Monday, June 17, 2013

THE CONCEPT MUSICAL

Late in the continuity of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro (1947), the protagonist, a country doctor in despair at having turned into a Dr. Feelgood for rich urban hypochondriacs, goes into a rant about his empty life. "Is there anyone out there with a broken arm or a gallstone?" he cries. And "What the hell am I doing here!" Then, as if in a dream, his father and other folk from his youth appear to him, intoning the intro to "Come Home," and his mother appears as well, to sing the refrain and plead with him to return to the place where his work matters.

She is dead at that point in the story: Allegro was the first musical to break the limits of conventional realism, allowing characters to interact on stage when physically not available to each other in life. Carousel (1945) did this in its last few scenes, when the dead Billy Bigelow passes among the living. But Carousel's storyline has by then moved from realism into fantasy; Allegro's narration is wholly realistic. Nonetheless, a "Greek" chorus wanders through the action, observing and commenting and even addressing the hero directly. Further, people take part in scenes without being present in fact. And dead folk reappear.

This what the 1970s called a "concept musical," a term coined to describe what was happening in the work of Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince: Company's gleeful ensemble irrupting into book scenes they had no role in, Follies' ghostly flashbacks, Pacific Overtures' Broadway Kabuki. Looking back, buffs of the form cited, after Allegro, Love Life (1948), Cabaret (1966), Pippin (1972), Chicago (1975), 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976): shows whose effect lay more in the physics of their presentational theatricality than in the traditional narrative building blocks of character and event.

Over the years, the terminology has dissolved, and now some people define a concept musical as any show with a concept. But every show has a concept. Gypsy: the concept is Ethel Merman acts. Skyscraper: the concept is Julie Harris sings. Hit List: the concept is We're the dense dark joy of downtown and Bombshell is runny elitist goo. I prefer the concept musical's original limited definition as the show that analyzes the story while it tells the story. In other words, the concept musical is another disquisition on the meaning of "is"--the "I see dead people" musical (as with Allegro), the "We're in a musical" musical (Pippin).

Or simply the "intel inside" musical. It's interesting that other art forms were emphasizing this "commentative" composition at this time. Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy, from back in the mid-eighteenth century, is a forerunner of what is called "meta-fiction." For example, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962) consists of a longish poem and a much longer series of footnotes pretending to explain its story while erecting a demented alternate story on top of it. It's meta-nutso. Or think of the meta-cinema of Federico Fellini's E la Nave Va (And the Ship Sails On, 1983), with its opening sequence of black-and-white silent moving into sound, then into Technicolor; and its stupendous shot of the camera crew photographing the "ship" on hydraulic lifts against a "sea" of blue plastic sheets. Or the meta-television of Boston Legal, in which leading men William Shatner and James Spader would close each episode having drinks on a terrace while trading opinions of how the series was going, as if they were Ebert and Roeper.

This practice comes through most vividly in the musical, because music heightens everything. A genius number like "The Rain in Spain" electrifies My Fair Lady's first act, marking Eliza and Higgins' first emotional connection in a way that dialogue alone can't. It's one of those wonderfully rich numbers that the American musical excels in, with a text and subtext. Text: Eliza and Higgins (and Col. Pickering) are elated at their shared triumph, Pygmalion as mentor. Subtext: Eliza is attracted to Higgins' power and Higgins to Eliza's vulnerability, Pygmalion as lover.

But the wrong music, or an unclear ramp-up to the right music, backfires. Out of town, "Bill" (originally in Oh, Lady! Lady!!), "On the Street Where You Live," and "People" failed to land and were in danger of being cut till they were given a more effective narrative context. ("Bill" in fact was cut, to reappear in Show Boat.) Sometimes even a song that lands can sabotage a work, tilting it off-topic. I think "Maybe This Time," in the Cabaret film, is a wholly incorrect piece. True, as long as Kander and Ebb were in part restocking the score, they had a right to place a strong ballad. And "Maybe This Time" is a great Liza number, one tune to rule them all. But it's a terrible Sally Bowles number, because it makes of her a needy and loving soul, which is exactly what Sally Bowles isn't. She's amoral, practical, and passionless--the natural partner of Cabaret's Emcee, which is why she sings the title song, an ode to living outside bourgeois cautions and protocols. "Lady Peaceful," as "Maybe This Time" needs Sally to be, portrays someone with a heart. But it is Cabaret's remark that some of us don't have one, and that's how fascists take power.

So the Cabaret movie dulls the stage Cabaret's edgy message. But then, concept musicals don't work as movies. Almost none of the classic concept shows has been filmed, and one exception, Chicago, turned the commentary numbers into dreams. Presentational stagings can't transfer to the elementally realistic form of cinema, because theatre is non-realistic, the musical even more so, and the concept musical a slithery fantasy. That's its charm. Breaking its information into Pale Fire-like subject and footnotes, it enlightens us with the delight of theatre that knows it's theatre, showing off its shameless magic.