"Singing of Human Unsuccess": Tony Kushner on the Importance of the Off-Broadway Musical

By Tony Kushner
13 Jul 2013

Anika Noni Rose in The Cradle Will Rock.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Thanks in large part to the efforts of Richard Rodgers and Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, it became possible for the musical — for the whole megillah, not just its splendid individual songs — to dream without embarrassment of seriousness of purpose and aesthetic ambition, perfecting what's come before (AKA "Finishing The Hat") and breaking through perfection into undiscovered terrain (AKA "Look, I Made A Hat"; AKA Volume II). Sondheim writes that, once the path had been opened and the new world discovered, the next generation — Kander and Ebb, Coleman and Leigh, Sondheim and Sondheim — plunged in and explored. "We went at it," he writes, "with a will."

Despite the revolution, some things haven't changed. That all musicals are born dreaming of an apotheosis on the stage of a commercial theatre in the Times Square area is still a common assumption, dying by slow degrees but alive enough to be worrisome to the kind of people who worry about musicals — about the musical theatrical form, as opposed to the musical theatrical dividends. Musicals are very expensive to produce, and someone has to pay for them, and get paid back, and there's nothing wrong with dividends. Well actually there's plenty wrong with dividends, but that's another story.

Or actually what's wrong with dividends is sort of the story of The Cradle Will Rock, and in a way it's part of the story of the musical, at least of musicals like Cradle and I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road and Violet, the varied subjects and varied production histories of which cohere in their rocky relationships with the marketplace.

Success is fine; I like to succeed as much as anyone and I even like watching others succeed, at least on my better days I do. Success that's honorably as opposed to cynically achieved can be an honorable entertainment. But there's more to life than success, alas. Musicals can also do what Auden praised Yeats for having done: they can "sing of human unsuccess/ in a rapture of distress." We're immortal birds not born for death, each and every one of us; our souls, the deepest truest human impulses, ideas and actions, truly and fully expressed, must pour forth abroad in ecstasy. Or words to that effect. Know what I mean? And that's why there are musicals.

(This feature appears in the July 2013 edition of the City Center Encores! Playbill magazine.)