I remember a time in the not so distant past (alright it was plenty distant and not all that glorious) when an evening at the musical theater meant song, dance and entertainment, most notably the martini at intermission.
What remains today is the martini and it is not all that entertaining anymore (unless one is concealing a flask.)
Gone are the hummable tunes of yesteryear replaced by doleful melodies resembling funeral dirges and painful dental procedures. Moaning, groaning and other wailings that sound like someone with their arm caught in a wheat thresher. Often the show is based on a story about someone with their arm caught in a wheat thresher.
In the old days (or perhaps you prefer the more politically correct term “historically challenged” days) music and comedy went hand in hand (followed by a shotgun wedding and bitter divorce.) For example, in a show entitled “The Most Happy Fella” one might expect, and rightfully so, to see a show about a fella who is most happy. The potential for merriment abounds!
A musical entitled “Les Miserables” (roughly translated to mean someone with their arm caught in a wheat thresher) does not particularly lend itself to an evening of snappy tunes and exuberant dancing. More like lamentable howling and depressing lyrics of the “ouch, my arm is shredded” variety and chorus members who don’t so much dance as tiptoe gingerly around the wretched wheat threshed soloist.
Without going out on a limb (not unlike the one caught in the thresher) it seems safe to say that source material might be to blame. A play about a spunky matchmaker named Dolly might be transformed into an upbeat musical entitled “Howdy Matchmaker” or “Don’t Trip Down the Staircase, Dolly.” The same can’t be said for musicals based on leprosy or other misfortunes so popular in the theater today.
Catchy tunes about disfigured sewer dwellers don’t readily spring to mind yet “Phantom of the Opera” did brisk business. There was even a musical about sweatshops called “Rags.” But what’s next? Why not a musical about the Irish potato famine called “Spuds” – all eyes are on Broadway’s latest smashed hit!
If the cycle continues perhaps a reworking of the more mirthful musicals of the past to the contemporary tragedian trend might be profitable (the hanky industry certainly stands to gain.) “Kiss Me Kate” could be revived as “Kill Me Kate” a woeful story of a taunting misogynist. “The Sound of Mucus” might weave the musical tale of bubonic plague in the middle ages with arias about respiratory calamities of that entertainingly disease ridden era.
And what theater season would be complete without a musical about head lice? “Top Hat” could be adapted and the “I’m in Heaven” lyric would take on profound new meaning if infection set in.
As for me, whether it’s a tragic tale or toe tapping triumph, I prefer a flop to a hit any day. The lines at the cash bar are shorter. Have flask, will travel!