Fun and flimsy?

Oh, dear.  Another post that isn’t the promised musings on Rodgers and Hammerstein…  That will come.  It really will.   But before that, my attention was drawn to an article in the New York Sun which discusses the imminent return of Les Miserables to the Broadway stage, a few short years after it left.  The article discusses the various merits of the show, and quite rightly (in my view) praises it for its weight and ‘heft’.  However, the main thrust of the article rather got up my nose.

You see, before Les Miserables, it seems that all musical theatre (with the exception of the works of Stephen Sondheim) was ‘flimsy and fun’, so that this show was ‘the first thinking-person’s Broadway musical’.  No thinking person would have gone to see such flimsy affairs as Fiddler on the Roof (which deals with lightweight issues such as pogroms and religious identity) or Cabaret (a chilling look at the rise of Nazism in 1930s Berlin) would they?  It is arguably true that a lot of musical theatre is extremely flimsy, with plots which barely hold together, but it is clearly not true that Les Miserableswas ground-breaking in that way.  My two examples pre-date it by around 15 years, and there are numerous others I could mention, even if we do ignore Mr Sondheim’s rather large contribution to the musical genre.

Another point that Thane Rosenbaum (is that a real name?) makes is that before Les Miserables, nobody would have thought to base a musical on a serious novel.  Oh, really?  I must have imagined a musical from 1927 called Show Boat then, which has an epic scope and deals (not entirely satisfactorily, it’s true) with racism and miscegenation.  Perhaps I’m mistaken in thinking that Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and other ‘serious’ novelists have also had their books transformed into Broadway musicals many times over the years?  Then of course, there are the musicals based on very serious plays – am I right in thinking that Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story, Pygmalion became My Fair Lady and so on?  Many have much sillier source material, but it’s quite hard to scoff at the pedigree of these particular shows.

It is true that a lot of musical theatre is silly, perhaps even embarrassing.  But that is also true of mainstream theatre, cinema, novels, television and any other artistic media you care to bring in to the discussion.  But every genre has its serious gems (as well as its well-made lightweight items) which do not deserve to be casually dismissed along with their lower quality brethren.  The musical theatre has a lot to offer.  Les Miserables is a fine example of a musical, but it was not really revolutionary, and it certainly wasn’t the first ever musical for the thinking man or woman.  What was the first?  I don’t know, but I know the article is out by at least a decade or two.

    • Aria
    • November 9th, 2006

    Amen (Though I must admit to liking it a lot more than some of the earlier serious musicals, lol =)

    • Pat
    • November 9th, 2006

    They may not have been “blockbusters” but the depth and tone of Jaques Brel and Marat/Sade was certainly not flimsy. Fabulous to sing, but very serious in nature.

  1. I love the comment left at the end of the New York Sun article by a Ron Spivak. Does a good hatchet job. It wasn’t you was it Singing Librarian?

  2. I’m afraid that Ron Spivak is not one of my other identities! A shame, that. I didn’t want to comment there, so I did my own response here.

  3. And a good post it is too. In fact you have turned out some quality stuff in the last two. I am looking forward to you getting to grips with your Rodgers and Hammerstein post.


    Thought this article might be of interest, although you also might have seen it via Music Man’s blog.

  5. Oops sorry I didn’t do a proper linking thing. I realised you might want to know that the URL is for an article about the importance of Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

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