I just read an article called “A Slushy in the Face: Musical Theatre Music and the Uncool“. Some interesting points, but I felt several are steeped in generalisations. One of the things that I found to be so was the idea that ‘the music of musical theater has evolved into a highly stylized and specific “genre” of its own, instantly recognizable’. Sure, that’s true of some musical theatre music. But would some of the songs from, say, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson be recognised instantly as ‘musical theatre music’? I don’t think so. Certainly when I’ve had the cast album playing in the car, people have asked me what band is singing the music. I’d certainly agree that there is a certain theatricality to musical theatre music that is perhaps missing from pop music, but I think that within musical theatre music there is a fair variety of styles that make musical theatre music far more variegated than it was prior to the 1960s.
There is also the claim made that Glee is single-handedly making musical theatre more popular and a direct link is made between the popularity of Glee and the financial success of The Book of Mormon and Spider-Man. Where’s the evidence of that? Both The Book of Mormon and Spider-Man have other factors at play in regard to their selling power. The rest of the article ponders the history of musical theatre and its links to popular culture. Dave Molloy’s conclusion to this argument is that musical theatre music lacks authenticity and that’s why it is unpopular. The best actors in musical theatre (Liza Minnelli and Lea Salonga), he says, are barely acting at all, just being themselves. The way to make musicals cool is to make them into concerts, with onstage bands that put the music ahead of the storytelling. I don’t really agree with any of this. The best musicals are those that acknowledge their inherent hybridism, not those that ignore it.
Molloy states that the music in musicals is an afterthought these days, taking second place to the book. I don’t agree with that either. Some of the books we see in some of the most mainstream of musicals today don’t live up to the scores. The book of The Book of Mormon, for instance, starts off well, but then degenerates into little more than a series of song setups at some point in Act I and never really steps up its game after that. And with cast albums travelling further faster than new productions do, it is the music that is known more widely than the shows themselves.
Any thoughts on this, or on anything else raised in the article? I thought it an interesting read, but I don’t think that Molloy really gets to grips with the reason why musical theatre needs to be “cool” to be compelling. Popularity sells, for sure, and if that were what he was implying – fine. But he’s trying to link coolness to artistry and I’m not sure he does that all that well here.