incredibly profound, and profoundly difficult things. They asked audiences to be intelligent, to consider nuanced points, to learn something new, to feel something deeply (even if it was an uncomfortable emotion to internalize) and to grow as people over the hours spent in those cool, dark theaters. All while pushing at the edges of musical theater and growing the form in the process, much the same way Next to Normal did in 2009, or West Side Story did in 1957.

But today, in the fall of 2013, all I can think is dear god, please. Please, bring back 2010. Or no. Not even 2010, but it’s spirit — whatever was percolating then that brought all these great big musicals together on Broadway all at once. Make me give a fuck about American musical theater again. Because the desolate terrain of the last three years — occasionally studded with some glitter-encrusted drag queen or caterwauling child — is crushing my musical theater loving soul.

Maybe that means I’m becoming one of those insufferable Golden Age of Theater People against my own will. Or I’m just being unbearably millennial and overly romanticizing a time period that has barely passed me by, but…

HAHA. Just kidding. I’m not.

This is reality. The original American musical, as measured by what’s been presented on Broadway, its biggest stage, has been a giant black hole of suckitude for the last few years. Even if we expand the definition of ‘original’ to include shows like Kinky Boots and Catch Me If You Can, Broadway STILL fails to make me give a flying fuck. Because honestly, how am I supposed to care about a place this full of paper-thin plot, pastiche, schmaltz, and emotional manipulation designed to cover for the lack of subtext necessary to support genuine complexity of feeling? What do I have to dig into there? To think about and talk about and obsessively analyze the underpinnings and inner-workings of?

Now, this is the part where I digress and acknowledge, lest the whole internet crash down upon me with totally tangential hatred, that The Book of Mormon happened in 2011. And as American musicals go, it was both original, and awesome. It also made me think a lot — about faith and community and the modern way. But The Book of Mormon is so slick, so polished, so note-for-note and line-for-line perfect, that it’s kind of uninteresting to think about and discuss. It’s also so popular and spendy that  it is nigh-unto-impossible for most people to experience this show once, let alone repeatedly. So it’s been knocked out of the running in this discussion.

Which brings me back to this:

With the exception of the nostalgic (and unoriginal) gem of Newsies, I’ve hated the world of new American musical theater on Broadway since American Idiot closed. Nothing has challenged me. Or exposed a single vulnerable nerve to the big bad outside world. Or asked me to think about the planet, or humanity, or even just musical theater, in a new way. Nothing has made me want to go back, over and over again, to experience the rush — or the emotional assault — once more.

Not the way Idiot did as it encapsulated the challenges and horrors — both thrust upon them and self-imposed — faced by an entire generation of young American men. The very generation of men I grew up amongst and will someday lead this country beside (hopefully). Or the way Bloody Bloody did by presenting our country’s political past in a contemporary context, throwing both history and modern life into sharp relief and making me reconsider my participation in the American political machine. Or the way The Scottsboro Boys did by forcing me to face down the horror of that kind of injustice, and wonder what exactly could be done about the ways our society continues to reenact those injustices to this day, in thousands of new and old ways.

And without that. Without shows that are more than just a very shiny, tuneful escape from my boring work day, well… Broadway becomes a place I struggle to even care about.

I’m all for balance. Newsies was a wonderful night at the theater, and what’s more, it plays a role in building a Great White Way that is accessible to different kinds of audiences. But what does it contribute to the history of theater as a lens through which we document, and interpret, and evaluate and reevaluate our American history? And why should I give a fuck about Broadway — why should I spend hours of my short life, and thousands of my hard earned dollars — if at some point, it’s not going to ask me some tough questions and make me feel something so strong and so real that I spend days and weeks and months trying to sort all the pieces of my feelings into words.

So come on, Broadway. Shut me up, show me down, prove me wrong. Ask me a question it will take me months of writing to answer. I’m begging you. But please, just do it soon. Because cute boys tap dancing can only entertain me for so long.

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • itsdlevy October 17, 2013, 12:38 am

    I get the reasons for focusing on Broadway, but remember that Scottsboro Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson both started off-Broadway. And off-Broadway has had some wonderful stuff as of late, particular at The Public: Here Lies Love and Fun Home are at the top of my list. While I’d love to see those shows live on beyond their downtown runs, whether that has to happen on Broadway is a question I’m less and less interested in.

    • the mick October 17, 2013, 10:39 am

      I agree that off-Broadway has presented some really wonderful musical theater of late. Far more than Broadway has in the last few years.

      But the challenge there, is exposure. Shows don’t often run very long and gaining traction, and getting audiences downtown, or wherever, just… into theaters that are not on Broadway, is a whole different ball of wax.

      To a large extent, this is selfish — I cover Broadway theater primarily, and I’m tired of seeing so much terrible schlock.

      But I also just think… audiences deserve better. On their semi-annual trips, my parents deserve to have more to choose from than Big Fish and Wicked. Off-Broadway — particularly because so much of it is fleeting — just isn’t as accessible to them as Broadway is. That’s the way it is for most audiences.

      And frankly, whether or not we like it, a show lives on in history, and in the theater canon, in a very different way when it’s been on Broadway. Whether or not Bloody Bloody or Scottsboro started off-Broadway, they ended up there.

      The kind of Broadway I’d like to see is one that has a place for The Scottsboro Boys (or Fun Home) beside Newsies. I think if we more frequently assumed audiences had the intelligence/sensitivity/patience for nuanced material — instead of Disney or Vegas-ifying everything — we’d find that they’re capable of appreciating great, challenging, feeling musical theater as well.

      • Caroline October 24, 2013, 2:44 pm

        These days I’m starting to feel like The Public Theater (and off broadway in general) have discovered that there is such a wide range of stories and so much depth that can be taken on in a musical and Broadway just hasn’t caught up, with a few notable exceptions.

        And that was ultimately my problem with Big Fish. The film was so interesting and had so much darkness and depth to it and I felt like they threw all of that out in favor of MUSICALS ARE HAPPY!!!!11 (Not that it didn’t have other flaws.)

        WAKE UP BROADWAY, just like books, films, or hell, even concept albums, musicals can tell interesting, deep stories.

        (On a tangent, I think everyone needs to become obsessed with Fun Home.)

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