Growing up in Philadelphia and later working in Manhattan gave me an early sense of musicals and their impact on the cultural scene. I saw one big musical production at the old Shubert Theatre in the late ‘40s, but I was exposed to the songs from Oklahoma, South Pacific and The Music Man through the ‘50’s. During the next decade, while living in the city, I was able to see many grand productions: Camelot, Westside Story, Hello Dolly and more, including the protest musicals.
Over the years, the tone and format of musicals changed. Cabaret, Chorus Line and Annie, as I see it, where the last big traditional musicals – dialogue, burst into song, then repeat until the final curtain falls – before giving way to the operatic musical where everything was sung, dialogue and all. It was the era of Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. Then we had Chicago, The Producers and Wicked (a show devoid of one single song I can remember, let alone try to hum or whistle) followed by Mama Mia (you had to be an Abba fan to see this more than once) and Jersey Boys (which I loved because I like the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons). Pre-boomers are fortunate to have lived through the golden years of musicals.
Now there are some reprieves appearing on the great white way that have been modified to express the producers’ attitudes regarding political correctness and social commentary. Westside Story is being sung in Spanish when a Latin (a Shark) is performing and English when a white American (a Jet) is singing. It’s interesting. I don’t know if it’s something I will enjoy, but it is a different twist. Hair, the Vietnam protest musical is back with it’s modernized anti-war theme. However, I don’t know if the concept will work without the military draft or if the lyrics will shock us as they did when it opened in the late 1960’s. These are playing on Broadway, and since my home is on the west coast, I haven’t seen either production yet – maybe on the next trip to New York. If you’ve been to either of them, please tell us about them.
Of course revivals of great shows have always been a way for producers to make money without starting the process from scratch. Showboat and Porgy and Bess are two that have had successful reruns in recent years. And the classics are playing to audiences in smaller theatres, small towns and dinner shows around the country, bringing Broadway to those who want to relax and be entertained. The movie version of most of the above mentioned shows are available on DVD. And, while these don’t offer the excitement of live performances; it’s still a great way to forget the cares of the world, if only for a couple of hours.