Interchangeable, or In Which I Am An Old Fart

I had a lengthy conversation with a colleague today about musical theatre. Over the course of the conversation, we came to the conclusion that the genre is much more homogeneous than it was even 40 years ago. As to why this is the case, we chalked it up to the following:

(1) Market forces. No one involved in the production is willing to take the risk of failure. Even Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark, as big of a disaster as it is, is likely to recoup its (sizable) investment. The music has a “name” behind it, as does the choreography/direction. A side result of this is:

(2) Fewer unique voices. My colleague’s statement (after judging a mess of musical theatre voice students at a competition this weekend) is that they all sounded like a generic musical theatre voice. No one had an ounce of individuality. I believe that this is because:

(3) All the roles are more or less interchangeable. There’s no characterization anymore. We get plenty of archetypes and stock characters, but everything seems so formulaic now. As a result of this:

(4) All the music is more or less interchangeable. My colleague mentioned She Loves Me by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock as an example of a show where the music, while firmly in the Mid-20th-Century-American-Musical-Theatre genre, never lets you forget you’re in 1930s Hungary. The same is true of The Music Man, which is very much in the same genre but always within the frame of 1912 Iowa. For the life of me, and while I may enjoy the tunes on a certain level, I cannot find any difference in setting just by listening to the music of Rent versus that of Spring Awakening.

All of these factors work together, of course, and it’s a part of the larger cultural homogenization that we’re dealing with (chain restaurants/stores are more common than ever, and exurbs of different cities might as well be mass-produced). However, I can’t say as I like it. You can pick out a Mandy Patinkin or Bernadette Peters or Mary Martin or Julie Andrews or Brian Stokes Mitchell a mile away. You can’t do that with most singers anymore.

What do you think?



  1. It’s because Sondheim’s not writing anymore. Things were kind of like this before he showed up too.

  2. If you want originality, you probably have to look off-Broadway. The links between Broadway and Hollywood were always there–nearly all the great shows after 1945 were made into movies, and talent moved back and forth once the Silent Era was over, but the disturbing trend for Broadway is converting a movie into a musical…
    And then there’s the backend to think about. In the same way that Hollywood is now making movies for post-theatrical distribution, Broadway shows cater more and more to the touring company, where theatre rentals and union pay scales are make the show much more lucrative than in New York. A show that does halfway decent in New York can sell out for months touring middle America. That kind of show, though, has to be Disneyfied, not nearly so edgy, stuff. Notice that Avenue Q didn’t tour, it went right to Vegas and stayed there. Probably a little too much for Wichita (not to dump on Wichita, which is a nice place). Yes, Spiderman got plenty of press from having a big name, Taymor, associated with it, but who would have cared about Spiderman 20 years ago… it was the comic book that real comic book fans made fun of. It’s got the traffic-accident effect associated with it as well.

  3. These are many of the same issues we’ve talked about in my rap class this semester. It used to be good, distinct, region-specific, etc. but now has become an endless parade of cloned gangstas, pimps, and hos that the record industry trots out to make money. It all sounds the same, looks the same, and isn’t nearly as powerful as it used to be. Compare and contrast Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” with DJ Khaled’s “All I do is win.”

  4. One quick thought… in some ways, I think it’s better that no one stands out these days. Sometimes it’s good if the story doesn’t have someone in a performing role to push the popularity of the performance, i.e. a Martin, Andrews, Patinkin, etc. Similarly, some of the folks currently who’ve just come up from the wings to lead roles will most likely become the next incarnations of the previous generation of stars. Or they’ll make the jump to popular music, be it HipHop/R&B or Pop. Or forbid, whatever the name for the genre covered by this pop with a twang b.s. coming out of the “Country” labels/stations.

    We are currently in a conservative state, economically speaking as well as musically speaking right now, which seems to heavily influence the risks one is willing to take in mainstream productions. Everyone seems to be trying to find the most return on their investment, which also means lots of Disney shows, and lots of similar themes and sounds. Also, when something does come out of nowhere and becomes a hit, it immediately gets cloned over and over, and suffers the same as repeated copying of a photograph. Each generation of copy loses more and more detail until it’s ultimately rendered unusable or completely milquetoast and bland in its quality. That’s why settings no longer have the impact they once did. If a show had a hit with the exeunt being a Bb7-Eb cadence, then by god someone will interpret that as the reason and attempt to do as many shows as possible that end with that exact perfect cadence, because it was a hit for so and so.

    Now with any luck, the outer fringes of pop and alt/pop/country, etc., seem to be in an expansive state with newer sounds and newer truly talented folks bubbling under the surface. Are these voices a harbinger of things to come, maybe. Probably not, but at least one can find things that aren’t completely dreck on occasions instead of lamenting “Redneck Yacht Club”/LMFAO and the rest of the painfully incessant crap constantly pouring forth from the radio.

    Ok, this wasn’t such a quick thought. lol

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