I’m late to the game today, getting a post up themed to “Throwback Thursday,” so I’ll just extend it with one called, “Flashback Friday.” It’s apropos too, since I did post a #tbt on my social feeds and was actually pretty surprised by the lukewarm response.
It was the picture of me and Rue McClanahan, taken in 1996 when I was a volunteer for Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS. In total, it racked up 17 likes, whereas a photo of my dad and I earned more than 60, just last week. It made me realize that Golden Girls just doesn’t hold the same place in entertainment “nostalgia,” it once did (references were constant, DVDs were played on repeat), nor do a lot of things I cherish from my youth.
Of course, given the nature of this blog, I’m speaking of the great musicals of the 80s/90s. Many may laugh at that comment, but it’s when I was raised, and what I was exposed to as a child growing up on Long Island. With parents who were generous and patient enough to take me to see a range of musicals that are now forever imprinted on my brain. Even today, having seen literally hundreds of shows (I averaged 50 a year, the last two years), I have vivid, color-filled and wonderful memories of shows like Sunset Boulevard, Cats, The Who’s Tommy, Ragtime (original cast), Will Rogers Follies and of course, Les Miserables – the original production, which I saw an incredible 6 times.
WHAT WERE YOUR FAVORITE SHOWS OF THE 80s AND 90s? COMMENT, BELOW!
Even some of the revivals, done through the lens of our cultural perspective of that time were magnificent – Show Boat, that literally took up nearly 2/3’s of the Gershwin Theater, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (starring Nathan Lane), and a magnificent production of Damn Yankees, starring Victor Garber and Bebe Neuwirth.
I’m focusing on this time period, because sadly I think it’s impossible for us to regain the Golden Age of Broadway. The time of Rodgers & Hammerstein(& Hart), Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, and others who created such masterpieces as Gypsy, West Side Story, Oklahoma, Pal Joey and On The Town, is gone.
I say that because it was a reflection of the culture of that time. To go to the theater was an event, and one seen as essential to our American values. These shows weren’t only on Broadway, but traveled too – bringing stars like Ethel Merman and Carol Channing to local venues around the country. Channing must have toured the entire world for 50 years with Hello Dolly, Robert Preston with Camelot, Topol in Fiddler on the Roof and of course Yul Brenner, the force of The King and I.
No, just as culture changes, so does its creative outputs. So, for me, growing up in the Reagan/Bush/Clinton years, there was a different sentiment. Besides isolated events like the Gulf War, there was an optimism and belief that capitalism was at its peak. So, producers poured money into productions that would reflect this era – a time of new modernity, style and limitless opportunities. It’s from this view that mega-musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express and Cats were born.
Of course these three were all written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, at the time he was truly a driving force creating and shaping our theater-going experiences both here in the U.S., and in London’s West End. In fact, at one time even Phantom was a must-see show, vs. the tourist attraction it is today.
These were my formative years, and having used theater as an escape from personal challenges (being gay, adopted, and overall feeling different than my peers), I looked to these shows for answers and inspiration. Something other-worldly that would lift my spirits (that “buzz”/shake you get during a magical on-stage moment), and I was given them in spades.
I’ll never forget seeing Betty Buckley as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard perform, “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and her literally bringing the audience to its feet mid-show. The response so raucous and lasting, she had to step out past the footlights and take a bow to calm the crowd. I was elated. Here was a woman who brought so much emotion to an audience of more than 2,000 that they leapt to their feet. Now, that’s great musical theater, not to mention being an incredible score and show. One that I truly miss and hope they’ll revive.
Instead of focusing on the past, however, I wonder what it will mean for our generation today. What will be the great lasting musicals that we will always remember? Rent was also of that time, having come and gone – but lasting 12 years on Broadway. Is it Spring Awakening? Next to Normal?
I see glimmers of hope every season – gems that while I doubt will be representative of our time, may reignite the spark to help define the current decade, like the terrific new musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” playing at the Walter Kerr Theater. There’s also the new immersive theater trend that’s gaining traction Off-Broadway, with some truly inspired results like “Here Lies Love,” (Fatboy Slim and David Byrne’s show featuring rising star, Ruthie Ann Miles as Imelda Marcos) and “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.”
Some may even add “Sleep No More,” to that list, however, I’ve not seen it yet. I believe this trend can go two ways – it can grow to help us redefine theater, or itself move into a kitschy gimmick that doesn’t add much of a lasting contribution to our body of theatrical works.
I believe that producers and our priorities changed after President Clinton left the White House. Trust began to waver under George W. Bush, and of course it took many years to recover (if we even have yet) from 9/11 and the war in Iraq. No, I think producers remain hesitant to invest in big musicals that are a risk, and won’t guarantee a return.
Instead, the choices are limited. There’s few new musicals on Broadway and those that arrive, often leave quickly. Same for plays – including the absolutely riveting The Testament of Mary, starring Fiona Shaw, last year. There are certainly innovators bringing us newly imagined versions of classic works like Diane Paulus, who I believe is a true genius helping us see some of the best works of the past, through a new lens: Pippin (arguably the best show of last season), Porgy & Bess, Hair, and The Glass Menagerie.
Instead, most producers are playing it safe by bringing back shows they know work – Les Miserables is here for a third time, 300 Sundays returned for a second run, and now Cabaret will open at the same venue (Studio 54), once again with Alan Cumming as the Emcee. Don’t get me wrong – I rushed to get my tickets and am ecstatic to see this “old friend”. However, I’m left yearning for more.
What do you think will be the memorable new works of our day? Does If/Then, starring Idina Menzel show as much promise as it has earned hype? What else is on the horizon to feed this need for new great material that uplifts the spirit, inspires us and will stand as a representation of our time.