Slap Happy or Sappy?

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

in Critics & Reviews

Something tells me that L.A. Times critic Charles McNulty doesn’t much care for musicals:

“When the two singing ghosts of Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow’s new indie-spirited chamber musical “Whisper House” deliver the opening number, “Better to Be Dead,” the show tips its hand that it has no intention of playing by conventional rules.

A morbid fixation on the grave, after all, isn’t part of the core Rodgers & Hammerstein curriculum that helped shaped this country’s musical comedy sensibility for more than half a century.  And moodiness — one of the qualities that distinguished the groundbreaking Tony-winning score for “Spring Awakening” that Sheik wrote with Steven Sater — isn’t the emotional fallback for an art form that would rather be slap happy or sappy than slunk in melancholy or ennui.”

Whisper House does sound pretty cool, but I doubt that its virtues need to be set apart from supposed musical theatre convention with such lazy potshots. “Slap happy or sappy”? For all their flaws, Rodgers & Hammerstein take a lot of unfair knocks–I seem to remember some moody moments in Carousel, and I’d hold up South Pacific, King and I, and Show Boat (by Kern & Hammerstein) as works of real substance (but no, not Sound of Music–I have my limits). And Hammerstein’s protege Steve Sondheim has made a career studiously avoiding both the slap happy and the sappy, and certainly mining melancholy and ennui for material (when he’s not busy channeling rage or despair). And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of excess schmaltz in the work of his peers Kander & Ebb, not to mention that of his heirs, including Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa, Flaherty & Ahrens, and Rodgers’ grandson Adam Guettel.

This shopworn notion of what constitutes a “musical” is belied so frequently, in fact (add to the list of composers above the titles Caroline or Change, Next to Normal, Grey Gardens, Passing Strange, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, just off the top of my head), that it reminds me of another canard that can still be heard in musical theatre circles, often in the form of a question: Can rock and roll work in musical theatre? or, phrased more urgently, When will Broadway learn to rock? Leave aside the shows mentioned above (Hedwig, Passing Strange, Spring Awakening) and think, if you will, of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rocky Horror Show, Godspell, Grease, Pippin, Pump Boys and Dinettes, Little Shop of Horrors, The Wiz, Dreamgirls, Rent, Billy Elliott,  The Full Monty, The CapemanReefer Madness, Tommy, Rent–do I need to go on? Of course, I’m not willing to defend all of these shows’s credentials as “authentic” rock/pop music (and I haven’t even included any jukebox musicals, from Jersey Boys to Rock of Ages). But the fact is, as the Washington Post’s Peter Marks noted last summer, that the sound of Broadway has changed so much that when a genuinely vintage musical like the recent Finian’s Rainbow has a full orchestra and chorus throwing down old-school, it seems positively exotic–even the slap-happy, sappy parts.

-Rob

Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor of American Theatre Magazine. He also co-runs the blog StageGrade.com and is father to a strapping infant named Oliver.