By Barbara & Scott Siegel
Part 1: The Musicals…
This is the first of a series of columns devoted to the 2017-2018 NYC theater season. It isn’t about what was nominated and what was snubbed…we’ll get to that in future columns. Nor is it a rehash of the already well-known and much-discussed hits and misses of the last twelve months. Rather, what we hope to do is carve a pathway through the clutter of this season’s shows and look for the signs along the trail that truly illuminate the state of our theater. And, perhaps, in that clutter we will also find the clues that will tell us where the theater may be going in the future.
To keep things moderately clear, each one of these columns will be devoted to a particular major strain of the theater. The first column — this one — will be devoted to musicals, the second to dramas, and the third, overlapping the first two, will be all about Off and Off-Off Broadway.
So, to begin, and looking at the face of it, any season that features major revivals of two of Broadway’s greatest musicals, Carousel and My Fair Lady, can’t be bad. But it also says something about this season that those two revivals so completely dominate all the serious musical theater discussion right now. The Band’s Visit, aside, which opened Off-Broadway last season and transferred to Broadway this season, this year’s new musicals, at least on The Great White Way, are stunningly lightweight, bordering on frivolous, even if some of them are extremely well done. We thoroughly enjoyed Mean Girls, SpongeBob Squarepants, and even, to a lesser extent, Frozen — all of them offer excellent craft and sterling performances, but while they deserve to be critical successes and commercial hits, one longs for the gutsiness of a Fun Home, the emotional uplift of a Come From Away, the genius of a Hamilton, and always the little engine that could story of a show like Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. New shows like these hits from the recent past are nowhere to be found this season, at least not on Broadway. Why?
The road to Broadway is akin to a marathon. There are usually a small pack of frontrunners all of whom are potential champions. Then, following behind, is the rest of the pack, many of them good, solid athletes but not first tier — and its those good, solid shows, but not first tier, that have followed the previous years frontrunners into the available Broadway houses.
But there is something else at work here. Never is there a time when there aren’t great writers and composing teams putting together musicals in a workshop, in a reading, or a festival. The blame for this lackluster Broadway musical season falls on the shoulders of a timid band of Broadway producers looking for an easy pay day, putting on shows like Escape to Margaritaville, Summer, and Rocktopia that waste their talented performers in a blatant, pandering appeal to tourists. Where is the ambition? Worse, don’t producers realize that the tourists want exactly what the theater geeks want? We all want challenging, exciting, original, unforgettable shows! In the end, they are the shows that sell tickets and make their money back.
Which, in a way, brings us to the creative realm of Off (and Off-Off) Broadway — and the aforementioned The Band’s Visit makes our point. This year’s Best Broadway musical came from Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company. For that matter, both Fun Home and Hamilton had their beginnings Off Broadway at The Public. This season, the better new musicals were where the tourists fear to tread. Among the late season entries that come to mind: Jerry Springer: The Opera at The Signature, Old Stock at 59E59, and The Lucky Ones an Ars Nova production at The Connelly Theater on East 4th Street in Alphabet City. These shows are not without their flaws and limitations, but they were original and exciting; they reminded these columnists of why we love the theater. And they — and shows like them — are the future of musical theater.