A faded art form seeks its next 'beautiful mornin'

If you love Broadway musicals, chances are good you have a position on the now-familiar claim that the Broadway musical is dead. Pointing to the proliferation of revivals and the so-called jukebox spectacles that emphasize loud music and little story, producer Stuart Ostrow echoes an opinion shared by many. "There was a time when theater was a shot fired around the world and it would change your life," he says, but "there are no new artists in the musical theater today."

Others, though, say the musical is not dead, it is merely in transition.

"The legendary, record-breaking shows were all a complete surprise," says filmmaker Michael Kantor, whose documentary "Broadway: The American Musical," airs on PBS Oct. 19 to 21. He argues that the musical always has been as dynamic as the country that gave it birth, pointing to such landmarks as "Showboat" and "Oklahoma!"

"Perhaps the most far-fetched of them all was a story of Russian peasants under the shadow of pogroms becoming the longest running show on Broadway: 'Fiddler on the Roof,' " he says, adding that musical theater has always reflected the country as a whole.

Just as America is divided over everything from the conflict in Iraq to which of the 500 TV channels to watch, he says, "there isn't a dominant style anymore, because theater is trying to cater to all those tastes."

Many of those on the front lines of new works would agree. "I hate when people say musical theater is dying," says Michael Kerker, director of the musical theater program for the American Society of Composers and Producers (ASCAP). Budgets topping $10 million are the biggest challenge facing the Broadway musical, but, says Mr. Kerker, who holds three workshops annually and has to turn away hundreds of aspiring writers, "there's no question that there is talent there."

Much of the handwringing over the state of the American musical comes from those who believe the form flowered during the so-called Golden Age just after World War II. Broadway lore has it that even "Oklahoma!" - with its dream-ballet sequence and emphasis on dramatic storytelling - was ahead of its time. Radio commentator Walter Winchell was said to have wired the producers, saying, "no gags, no gals, no chance."

The late Al Hirschfeld, who drew caricatures of theater people for The New York Times for nearly 80 years, appears in Kantor's documentary. In it, he says, "The form [of the musical] changes, and that's difficult for a lot of people to accept. They're stuck in one period and they think that's the period that's important, but it isn't necessarily so. It could be just a passing fancy nobody even takes seriously in another 50 years."

It is true that from the earliest days of American musical theater, shows provided a soundtrack for the nation, from the World War I flag-waving anthem, George M. Cohan's "Over There!" to Louis Armstrong's pop chart-topping rendition of "Hello Dolly!" But once rock took over the popular soundwaves in the 1960s, the Broadway musical largely lost its role as a tunesmith for the masses.

"The confirmation of the Broadway musical falling out of sync with pop culture was that there was no attempt made to recruit ... someone who might have bridged that gap," says New York Times cultural critic Frank Rich in Kantor's film. "They essentially lost a generation. They never recovered from that."

Instead, "serious" musical theater began to look beyond Broadway to the new Off-Broadway locales as well as to regional theaters for new outlets. With his angst-filled shows such as "Company" and even the darkly comic "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim made it clear that the postclassic musical was not going to be feeding the nation's juke boxes any time soon.

The Pulitzer-Prize winning "A Chorus Line" proved that a small, nonprofit group such as Joseph Papp's downtown Public Theater could revolutionize the form.

But this was also the era of Broadway's new economics. The barebones, rehearsal-studio exploration of the inner lives of a motley group of theater gypsies became Broadway's new siren song - the megahit that brought in $20 million on an initial $500,000 investment.

Like the Energizer bunny, "A Chorus Line" ran ... and ran ... for a record-breaking 6,137 performances.

The drive to find the next megahits - shows that would run endlessly and churn out profits - produced such long-running British imports as "Cats," "Les Misérables," "Miss Saigon," and "Phantom of the Opera." Hollywood took the megahit to still another level.

When the Walt Disney Company decided to bring its animated musicals ("Beauty and the Beast," and "The Lion King") to the stage, renovating the landmark New Amsterdam Theatre to create a permanent home for its show.

Suddenly seven- and eight-figure budgets became the norm.

Universal Studios shelled out a breathtaking $14 million to launch "Wicked," one of only two musicals with new scores in the past season. "Avenue Q," which won the Tony award for best musical, is the other.

"My first musical was called 'Milk and Honey,' " says Broadway veteran Jerry Herman. "It was a very sumptuous production with major sets

and costumes and a huge chorus. And it cost $300,000, the entire thing."

He points to an upcoming Broadway revival of one of his own shows, "La Cage Aux Folles," which opens in New York Dec. 9. "The difference between that $300,000 and the $9 million that the new 'La Cage' will cost is overwhelming," he says.

A chill settled on the collective Broadway community when this year's Tony winner for Best New Musical, "Avenue Q," announced that rather than tour the country, the production would head straight to Las Vegas. It will take up permanent residence in a new, state-of-the-art $40 million theater tailor made for it by casino mogul Steve Wynn.

Many industry veterans fear that the emphasis on big names and huge spectacles will destroy any hope of a serious future for musical theater on Broadway. "Las Vegas shows are heir to the Ziegfeld tradition," says Kantor, "lots of girls and spectacles. They're not big on storytelling."

But producer Stuart Ostrow isn't entirely pessimistic, looking to education for hope.

As the various worlds of pop culture merge, he says, it will be more important than ever to teach hip-hop artists, MTV stars, and pop divas the importance of good stories, not just spectacles.

"If enough marriages can be nurtured between these crossover worlds, we will begin to illuminate the human condition for a vast audience. If not," he says, "our indigenous art form is finished the way vaudeville and burlesque in America ended in the 20th century."

Not all industry veterans believe big money or even Las Vegas is inherently bad. In the end, it's what you do with it that counts.

"You have to thank Disney for bringing musicals to Broadway because there aren't that many people who can afford to do it," says actress Julie Andrews. "Those wonderful creatures coming down the aisle at the opening of 'Lion King,' that's just good theater."

Can musicals succeed without appearing on Broadway?

Does it have to be "Broadway" to be a musical? If the past quarter century has proved anything, it is that musicals can develop outside Times Square. But even if it doesn't appear in one of Broadway's official 39 theaters, a show that turns its back on the essentials of a good musical - great storytelling with great songs - does so at its peril, says Michael Kantor. "The basis for the musical is great songs."

"The Ten Commandments" may be a cautionary tale in this regard. The Bible spectacle arrived at Hollywood's Kodak Theater in September, preceded by word from its producer, fashion designer Max Azria, that it would prove that shows could open and tour without the "approval" of a Broadway production.

Based on a successful French production by the same name, "The Ten Commandments" was retooled by a new composer and lyricist for American audiences. Azria also added a star performer, Val Kilmer.

But these elements weren't enough to keep critics from savaging the $15 million production, calling it a costume pageant with blaring, undistinguished music. The show has dropped some performances for reworking as well as delayed its scheduled run at New York's Radio City Music Hall next year. It has no plans to book a Broadway theater.

Tickets have continued to sell, however. This raises a serious question for the future of musical theater, says ASCAP's Michael Kerker. "The average person who goes to theater today, their roots are in rock. That's what they want to hear," he says. "Commandments" follows a trend toward over-amplified music at the expense of characters and story.

Still, spectacles have value. After all, musical theater began with the Ziegfeld Follies. As Julie Andrews says, "Everything is cyclical. All the same styles come round again."

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