Musical as Irritant II: “Oedipus was a Musical!” and Other Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I posted on musicals and why haters hate them–why detractors seem to single out musical theater conventions as particularly odiously “fake” in a sea of other manipulative theatrical devices. I asked playwrights, dramaturgs, theatergoers, and friends, both lovers and haters of the form, to comment on the question. Below are comments from literary agent Morgan Jenness, and a longer discussion from playwright Jason Grote— for whom experimental companies were a path to the musical, as opposed to a polar opposite (as discussed in Part I of this series). Interesting. More to come (next week: my mother), and please add your own comments to the mix!

From MORGAN JENNESS, Dramaturg and Literary Agent, Abrams Artists Agency:

“OEDIPUS was a musical!

Considering the Greek plays were actually essentially musicals/music theater I don’t see how one can really distance oneself from them ??? they are integral to the theatrical experience. Music bypasses the left-brain intellectual barriers and allows one to experience in a fuller way.

Of course, one can argue that language in great hands is music and that musical composition is key in much modern play construction ??? so everything really is a musical.

I think people respond more to the TYPE of musical, and the marketplace context has made the term associated more with the trivial ??? maybe one reason I prefer to use the term music theater.

But yes, OEDIPUS was a musical. With singing (and dancing) chorus numbers.”

From JASON GROTE, playwright:

“When I was in high school in New Jersey in the 1980s, musicals were the only game in town, until I discovered a local performing arts high school, where I studied with a woman named Judith Robinson, who had herself studied with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan. Naturally, I hated musicals, with their relentless, dated lameness, and gravitated towards the “real” and the “gritty” stuff taught at my performing arts school, and at that time personified (to me) as the likes of Mamet and Shepard: cinematic, macho stuff, existing in strident opposition to the sentimentality and artificiality of the musical. Some 20 years later, obeying more or less the same contrarian logic, I have come around to the complete opposite position: the American play as most know it, that fourth-wall drama, is dead and ossified, not far advanced beyond the TV plays of the 1950s, while musicals, or music-theater, or whatever you want to call it, is truly alive, truly at one with the conventions of the art form.

Not that I like most mainstream musicals, mind you: most composition is the same soulless, overproduced pop dominating the airwaves…but I’ve come around to the belief that music and dance are integral parts of the theatrical experience, unable to be duplicated by TV or film. Ironically, this has partially come about via my obsession with pop music: once one follows the line from groups like Of Montreal, The Magnetic Fields, Flaming Fire, The Fiery Furnaces, or Arcade Fire (lotsa fire going on there) back through 80s postpunk to 70s glam rock and ABBA (stopping on the way to glimpse at performance art, cabaret, and drag culture), it’s only a short hop to actual show tunes. And you know what? There’s some truly amazing songwriting going on there…it’s no surprise that some of the best-known hits to survive that era were show tune covers by Frank Sinatra or Miles Davis.

The other thread that led to the rehabilitation of the musical in my mind is that of experimental theater: downtown NY companies and artists like Radiohole, Theater of the Two-Headed Calf, NTUSA, Young Jean Lee, or Nature Theater of Oklahoma, all of whom (influenced by the likes of Brecht, Scheckner, Foreman, and LeCompte) use music and dance to varying degrees. This is, of course, part of the exploration of what live performance can offer that cinema can’t, and is a lesson that institutional theaters everywhere can stand to learn; note the relative vitality of live music and comedy when compared to most theater.

Of course, I’m not going to be shelling out for Little Mermaid tickets any time soon — but even stuck in the medium of scripted plays, I find myself gravitating towards the musical flourish: the play interrupted by a dance scene; or by my work for radio, with monologues underscored by borrowed loops from Steve Reich or The Dirtbombs.”