Of Thee I Sing (and Dance)
The musical is America's gift to theatre, and here's the local state of the union
What better time to celebrate the musical than the month in which our nation was founded? After all, musical theatre, like jazz, is one of America's contributions to world culture. And having recently noted the Founding Fathers' keen interest in the melodious ("Revolutionary Score," June 29), I feel they'd be particularly proud that this all-singing, all-dancing art form was born on our shores. Though, really, how could they not, when it put them in a musical of their very own?
Sadly (for me, anyway), 1776 is not among the seven musicals you can find on Austin-area stages this July. (Ah well, at least we had a tip of the tricorn to U.S. history with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in June.) Still, the month's unofficial mini-jamboree of show-tuners is worth noting, not because it commemorates the art form's American-ness (you can bet your stars-and-bars the July cluster of musicals has more to do with lighter theatrical fare for the mind-melting summer than patriotic pride) but because of the breadth of the selections and producing companies. This small sampling includes two works from the musical's post-war golden age (1946's Annie Get Your Gun, 1959's The Sound of Music), two from the post-Watergate era of anti-romance (Into the Woods and Chess, both from 1986), and two from our own post-millennium age in which musicals are either so derivative or so self-mocking that they routinely advertise the genre in their titles (Legally Blonde: The Musical and Xanadu, both from 2007). Moreover, the productions run the gamut from all-amateur to fully pro. In this one area in this one month, you can chart the evolution of the musical over six decades and see how it's handled from the Great White Way to Main Street, U.S.A. (Drive a little farther, and you can further your musical education with The Rocky Horror Show [Smithville], Fiddler on the Roof [New Braunfels], and Hello, Dolly! and Hairspray [San Antonio].)
The current cluster of musicals offered an ideal opportunity to check in on the form as it's treated in Central Texas today. After three members of the Chronicle Arts team each reviewed a musical now running – Jillian Owens, The Sound of Music; Dan Solomon, Chess; myself, Annie Get Your Gun), we compared notes on what we'd seen and what it said about the state of the art form in our area. Here are our thoughts.
Dan Solomon: There were a few moments in Chess that I found really captivating. When you go to see a musical, you're going in pursuit of the epic – where plays often trade on the power of intimacy, musicals can succeed by the sheer force of spectacle. So if you've got a big pop number in your performance, like Chess does with "One Night in Bangkok," you have an opportunity to deliver what the audience came for. I want shiny costumes (check!) and synchronized dance moves (check!) and to have to struggle to resist the temptation to sing along (check, reluctantly). As much as musicals are great for conveying the emotional arc of the story by, say, placing two romantic rivals on opposite sides of the stage as they sing about the object of their affection (looking at you, "I Know Him So Well"), there's something to be said for those moments where the music can make you forget the story being told and just give you that sort of pop thrill.
Jillian Owens: Though I usually gravitate toward large-scale production numbers – think "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast – one of the most perfect moments in Zilker Theatre Productions' Sound of Music was much quieter. Just as the Captain is about to dismiss Maria for calling his children "unhappy little marching machines," he hears them singing offstage in sweet harmony and breaks down. "You have brought music back into our home," he says with a weak smile. I got chills, even in summer heat. What could be more beautiful than a musical reminding us of the healing, redemptive power of music?
Robert Faires: I'll confess to having a catch in my throat just then when I saw the Zilker show, too. And I felt a similar sentiment at the Palace Theatre's Annie Get Your Gun, although it wasn't explicitly related to the restorative qualities of music. But when you have more than 40 people together on a stage, all belting out Irving Berlin's cornpone salute to show biz with the biggest grins ever on their faces, and you know they're all amateurs, that they've come to this from grade schools and high schools and offices and stores and homes, that this is a true community represented onstage, bound together by their love of the stage, which they express in song, it's moving. And what else can do that? There is no business like show business.
So what do you think Austin does well when it does musicals?
Owens: Only a few companies in town have the talent, budget, and balls to put a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic or contemporary Broadway smash on a local stage. Along with Zach Theatre and Texas State University, which received this year's Austin Critics Table Award for Outstanding Musical for its staging of Oklahoma!, Zilker Theatre Productions hits the mark nearly every time. Austin is fortunate to have a pool of talented triple-threats who, along with these three companies, consistently give Austin the gift of traditional, large-scale, high quality musical productions.
Solomon: One thing we're able to do in Austin with musicals is combine spectacle with intimacy. The production values on Chess were high, but it was also performed in a tent on a stretch of grassland in a housing development – even those in the worst seats in the house had the show right in their faces, which is a cool, unique thing to be able to experience with musical theatre. Even at bigger houses, like Zach, that combination of spectacle and intimacy is in play. And when you bring it to a venue like Tamale House East, where I recently saw a workshop of The Becomings, it's even more pronounced. Musicals are big things, and it's neat to get so close to them.
Faires: So true, and that proximity helps you not only feel closer to the action but also appreciate the nuances of a great musical theatre performance. Actors here aren't cast from that Ethel Merman mold: roaring through on star power and a brassy belter's voice. They're often dynamite singers, but many of them are fine actors, too – I'm thinking of people such as Meredith McCall, Jill Blackwood, Janis Stinson, Jamie Goodwin, Andrew Cannata, Brian Coughlin, Amy Downing – and they can ground you so strongly in a character that you're not just waiting for the next song. You're engaged with the life of that person onstage, and the song, when it comes, is this magical eruption of character. Patty Rowell was so deeply invested in Annie Oakley and such a hoot, she didn't need to sing a note. But when she did, it was like fireworks you didn't expect.
So what do Austin musicals not do well?
Owens: Perhaps more than any other genre of theatre, the musical embodies a deep tension between art and commerce. It is a distinctly American art form created to appeal to the masses by drawing upon and simplifying the "high art" operatic tradition. Now, I cherish and appreciate classics like The Sound of Music, but I think that the Austin musical theatre scene has a long way to go before it will rival its experimental nonmusical counterpart – to my knowledge, we've yet to develop a subversive musical equivalent of the Rude Mechs.
Solomon: To put it bluntly, I think it's easy to exhaust our talent pool during busy seasons. People who possess the unique set of skills that putting on a great musical requires – acting, singing, and dancing, at a minimum, and often a ton of charisma and strong comedic timing – get stretched pretty thin when a number of musicals happen around the same time. You're more likely to have someone with some of those skills go flat during a solo or struggle with the choreography in this town than you might be in others. It's kind of the flipside to intimacy.
Faires: I find that especially true with dancers. Our bench here just isn't that deep. It's one thing when you have missed steps or the occasional look of terror on a performer's face in a community production like Annie Get Your Gun, quite another in a show where every other aspect of the musical staging is smooth and professional.