Musicals are becoming the Ice Capades of American theater—hackneyed, fluffy, and thin. The form is increasingly derivative, skittish about anything that isn't a revival or regurgitation of yesterday's pop hits. Musicals still attract big crowds and could be great if they gave audiences a reason to love musical theater as theater rather than a two-hour footnote to their favorite movie or ABBA record.
There are glimmers of hope, as a few intrepid writers continue to write new musicals for the big houses and the underground. This week you can see one of each—Princesses, a meta-musical in which jaded school girls do a production of The Little Princess, at the 5th Avenue (created and directed by David Zippel) and Joe Bean, based on the Book of Job, at the University of Washington's Ethnic Cultural Center (music, book, and lyrics by Mark Nichols). Zippel won a Tony for his musical City of Angels and wrote songs for Disney's Mulan and Hercules. Prolific local Nichols has written several musicals and rock operas, including Little Boy Goes to Hell, as well as music and arrangements for bands like the Fire Theft, the Walkabouts, the Squirrels, and Midnight Choir. I didn't interview them together, but I should have.
Zippel: "Princesses takes place in a contemporary girls' school, so we wanted an authentically pop score without being condescending to the pop. There is a place for contemporary music in theater. Pop music and theater music used to be the same—now it's a fluke if a musical number gets to a popular audience."
Nichols: "Some people might say the next big musical is a small musical—but I think the next big musical is a big musical. People want opera, putting all the art forms on stage together."
Zippel: "It's getting harder and harder to do something original. The musical model is so corporatized—producers think it's safer to do an adaptation of a famous movie or a jukebox musical. The only way to be safe is to be good."
Nichols: "Some people are doing good work for film: Hedwig, Dancer in the Dark. New musicals are the worst with story—there aren't enough fantastic elements to motivate the songs. Now people are trying to get away from talky stuff and go for images, evocative feelings instead of, 'Oh, isn't Sondheim clever?'"
Zippel: "Today's musicals are very reflexive, poking at themselves. Otherwise, they couldn't justify their own sentimentality."
Nichols: "I'm ambitious, but I don't really want to go to Broadway. There's got to be some perfect show—something that really moves people. I want to do that."
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Corrections: Last week I wrote that Steve Wells opened Re-bar in 1981. "I opened it in 1990," he said. "I'm not that old. And I'm not retiring. I'm looking for a job. Print that."