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

By Tony Kushner
13 Jul 2013

Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner reflects on the importance of the Off-Broadway musical - showcased as part of the new Encores! Off-Center series. His Caroline, or Change collaborator Jeanine Tesori serves as artistic director.


The history of the American musical — wait, wait, don't turn the page yet, I know, I know, how unappealing, it's like starting with "The semiotics of sex" or "The ontogeny of napping" or "Webster's defines chocolate as..." Nevertheless: The history of the American musical is inseparable from the history of Broadway, where the form was formed out of the history of European opera and operetta, where it was made native and nurtured and matured, thence to spread worldwide, inspiring theatre cultures in other countries to attempt to write their own musicals, which attempt, so far as I'm aware, and I'm no musical theatre expert but I think I have good taste, with the exception of a few great Noël Coward songs and Oliver!, has been a complete failure, proving something about America, though I'm not sure what.

I guess it proves that Americans write the best musicals. Why? I have no idea; I love musicals (when they're good) but I know relatively little about them. I know that so many musicals, old and new, are about success that it seems to be the case that success is what musicals mean; if that's true, perhaps that's why Americans write such good musicals, because we have a special relationship with success. And if it's true, then all musicals must succeed, because who wants to listen to a loser telling you how to succeed?

I love musicals enough to occasionally read books about them. Stephen Sondheim's "Finishing the Hat" is among the very best I've read about musical theatre and any other kind of theatre. I think it's indispensable. Sondheim begins by describing the American musical emerging from an awkward adolescence as a kind of elaborate varsity show (with magnificent songs by Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Arlen et al) into adulthood.


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