Monday, July 26th, 2010

Understudies! The American Musical and Life After "Cabaret"

UNDERSTUDIESWith this introduction, we begin a brief series on the recent life of the American musical. No, for real! The hideous, hilarious, wonderful, big-business of musical theater. This series is guest-edited by our own Natasha Vargas-Cooper.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: Julie! Are musicals, as a genre, dead?

Julie Klausner: You startled me! What are you doing in my home? Wearing my favorite shirt-dress!

Natasha: Nobody expects the musical inquisition.

Julie: As long as there is music, there will be musicals.

Natasha: Some would argue differently.

Julie: Despite this years morbid Tony award telecast, and the feeble state of the music industry, there will always be both things. Who would dare argue with me?

Natasha: Have they been 'ruined' by the Shreks? And the ‘Addams Families'?

Julie: Look, it's been a bad year for Broadway. But look at "Glee"-look at all the theater fags prancing about. LOOK AT THEM! I RUB YOUR FACE IN YOUR OWN DIRT, DOG! YOU'LL DO IT BEFORE YOU MESS IN YOUR CRATE AGAIN!

Natasha: I feel like musicals as a GENRE have had a LOT of dirt kicked in their face for a very long time now.

Julie: Based on the mid-70's barometer of popular culture right now, meaning that the stuff that's on network might as well be on network in the 70's in any country–"Dancing with the Stars," "Amazing Race"… Who is anyone to turn their nose on ANYTHING set to music and written down by somebody who isn't called a story consultant?

Natasha: True. But people who perhaps would have been raised with a fine love of orchestrated song bursts and boxsteps chafe at this VERY IMPORTANT genre.

Julie: So tell me more at the mouth-breathing chodes that still kick dust in an easy target's eyeballs.

Natasha: Oh these people.

Julie: Bullies.

Natasha: THE CHODES.

Julie: Comic-conners.

Natasha: SOULLESS.

Julie: Well, it's like saying "I hate movies!"

Natasha: The suspension of disbelief is TOO GREAT for them. Because, you know, people don't burst into song IRL.

Julie: Right. People don't burst into song. Meanwhile, these are people who see movies about teenagers who can shoot spider webs from their wrists. Grown men.


Julie: But what about you where do you think the musical is going? Or where is it now? On stage? On screen?

OH RIGHT?Natasha: I feel good about the musical right now because it is soooo in the gutter. It's like a Fosse whore before her big solo. But it needs to stay in the theater.

Natasha: She's just beaten up by all the Hollywood tourists who have stamped all over her, used by the old Broadway hacks who just pump her for ticket money, scorned by all the theater fags for being too campy in the karaoke bars.

Julie: In other words, we need a new "Cabaret"? Because you know how pre-"Cabaret," musicals were in the shitter. They were so out of touch with the popular culture.


Julie: Because like Pauline Kael OUR HERO says, "'Cabaret' violates the wholesome approach of big musicals…it violates the pseudo-naturalistic tradition …which requires that the songs appear to grow organically out of the story".

Julie: You know, with songs by Kander and Ebb, who may as well have been fucking David Bowie compared to what came before it-"George M.!"?

If you play the score of "George M.!," you can hear musical theater's death rattle.

Good times for a changeNatasha: GOOD LORD I feel like I just watched a grave robber in action.

Julie: (crossing myself) It's like Kander, Ebb, Liza, Fosse all said, "Okay, let's start from here. let's be Picasso. Even though this will look like Schiele."

Natasha: Well let's start with THE MOOD of "Cabaret."

Julie: Yes–mood.

Natasha: I'd say that "Cabaret" is actually one of the best artistic narratives about WW2 and uh, the 'CAUST, without ever really mentioning politics

Julie: The "Cooper" in your last name lets gets you away with that, gurl. Yes. well, it's art being political. Meaning REALLY GOOD.

Natasha: It's also 'IMPORTANT' unlike, say, "Cats," because there is a huge urgency there.

DIXJulie: Weimar Berlin put out the hottest shit ever, and it wasn't a coincidence that those hos were working in the time and place they were. So yes, urgency!

Natasha: It's all diminution, right?

Julie: James Ensor, George Grosz, I mean the dark shit. Decay.

Natasha: COLLAPSE.

Julie: Evil. Evil just, real encroaching evil; suffocating and perverse.

Natasha: Broken city =broken people.

Julie: The last shot of the distorted Nazis.

Natasha: And they said, LETS SET A MUSICAL HERE.

Julie: My favorite part in "Cabaret," the movie–and you know how I feel about Fosse, he's the most underapperciated film director-


Julie: So, Sally Bowles has an abortion and she's singing her heart out to an empty room at the Kit Kat Club. Liza and Fosse had a big fight about it. She said, it was okay for her to shine like she did as long as nobody was there. AND SHE WON.

Natasha: Omg! Tell me about that moment.

Julie: So Brian, her lovah, tells Sally he'd marry her and take her to Cambridge but Sally's like bitch, pls. Then he goes back to England and she's wrecked. Yet, still, she goes on. Right before she goes on stage… Her face is so fallen..

Natasha: My heart is hurting!

Julie: And then right after the emcee intros her and the curtain opens, you can see her brighten.

Natasha: She's electric!

BOSSY FOSSEJulie: BUT before she starts singing. Fosse does it in a medium shot. There's no close up, no frying pan over the head.

Natasha: GASP! Oh you can see that transition

Julie: I like that Pauline said "she'd grown claws."

Natasha: And this, Julie, is why I want musicals to stay in the theater! Look I'm all pleased with "Glee," that people are singing stuff from "Dreamgirls."

Julie: I'm just glad Jane Lynch is getting network salary.

Julie: It was better on "Cop Rock" though.

Natasha: BUT could you imagine seeing that moment when Liza grows claws?

Julie: Yes.

Natasha: GENIUS TALONS! In person and how theater gives you this ability to connect with art, like you create this third being.

Julie: Well, the intensity and intimacy of live theater is unparalleled because that's how people fall in love, face to to face. And when you add music, it's like bringing the romanticism of the artificial into the equation so, boom.

Julie Klausner will sing again. Also, she is drowning in pretzel chips.

48 Comments / Post A Comment

I'm just going to steal that last paragraph as my answer for when people ask me why I like musical theater, cool?

HiredGoons (#603)

"the 'CAUST" made me choke on couscous.

ShanghaiLil (#260)

After seeing HAIR, my friend looked up the other Best Musical nominees from that year. It was like, 1776, PROMISES, PROMISES, and ZORBA. Can you imagine seeing one of those, and then walking into the theater the next night and getting HAIR?

HiredGoons (#603)

In the past, musicals informed popular music and now we have popular music informing musicals: hence absolute rubbish like 'Jersey Boys.'

This must end.

aloysiusbear (#692)

But this is not new! Jersey Boys is the same as George M! The prior generation's pop hits shoehorned into a thin biographical plot. There's always been schlock. Time passes and we half forget about. And even worse: the past in which Broadway informed popular music ended in the 60s and not so very many years before that when existed a time when were scores incredibly shaped by popular music.

In 1927, Rodgers and Hart wrote a hit song, "My Heart Stood Still." Big hit with dance bands, bigger hit once the Duke of Windsor became a fan. And so they shoehorned it into their next show, A Connecticut Yankee, with a flimsy excuse for a generic love song. This was not unusual pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The only real difference is the level of artistry. "My Heart Stood Still" is a better song to force into a story than, say, "Lay All Your Love On Me." Or adding "I'm a Believer" as a curtain call. Joe Layton was a far more intersting choreographer than Sergio Trujillo. [Side proposition: there are basically no interesting choreographers working on Broadway right now.] Joel Grey would kill John Lloyd Young in a battle of the musical theatre midgets.

The problem is not the forms, the problem is the lack of skill tackling them. Where is style, where is skill…. Where was I? Where was I?

You were in my heart, aloysius. IN MY HEART WHERE YOU BELONG.

But Goonsy, you have a point which must be explored!

mrschem (#1,757)

So I should kill my 'Livin on a Prayer,' epic?

I have unpopular feelings about HAIR!

also lol@1776. I LOL UPON THEE

deepomega (#1,720)

Tell me more about how you feel about Hair! I have unpopular feelings too, esp. as a person from Baltimore/with an uneasy relationship with John Waters!

Omg, do you mean HAIR as in Aquariussssss /HARMONY AND UNDERSTANDING or HAIR SPRAY? Like, big mama travolta/divine?

deepomega (#1,720)

((My feelings about both HAIR and also HAIR SPRAY are complicated, ok? Time to go shamefacedly kick pebbles))

No, it's totally ok. THIS IS A SAFE SPACE.

I actually really adore Hairspray the movie. Not the musical that then became a movie musical.


deepomega (#1,720)

WHEW. I cannot stand Hair except if I'm feeling the sort of ironic that only comes upon me during a night of heavy drinking.

Hairspray, the original movie, has a confusing place in my heart. As with most of Waters' oeuvre, I appreciate it in the same way I appreciate like super outsider-y art – at a distance, rarely. The musical/re-movieing are nightmare monsters that should be shot with silver bullets.

(Thanks for not musicalsnarking me!)

ShanghaiLil (#260)

How old are you? I think that makes a huge difference…I wasn't crazy about it until I hit 40. The Delacorte production was truly sublime.

hockeymom (#143)

I don't like Hair for a bad and superficial reason. Hippies scare me.
There. I said it.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

Hippies scare me, too! Why can't they get jobs? Why are they so damn dirty? *shudder*

rajma (#2,918)

I can't hate HAIR– while the story is garbage (not kidding: SO DUMB), the music is really good? Like, it's kind of astonishing? Admittedly, I have maybe a high tolerance for silly lyrics, but I can't shake the feeling that HAIR is basically a story about a gorgeous, selfless double LP hanging out with a smug, empty-headed dorkwad of a narrative even though it can do so much better, doesn't it know how special and wonderful it is? etc

Seriously, "Flesh Failures" is sublimity.

rajma (#2,918)

Actually, scratch that– I think I am talking about the songbook. Because the cast recordings are often grating in ways that I imagine would be easily solved were the music attached to a different enterprise.

I support your bravery on this issue, Rajma.

Tyler Coates (#451)

I like Hair! Rather, I like the music from Hair! It's the last musical that produced songs that were legitimate pop hits!

(I know "Send in the Clowns" was a big pop hit – it won Record of the Year in '75, I think? I'm not looking it up – but The Lemonheads covered a song from Hair in 1992! That means something!)

(Also: I thought Hairspray was cute.)

iantenna (#5,160)

somewhere in my mom's garage is a vhs tape of a 1988 community theater production of the pajama game which cleary shows the death of the musical in real time.

PJ game is supppper 'problematic'. However! if three people can do this number from it effectively then, legend goes, then a drama fag gets into Julliard.

iantenna (#5,160)

"problematic" is a gentle way of putting it. i'd be more likely to refer to it as "a huge, stinking pile of shit that confuses sexism as romance, and violent, alcoholic jealousy as comic relief," but yeah, sure, "problematic."

To rolls off the tongue easier!

La Cieca (#1,110)

Part of that problematicness (not all of it, but some) is inherent in reviving a modern dress play a generation after it was written. There are huge unexamined attitudes that jump out at an audience who never were really intended to see the work. Which is to say, the dream used to be that a standard musical would run a couple years on Broadway, tour for a year, maybe do a year in London, then get sold to the movies, and everyone would get a tidy sum. A few of the Rogers & Hammerstein shows, a couple of standard-heavy hits like Babes in Arms plus of course the Shubert chestnuts) were the only shows that anyone ever considered for revival. Obviously it never occurred to anyone that the (even for the time) somewhat Pajama Game's backward attitudes about sex would ever have to be examined post 1960s.

ShanghaiLil (#260)

Also? "Hey There!'

ShanghaiLil (#260)

"It never occurred to anyone that the (even for the time) somewhat Pajama Game's backward attitudes about sex would ever have to be examined post 1960s."

Or that the show's tepid, partial embrace of rock music would be so fully surpassed so very, very quickly. See also "Bye Bye Birdy."

La Cieca (#1,110)

This is a story that is only tangential to this discussion but I never tire of remembering it. I was in my first year of college and at that time there was something called a "TV lounge" in the dorm where you could watch a selection of about four local channels. One rainy Sunday afternoon a few of us were hanging out there watching a horribly mangled telecast of Pajama Game that was broken up about every three minutes for commercials. Anyway, the print was in awful shape, broken and patched and missing frames all over the place.

So John Raitt is singing

Hey there, you on that high flying cloud
tho` she won`t throw a crumb to you
you think someday she`ll come to you.
Better forget her, her with her nose in the air…

And the soundtrack skipped exactly on the word "forget" so what he sang was

…you think someday she`ll come to you.
Better fuck 'er, her with her nose in the air…

This, to me, was one of the great musical comedy moments of all time.

ShanghaiLil (#260)

And truthfully, that IS what I've always thought about Doris Day.

iantenna (#5,160)

@la cieca: you're right, we can't blame the writers of the pajama game for being assholes that pandered to the stereotypes of the day, it is on us for reviving that shit. and i think that is one of the biggest issues in musical theater today, from the community level all the way to broadway. certainly there are musicals that should never die, those that either transcend their time or succeed despite the limitations or problematic nature of their world view.

but, save for some brilliant, undiscovered musical written by a 3rd grade teacher in walla walla back in 1952 that was only performed once in the local gymnasium between basketball practice and bingo night, time has done that work for us. the shit that has carried on has done so because people can still relate to it.

and yet, community theaters and broadway alike continue to try to dust off old, offensive turds, because nobody wants to do guys and dolls or west side story AGAIN, and god forbid they do something new and risk losing their funding from some stodgy old white fuck. and so we get a revival that no thinking person could ever want. a new version of the pajama game with harry connick jr., that gets praised in the nyt, presumably by some stodgy old white fuck, as a musical that "leveled the erotic playing field and made the central sport a fierce tug of war instead of a giggly game of hide and seek." and if that's the case and mr. brantley truly believes it, we haven't come very far. but that's not the case, we have come a long ways, it's just mr. brantley and his outdated version of musical theater that haven't. unfortunately that's that version that most of us get to see.

iantenna (#5,160)

i never thought i'd get this worked up about the pajama game. really i was just making a joke because the sid in this production was so bad, oh, so, so, bad. back when my uncle was fun (read: still drinking) he would insist on breaking it out at family functions just to watch the poor guy butcher "hey there."

roboloki (#1,724)

i have not seen a play since i was in grade school (this is not a boast, i has the shame). however, i do burst into song IRL (now i'm bragging).

La Cieca (#1,110)

Kael is right about the wholesome bit, but I think she misses the point that there have always been two kinds of film musicals, roughly the diegetic and the mimetic. In a picture like Easter Parade, for example, all the songs are numbers performed by characters in the film, e.g., Judy Garland's character performs a ballad as part of her job as a singing waitress, and later her character and Fred Astaire's audition for the Ziegfeld Follies singing "When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam'." And so forth. So in that sense this picture and Cabaret address music identically.

You are absolutely right about the Genius Claws moment in live theater, though: the chance of seeing that is worth sitting through three or four seasons of lukewarm crap. (If only I were old enough to have seen the greatest Genius Claws moment of all time, i.e., the moment Ethel Merman said to Louise, "I'm going to make you a star!:)

ShanghaiLil (#260)

Also, in the film musical, Judy's scene in "A Star is Born" when she goes from shooting to talking about her husband's lushiness with her producer and back to shooting. Total Genius Claws.

La Cieca (#1,110)

Well, ASIB is basically a career's worth of Genius Claw moments interspersed with a few songs. There was even one internal Genius Claw that was cut from the finished film: the moment in "Born in a Trunk" when the young girl goes directly from her mother's deathbed to the vaudeville stage to sing the mom's part in "When My Baby Walks Down the Street" (costume and all) opposite her father.

Oh, and I should note that there is at least one mimetic song in Easter Parade. I forgot about "A Fella with an Umbrella," for reasons that should be obvious.

mrschem (#1,757)

Oh my God! I must see this! Why, WHY would they cut that?

La Cieca (#1,110)

Well, "Born in a Trunk" is incredibly long anyway, so saving a minute or so maybe seemed like a good idea. It's also possible that the abruptness of this melodramatic bit in the middle of what is essentially an upbeat production number might have struck test audiences as funny. Or maybe since there is so much dark material in the second half of the picture, the idea was to keep this number light in tone.

Anyway, in the finished picture, there's a lap dissolve between the Judy character singing "no matter what, the show must go on!" to "As time went by, I looked for jobs, and was kicked from pillar to post…" and the implication is that the girl outgrew the family act and set out on a solo career.

Solution: "Snooki – The Musical"

cherrispryte (#444)

Okay, so I am drunk and about to embarrass myself by revealing my personal musical proclivities, but oh well, here we go:

1) Amanda Palmer will be starring in an ART (in Boston) production of Cabaret this fall. If you still have faith in musicals, go fucking see this. The woman is a force of nature.

2) There is a song by the World/Inferno Friendship Society called "Ich Erinnere Mich an Die Weimarer" that mixes the plot of Cabaret with the beginning of WW2, and if you happen to be obsessed with WW2 and musical theatre, it will be your most favorite song in the entire world. If you like Cabaret at all, you should give it a listen.

3) Musical theatre will never end. Because there will always be people who at least want to have lives that involve spontaneously breaking out into song.

4) Fuck yes I spell it theatre.

carpetblogger (#306)

I detest musical theatre/theater but this comment caused me to reconsider, for a moment.

Give me 5 days to convince you.

squaream (#6,336)

There's also been a real talent drain since the 60s as songwriters have become increasingly likely to perform their own material rather than write for the stage.

I secretly think that Fiona's Extraordinary Machine is a musical. Shh.

rajma (#2,918)

Also, I was wondering what people thought about "The American Astronaut," if they thought about it at all? That felt to me like a very good and brave work interested in taking the movie-musical to a new place! But I very rarely see it brought up in the larger conversation and am not sure why.

Lili L. (#6,216)

"Right. People don't burst into song. Meanwhile, these are people who see movies about teenagers who can shoot spider webs from their wrists. Grown men."

YES. And to this series. Musicals are all sad and meta, warbling "I am not dead yet!" from the plaguey piles. HELP THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MUSICALS, NVC and JK!


Kelli Marshall (#6,353)

As a huge fan of film musicals as well as musical theatre, Gene Kelly in particular (!), I'll tune in to your series on the "recent life of the American musical." Glad to see it up and running…

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