The Times tells us that a new Kander-Ebb musical is in the works. Ordinarily this would be a cause for celebration, and not just because Fred Ebb died a couple of years ago and anything in his trunk is worth preserving. This will be the second Fred Ebb musical to be staged posthumously, the first being Curtains, a clever play-in-a-play having to do with a stage-struck police detective called in to investigate a murder committed during a musical’s Boston tryout run. John Kander’s music was, as usual, very good, and the Ebb lyrics stylish. I didn’t see the show, but I have listened to the CD often enough to remain convinced that Kander and Ebb belong right up there with the other great collaborators of Broadway’s Golden Age.
Sharp-eyed readers will have noted the “ordinarily” in the second sentence, a word that suggests that a celebration may not be in order. You see, the new Kander and Ebb show is called The Scottsboro Boys, after the defendants in a gang-rape trial that took place in Alabama in 1931. Let us pause a second to recognize that Kander and Ebb’s two blockbuster hits, Chicago and Cabaret, dealt with offbeat subjects, though in a definitely musical-comedy format. And let us acknowledge that great musicals like Les Miz and Miss Saigon can deal artistically with profound subjects. Ragtime dealt squarely with racial tensions, and No Strings and Kwamina had black-white romances. Still – a musical with gang rape at its core?
You may offer Sweeney Todd as a successful (sort of) example of depravity glorified, but Sondheim deserves to be placed in his own category. Sondheim plays are unhappy plays, maybe because Sondheim thinks that life is unhappy, and he is simply being true to life. Even when the composer gives us a good, look-on-the-bright-side song, it is presented as pastiche (see Follies). But the real Sondheim comes through in his Assassins, which invites us to listen to Lee Harvey Oswald and other assassins explain themselves. Sondheim is an enigma. The man was “adopted” as a youth by Oscar Hammerstein, whose musicals are filled to the brim with hope (walk on, walk on), June bustin’ out all over, a hundred and one pounds of fun, and a hundred million miracles – none of which seems to have influenced young Stevie.
Forget all that, some people say. Hammerstein was a realist, who wrote about miscegenation (Showboat), racial prejudice (South Pacific), and other themes that were ground-breaking in their day. Granted. But Hammerstein the ground-breaker was a man not capable of writing a Sweeney Todd. Hammerstein had exquisite taste, which his protégé lacks. One guesses that Sondheim would throw up at the mere mention of taste.
The problem I have with the whole ground-breaking theology is that it treats what came before as too silly for words. We hear, endlessly, that no show before Oklahoma! ever began with a lone cowboy on a stage, singing about a beautiful morning. Before that, we are told, musicals began with (if you can believe it) a chorus line of beautiful girls. And the plots were not credible. The shows of the 30s, shows like Anything Goes and Girl Crazy and The Boys From Syracuse, had one thing on their producers’ minds – entertaining the audiences. How lowbrow can you get?
Look, I loved Les Miz and Evita. But I also loved 42d Street and Do Re Mi and Little Me and She Loves Me, none of which had a message but all of which gave their audiences a wonderful two and a half hours.
One of my favorite movies is Preston Sturgis’s Sullivan’s Travels. In it Sullivan is a successful Hollywood director of slapstick comedies who now wants to move beyond all that to direct an Important Film, which will be called O Brother Where Art Thou? So he takes off on an odyssey to sample the life of the oppressed masses, about which he will then write. But on his voyage he discovers that the best thing he can do for the masses is to keep making the kind of silly movies that make people laugh.
“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh in this cockamamie world,” Sullivan says at the end. And, I might add, for musicals that lift your heart and set your toes tapping - and that leave the messages for Western Union and gang rape for Fox News.