Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rock Musical...? meh...

Something has been bothering me for the past little while. It started after the huge success that Spring Awakening enjoyed with transferring to Broadway, then winning all these Tony's, including Best Musical. Also, the rock musical Next to Normal just opened at Second Stage. With that the "rock musical" sort of came back into people's theatrical peripheral vision, or at least mine.

As it was fluttering around in mine, I came to the conclusion: I hate rock musicals.

Now that said, there are about a million exceptions to what I just said.

My first cast album was The Who's Tommy (and even as a child opted for the 2 disk complete recording, not the highlights.) And I am a big fan of Rent, Hairspray, Dreamgirls, and countless other shows that use pop or rock music in their scores. But rock musicals are problematic for me.

I ended up seeing Next To Normal again recently. I had to give it another shot. And to my surprise, where before I just kinda liked it, this second time I loved it. But I think I liked it because I was able to listen to it this second time around.

Rock music is designed to do just that, rock. It is all about the 2 and the 4, and throwing down and having a good time to the beat. (And when I say rock, I am generally referring to popular music, including rock, pop, gospel, etc. Basically anything with a beat and not something classified as a "showtune".)

Now when a musical uses rock music to tell it's story, and when the song rocks, I mean truly rocks, it stops telling a story. Because in the end, rock music doesn't serve the show. It's about the beat.

There are countless examples. When you go to a show and a character is singing a song that rocks the house, and people start cheering what is happening? People end up cheering for the song, the beat, not the story.

I remember seeing an advanced screening of Dreamgirls where everyone there was so excited to see it. Basically the kind of crowd where even if the movie turned out to be crap, we were all going to like it no matter what! The audience was abuzz, and you knew that every person in that theatre knew the lyrics to every song.

But a strange thing happened. When Jennifer Hudson was half way through "And I Am Telling You (I'm Not Going)" and she was belting the hell out of it, people started cheering and clapping. And while it can be argued that people are cheering for the character, at the same time, aren't we just cheering the virtuosity of the performer and the music? Should at the end of that scene we think "wow, that poor girl just got dropped by her group" or "dang, that girl can sing!"? (It doesn't help that it was a movie, so why are people even cheering to begin with!?!)

Another example, I played in the pit for a production of Gospel at Colonus. It's a retelling of the Greek Tragedy Oedipus at Colunus, set in a Pentecostal Church. The show uses gospel style music to tell the story of Oedipus' death and redemption. The show is totally thrilling and uplifting, and the music is good, like really good. But so much of the story is in the lyrics and when people in the audience are clapping and stomping and literally dancing in the aisle, whose listening to the story?

The playwright Bertolt Brecht often collaborated with Kurt Weill for songs for his plays. And it's interesting to note that most of Weill's music for Brecht plays is largely overlooked, but Brechts plays live on. Some people have speculated that Brecht, being the self centered person that he was, chose Weill because his songs weren't catchy. Basically, that they weren't going to distract from his lyrics. If this is true or not, I don't know. But it brings up an interesting point about what is more important, the lyrics or the music?

In seeing Next to Normal for a second time, I was able to bypass the beat, and go straight to the lyrics. Of course, I guess it's just a matter of being able to absorb it all in one sitting. I know for me personally, it can be a little much.

So what am I saying? Should rock music not be used? No not all. I just think with a rock score, there needs to be a balance between the lyrics and the music.

It's totally safe to say that rock music isn't going anywhere. Nor is gospel or pop music. And it's continued use in musicals is here to stay. Hip-Hop, which is even more about the beat, is finally making it's way to a legit, family friendly musical In The Heights which begins previews tonight at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (I'm seeing it on the 19th. I saw it Off Broadway and it's SO good. I can't wait!)

And even though I think rock music is an awkward fit in a musical, I will put Rent in my playlist any day over Light in the Piazza. So, call me a hypocrite, but at the end of the day, I totally forget all the theory and academic stuff about musicals because I am just not going to sit there and listen to all those strings... I need a beat!


NYCeCe said...

The theory behind musicals is that the characters are SO moved that music is the only way they can express themselves.

Now, the audience in a pop/rock musical (especially when the score is part of main stream culture) is bringing their own emotion and relationship to the music as they listen.

Do you think then, that pop/rock musicals achieve Musical Theater Theory in a way that traditional musicals haven't?

Alex! said...

Hmmmm... that's a possiblity. I mean, it evokes people to behave in a way that other traditional musicals don't.

Is it an acheivement that people "woot" at musicals? I don't know. But the fact that it does get people involved more then traditional musicals can not be denied.