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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Theatre For Thought, November 12, 2011

It seems only natural we would question the limits of the musical stage
joel fishbane

Earlier this week, the Gazette’s Pat Donnelly asked my favourite question: “Can musical theatre successfully encompass a full literary range? Or does it automatically trivialize?”. She was writing in reference to In Your Face Entertainment’s production of The Wild Party, to which she gave a (deservedly) mixed review. A question like Ms. Donnelley’s reveals  much about the theatre community in which it is asked. No one would ask this question in New York City or Toronto; but here in Montreal, birthplace of Mid-Life Crisis of Dionysus and Schwartz’s: The Musical, it seems only natural that we would question the limits of the musical stage.

I also don’t like Cats, which was also based on some poems.

For the record, The Wild Party, put into this world by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, is far from a perfect show: it gets points for audacity and I adore the score, but the show itself keeps us at arms length. It adopts a vaudevillian style and so has most of  vaudeville’s faults. Not surprisingly, I feel the same way about the poem the musical is based on. My own copy is a beautiful edition with drawings by Art Spiegelman (the guy who won a Pulitzer for Maus) and while I’m appreciative of the poem’s daring, I don’t see the appeal that spawned a movie, two musicals and several plays. Then again, I also don’t like Cats, which was also based on some poems. So maybe I just have a thing about poetry.

Anyway, it’s easy for me to see how the average theatregoer might question the literary range of musicals after watching The Wild Party: the truth is, it’s a musical lover’s musical much like Two Gentleman of Verona should only ever be watched by people who are so in love with Shakespeare that they have matching Thee and Thou towels. As ambitious as it is, The Wild Party is not nearly the best example of the dramatic potential of musical theatre. 

...there is an army of shows which cover heavy emotional terrain.

There are plenty of musicals, however, which deal with less trivial matters and still manage to be poignant everytime someone breaks into song. Cabaret is a good example of this sort of show, with its portrayal of wilful blindness in pre-WWII Germany. Then there’s Parade, Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s heartbreaking show about the anti-Semitic lynching of Leo Frank. Cy Coleman, David Newman and Ira Gasman tackled prostitution in The Life while Jeanne Tesori and Tony Kushner took on the civil rights movement in Caroline or Change. I could go on, but you get the point: there is an army of shows which cover heavy emotional terrain. The problem is they aren’t getting produced in Montreal.

I’ve been rather impressed with the musical offerings this season, if only because they’re so far off the beaten path.

This isn’t to say that these shows should be produced: each have their share of problems, whether it’s technical, financial or appeal. It’s been hard enough to get Montreal’s producers interested in musical theatre and now that they are, I’m more then happy to support the lighter fare, like Processed Theatre’s recent production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. But the consequence is that Montrealers are not exposed to many of the smarter shows - and with the schools not pulling their weight in terms of musical theatre education, we’re often left thinking that Schwartz’s: The Musical is the height of a musical’s potential.  

I’ve been rather impressed with the musical offerings this season, if only because they’re so far off the beaten path. Both Spelling Bee and The Wild Party are cult favourites in the musical theatre annals and whatever these companies lack in skill (it’s sometimes a mixed bag in terms of vocal prowess), they make up for in spirit and tenacity. I am hopeful that both Processed Theatre and In Your Face will continue to bring musicals to Montreal and even more hopeful that they will bring us some that will get us to the point when questions like Pat Donelley’s will no longer be asked. Looking at musical theatre history, the question is not whether the musical can successfully encompass a full literary range; the question is why doesn’t it do it all the time?

Listen to Joel Fishbane discuss the lack of musical theatre education on This Is The CPC, episode 15


  1. A perfect example of a shows detailed in your fourth paragraph and one that was recently produced in montreal is Kander and Ebb's Kiss of the Spiderwoman.

    Much like many of the pieces above, it is an adaptation (of a play...of a movie...of a book who is to say for sure?) and yet even with sequins and dances, it is far from trivial.

    I find it so fitting that Art Spiegelman's work is also mentioned in this article, as comic art is often dismissed as trivial, except when you look at works like his.

    Also very important to Montreal's musical history would be one of the first and completely non-trivial adaptation of a musical: My Fur Lady.

  2. I only read this article a month late, but a comment is a comment...

    First of all, I know that we are way the hell out in the west end of the island, but at John Abbott we put on a musical at least every two years (for 15 years it was EVERY year, sometimes twice a year). These productions come from both our Professional Theatre and Theatre Workshop programs. I don't see how we could be pulling our weight to promote musicals any more than that. While the restraints of the educational system (read: CEGEP) we are in restricts us from offering "specialized" musical theatre classes, at the very least we are trying to instil an appreciation for musical theatre, which should be taken into consideration.

    But as you are well aware Joel, I agree with your stance on musical theatre, and the perception of musical theatre in Montreal.

    I understand that not EVERYONE loves musicals. For some it has something to do with people breaking into song and/or dance spontaneously. For others the whole premise is marred in "non-realism". They probably feel the same way about musicals as I feel about action movies. You see, I don't buy into action films because I think those movies are not realistic. The physics of car chases are bogus. The chemistry of the explosions don't make sense. The astronomical odds of the protagonists' constant survival blow my mind. And to top it all off, space is a vacuum, so why the hell does the Death Star make such a ruckus?! Geez!

    So no, it is not realistic for people to break into song. But realism is not the only way (and not always the best way) to get a point across, is it? The art world is filled with "elite approved" non-realistic expressions of facets of the human condition. All of which are valid and many of which embrace and illuminate (not trivialize) what it means to be human and all of the foibles thereof.

    Music speaks to us on a different level than speech. Not on a better level or a worse level, just on a different level. It affects us differently, and that is just how it is. To divorce music (or singing) from theatre deprives theatre artists of a powerful tool for communicating our ideas and feelings.

    How is that trivial?

    (Oh, and I'm directing Oklahoma! this year with my Theatre Workshop class. Think of Oklahoma! what you will, but there are real, honest, human things going on for the characters in the play, regardless of its "entertainment" values. It's going up in March... so there you go!)


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