Theatre Lover's Journal for June 2001

2001: The Revenge of Musical Comedy

by John Kenrick

Every now and then, it is fun to be incredibly wrong. When I crated five years ago, my essay on the future of musical theater and film painted a gloomy picture –

The great musicals of the 20th Century were products of a basically optimistic mindset. Today's darker entertainments reflect the increasing pessimism of our time. The wit of Porter and the heart of Hammerstein seem to no longer have a place in a culture that musically celebrates vicious violence. It breaks my heart to admit it, but the classic Broadway musical is dead. We can revive the best of them, but successful new musicals in that tradition are simply not to be.

Well, I sure as heck got that one wrong, and thank heaven for it! (And I'm delighted to tell you that passage has been re-written!) After decades dominated by European pop operas and Disney "glitzicals," Broadway's 2000-2001 season saw musicals filled with laughter, joy and genuine wit return with a vengeance. For people like me, this is a dream come true. Musical comedies won every possible Tony, and over 40,000 ticketbuyers are pouring into The Full Monty, 42nd Street and The Producers every week.

These three hits are not the only signs that the theatrical tide has turned. Tom Sawyer and the revival of Bells Are Ringing did not do well, but they made it to Broadway because a growing number of producers sense that audiences want musicals to laugh again. The year-old revival of The Music Man is doing strong business, and both Annie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me Kate are still winning ovations. And need we mention that Chicago's cynical humor has packed The Shubert since 1996? Best of all, a number of musical comedies are on tap for next season, with the surprise Off-Broadway hit Urinetown set to lead the pack.

I don't think this "Revenge of Musical Comedy" is a  mere echo of the past. The new hits mentioned above take a fresh and funny look at topics that could never have been attempted during Broadway's so-called "golden age." (Who could have written about gay singing Nazi's or male strippers in the 1950's?) And the current hit revivals take new approaches to their material, respecting the author's intentions while infusing these classics with energy. (Granted, the adaptation of Annie Get Your Gun has some serious flaws, but thanks to solid casting it still works.)

Is this a real "Springtime" for musical comedy on Broadway, or just a momentary mid-Winter thaw? Time will tell. God bless Mel Brooks for proving what a monster hit a funny musical can be, but he's 76. For this trend to last, we need new talents to keep the new hits coming. One wonders if many creative people earning hefty fees in film and television will be willing to risk the costly and time-consuming process of creating new musicals for Broadway. After all, a hit musical takes years to pay a mere fraction of the six figures a sitcom pays a writer in just one season.

But when the ice has melted and the sun is shining bright, it is pointless to waste the glory of it all by worrying about tomorrow. So I'll relish this moment, no matter how long it lasts. For the first time in ages, Broadway offers musical comedy lovers an embarrassment of riches. Let the laughter ring on, and let's all join 42nd Street's Julian Marsh in celebrating "musical comedy, the most glorious words in the English language!"

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