New American Musicals Are Buying Into Rent

Special Features   New American Musicals Are Buying Into Rent
In theatre, where there's success, there's money -- and energy.

In theatre, where there's success, there's money -- and energy.

Playbill On-Line's survey of in-the-works new musicals showed that Rent and, to a lesser degree so far, Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, have given writers and composers across the country the sudden feeling that a door has opened to a new sound and style for contemporary musicals.

Partly to counter the rampant commercialization of the year's most honored musical, Rent's producers (author Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm just before the show opened) chose the non-profit La Jolla Playhouse for the show's West Coast premiere in 1997. "I think it shows the producers' commitment to theatres that nurture new works," said 37 year-old Greif. "Rent has never been about ticket sales and awards, and I think it's in that spirit that the producers have made this decision." Such a homegrown, adventurous spirit no doubt inspires hope in budding composers and lyricists who've been viewing the Tony Awards as an archaic ceremony for a dwindling generation.

It doesn't hurt that Randy Newman's Faust (staged by Rent director, Michael Greif) and Paul Simon's Capeman are also readying themselves for Broadway. But younger composers tapping into a newer stream of music are starting to think of theatre as well.

An example of the new musical breed is City Kid, a "Generation X" rock musical running through Nov. 3 at Washington state's Village Theatre in Issaquah. This production may have more authenticity than most by being so close to the Seattle slacker and grunge scene. A rite of passage tale, the musical sprang out of author/lyricist Adrienne Anderson's work on a pop concept album with composer/producers Rick Chudacoff and Peter Bunetta. Press attention has been strong for City Kid, for example, Scott F. Brown of The Issaquah Press writing, "...this coming-of-age story mixes urban pop music, sexy choreography and references to sex, drugs and violence into its tale of the strife of modern youth."

By the same token, Adrienne Anderson isn't exactly Alice In Chains, or even Jonathan Larson. Her songwriting partners have included such proto punks as, um, Barry Manilow ("Could It Be Magic?"), Dionne Warwick and Melissa Manchester. (She does register on the "hip"-meter by having worked with Isaac Hayes.) Chudacoff and Bunetta's resume is even more quiet storm-oriented: Johnny Mathis, Patti Labelle and Kenny G.

Enormously influential, too, on musical writers of the late 1990s are Blue Man Group and Stomp, phenomenal Off-Broadway hits that conquer by being -- as John Cleese used to intone -- something completely different. These percussive performance pieces are loud, musical, visually compelling, fun in a rock concert way, and -- at least before their canonization on Conan O'Brien -- outside the realm of the usual, well-heeled Broadway crowd.

Certainly one can see the footprint of Stomp on Evolution, a new musical developed by author/composer Steven Guyer. Though the piece offers 12 musical numbers, all are essentially drum-based. There's even a cage at center stage, filled with electronic drumpads.

Guyer has described the work as "entertainment for the attention deficient" and "experimental 1990's dance-theatre for the MTV generation, nightclub-goers and rock fans who don't know or care much about the traditional theatre."

The debut of the double CD for Rent at #19 on the Billboard charts attests to a new generation that will listen to Broadway music IF it speaks their language (or if they want to appear hip enough to "get" Rent's language).

. Amazingly, Evolution didn't evolve in Rent's East Village but in Columbus, Ohio, home of Guyer's own ShadoArt productions. Ironically, Evolution is directed by 24-year-old R.J. Tolan, whose 60-year-old dad, Robert, generally directs musicals out of the standard repertory (he recently helmed a concert staging of Oh Captain for New York's York Theatre Company's "Musicals In Mufti" series).

In an interview with Playbill On-Line, however, both father AND son were excited about the new musical. "It's an amazing sound, just percussion," father Robert enthused. "There's nothing like it."

Tolan fils elaborated: "We have five drummers, two on acoustic, three on synthetic drum pads. We've got a 7'X7' cage on the stage, and "Otto," the main drummer, is inside, hitting twenty different drum pads. He actually has the most melodic synthesized drum sounds; he kind of carries the melody for the 13 segments."

That said, the Rent phenomenon is so pervasive, even non-musicals are feeling the effect. Not only will Off-Off-Broadway's Expanded Arts company be performing Christopher Marlowe's 1592 tragedy, Edward II in a 25-seat theatre on very downscale Ludlow Street, but they'll be setting the play within that very milieu -- New York's Lower East Side.

Director Will Nolan fully acknowledged Rent's influence on the project: "I proposed the show to Expanded Arts because I thought it could be more recognizable, more relevant in a Lower East Side bar environment. And there's all this interest in the Lower East Side -- the fashion, the music, the pop culture. This is a little tongue-in-cheek on the whole trend, because it's so extreme. Ultra-everything."

Nolan, who lives "within spitting distance of the East Village," has cut but not rewritten the text. "The play calls for 35 people," said Nolan, "so we've pared it down with a lot of doubling. Now its fast-paced . . . some say like the style of an MTV video. But we want it to work as a classic without losing anything essential Marlowe was trying to say."

As in Rent, gender issues come to the fore. "Edward II is one of my favorite shows," explained Nolan. "I love the way it's so blatantly homoerotic. It's 400 years old, yet the insinuations . . . It has to do with the corruption of love by power. Whenever anyone falls in love, it turns towards evil and lust, more sexual than beautiful. And of course, there's the class struggle."

Nolan isn't overlooking the visual aspect either: "The cast are wearing leather and boas and Spandex and latex. At one point, they put on a fashion show for the King. That's also a fun aspect because it's fashion we recognize. Something you see on the street, but you put lights on it, set it to music, and it suddenly looks special." The director added that background music for Edward will run from hip-hop to grunge to speed metal.

An unlikely candidate to weigh in on the new musicals topic, Dennis DeYoung, who just got back from a tour with his world-famous rock band, Styx, happens to be an inveterate theatregoer and is writing a non-rock musical himself. The working title is Q-Modo, and, yes, it's based on "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.

DeYoung told me that the piece, though not sung-through, will be in the style of Phantom and Les Miz in that it has epic characters and larger-than-life emotions. But why not rock? After all, Styx staged a rock opera ("Kilroy Was Here") at City Center back in 1983.

"I love rock and roll, and I love theatre music, but they're just not the same. I saw Rent, I saw Smokey Joe's Cafe, and they're musicals imitating rock and roll. The closest musicals have gotten to approximating rock is Tommy, and that was still an imitation."

But what's the difference? "It has to do with volume," DeYoung explained. "You really need it to be loud. Also, rock has to give the impression that everything's unplanned and spur of the moment. Obviously, theatre can't be that spontaneous."

Uneasy about sounding too negative about pop musicals, DeYoung did applaud Rent's power and "infectious spirit:" "They come out there, and they act like they mean it. That's very powerful. And I respect that a rock musical is doing okay on Broadway. But in my heart, I don't believe rock will take over Broadway. The musicals that get revived are the ones with the great SONGS. New styles have to incorporate themselves into Broadway -- not the other way around; Broadway musicals can't and shouldn't try to become something else, something they aren't."

* Although the fans of Rent try to play down comparisons between that show and 1968's ground-breaker, Hair, the similarities continue to mount.

Both are rock musicals, of course, scored for rock 'n' roll orchestration, rather than the traditional Broadway pit of brass and strings. Both are also concerned with the personal freedoms of a group of low-income, non conformist types living in the same physical and emotional space. Individually, the young people have their altercations, but as a unit they stand, staunchly, outside the pull of capitalism, conservative dress and prudish codes of social behavior.

Both pieces are also fragmentary and kaleidoscopic, rather than narrative driven, and each has a naive, rather whitebread character looking in on this tribal world with amazement but also mixed feelings.

The similarities of Hair and Rent also spill out beyond the shows' content, since both musicals sprang to Broadway from Off Broadway theatres. Hair put Joseph Papp's Public Theatre on the map in 1968; Rent lifted New York Theatre Workshop into an enviable position as a breeding ground for serious artistic works that, despite a non-commercial bent, might have a commercial future after all.

That promise may be the real legacy of Rent, which is inspiring other directors and composers to look 40 blocks below Tin Pan Alley for inspiration. When they tried this last time, results led to such critical and box office disasters as Via Galactica and Dude, and had the side-effect of crippling the old-fashioned American musical because craftsmen were discounted and discarded for not being "with-it." It wasn't until Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice mined the rock possibilities of biblical icons with Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that Broadway was forced to accept the inevitability of young ears wanting to hear young music. Then when the 30-40 year-old parents flocked to hear the blisteringly loud sounds of Tommy, or the kitsch rock-n-roll nostalgia of Grease and Smokey Joe's Cafe (both of which continue to pack in multi-generational crowds and tourists), the setting for a mini-revolution was complete.

The biggest problem may be that pop music has always been an uneasy fit for the structure of a classic American musical. Broadway shows of the old style will generally offer an uptempo opening number setting the mood, some character songs describing the people on stage, ballads that dig into the characters' feelings, a comic number or two, and transitional songs that move the story forward.

Most songs in the rock/pop world fall into either rhythm-oriented dance songs, personal confession or impressionistic paintings in song. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young may be America's most extraordinary living (pop) songwriters, but their lyrics are often obsure, imagistic rather than explanatory, and need repeated listenings just to appreciate their surface "meaning." In a narrative-driven musical, lyrics need to be understood and digested immediately. Bruce Springsteen and several folk and country songwriters have more experience with straightforward, story-telling songs, and they can certainly write an uptempo to get the blood pumping, but that's not the same as composing an eleven o'clock number for characters you've introduced at 8.

As if resistance from Broadway's old guard isn't enough, when rock tries to adapt to the constraints of a standard musical, there's invariably a backlash by rock fans. The New York Times, Tonys and Pulitzer committee may have positioned Rent as THE new American musical, but a negative review in Rolling Stone asserted the long-held belief that rock just doesn't sound like rock when it comes from a Broadway stage. It's the old complaint that Rent is to real rock and roll what ABC Afterschool Specials are to Scorsese movies.

Elizabeth Swados, a theatre composer who's been writing in an eclectic pop idiom for twenty years, appreciates the value of a Rent, even if its fallout hasn't affected her work yet. "I haven't seen Rent yet but I really need to," Swados noted. "But in general, musicals need to reflect the mood and energy of their time. Otherwise they all turn into museum pieces. The structure, sound and content of musicals have to change with the times."

Asked whether Rent is a turning point or just a big blip in the status quo, Swados said that change in theatre doesn't happen in a big, collective rush. "It happens only one, two, a few pieces at a time. That's what shifts musical styles overall. And the musical is STILL behind the rest of American culture."

Swados, busy working on her biggest piece, a 3-act opera incorporating Latin rhythms and liturgical music to tell the story of the three nuns killed in El Salvador in 1980, sighed that the acceptance of Rent and its ilk hasn't had a commercial effect on her own pop-oriented pieces ( i.e., Runaways, The Red Sneaks, The Hating Pot). "My work is always either loved or hated, even back from the early 70's." Swados is getting more of her music recorded now, though; and she's putting the finishing touches on a rock cantata to be released on CD. She may not be on Broadway (as she was with Runaways and Doonesbury), but The Hating Pot has played all over the country, and she's collaborating with Andrei Serban on a revival of their musical version of The Trojan Women in honor of La MaMa's 35th anniversary celebration.

Perhaps the most surprising voice weighing in on the crossroad facing the American musical belongs to Jerry Bock, composer of Fiddler On The Roof, The Body Beautiful and She Loves Me. A letter from Bock was printed in the October 1996 Newsletter for the Dramatists Guild, the professional association of playwrights, composers and lyricists: "Shortly it will happen. The American musical will ps present polished state and become an untidy, adventurous something else. Shortly it will exchange its current neatness and professional grooming for a less manicured appearance, for a more peculiar profile... It will wander and wonder. It will try and trip. But at least it will be moving again..."

"What will the change be like?" Bock asks. "Who knows? Towards opera? If anything, opera will change toward the theatre piece. Toward the straight play? Possibly...where the separation of song and story grows smaller until there's hardly light between the two...where it's one thing."

Bock presses even further by saying, "The new musical may not take place between 41st and 54th street, east or west of Broadway. That is, not at first. It may start in San Francisco or Chicago or Minneapolis... Or the Village. It will probably be viewed and noted with greater interest. We will be less provincial about protecting the American-Broadway-musical image. We will eliminate the high tariff against vigorous ideas not coming from THE STREET... Nothing more exciting in the theatre will happen than this new musical."

The above letter by Jerry Bock may have been printed in a recent Dramatists Guild newsletter, but it was originally written for The Dramatists Bulletin -- in 1962. Before Rent, before Hair, before even West Side Story.

Was he prophesying a new era, or just another temporary turn in the cycle? Is the funky rock musical finally putting down roots, or is it still just Renting? Only time will bring the answer, but more than ever the question is starting to matter.

-- By David Lefkowitz

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