It keeps happening. Here I am, doing what old fags do, buying old musicals in the sale bin at HMV (Do I still shop at HMV? Yes, I certainly do.) Well, recently I came across So Long, 174th Street -- a long forgotten musical – a big failure in 1976 (16 performances). Who was involved with it? Oh -- people like Joseph Stein, Robert Morse, and Kaye Ballard. So, I took the cd home, and listened to it. And guess what.
It was fabulous.
This keeps happening over and over again. I find an old musical that everyone has forgotten about, one that was a flop sometime around 1976 (hm…why does that year ring a bell?) put in the ol’ computer, and big surprise! It’s better than anything I’ve heard (musical-wise) in years.
Well, I did a little digging (web-wise) and discovered that 1976 was a year that featured two other musicals you may have heard of: A Chorus Line, and a little show called Chicago. Interestingly, A Chorus Line was a mega-hit (6,137 performances!), and spawned what we now know as the megamusical. It also killed Chicago (936 performances) and So Long, 174th Street. And as far as I’m concerned, it killed musical comedy, period.
Now I don’t blame A Chorus Line. Sure, it’s a boring musical with only one good song (okay, maybe two). So why was it such a big hit? Well, it seemed incredibly contemporary at the time – gay content, monologues, and an altogether avant-garde feel.
However the fault lies not in the musical, dear Brutus, but in ourselves.
The problem is capitalism. Money kills culture. It eats culture and spits culture out its rear-end. (Catch Spiderman. On it’s way to Las Vegas no less.) When capitalism marries art, art goes down the tubes. (See Garth Drabinsky. I know Elaine Stritch praises him in Showstopper. But let’s face it, she’s an actress, and when it comes down to actresses, they really need jobs).
So since musical comedy is now a thing long gone, it makes sense to me (cuz I’m an ol’ guy) to try and remember what it once was.
The most important word in ‘musical comedy’ is ‘comedy.’ It’s a word that is usually excised from the phrase. That’s because comedy has pretty much disappeared from mega-musicals. And comedy was the most important element in musical comedy.
Opera finds its origins in tragedy, and operetta finds its origins in farce. Opera is not funny (except unintentionally). Operetta is intentionally funny in the hands of Offenbach, or Gilbert and Sullivan. But the characters in operetta are not real. They are cardboard cutouts singing funny songs and representing human vice.
It took the American musical to carve out a very special niche for music and comedy – which appeared together for the first time. This means that the characters in musical comedy are sympathetic and real as well as being funny, The best songs -- the ones that define musical comedy -- are not the ballads (though they can be nice) but the comic songs.
In Stan Daniels’ score for So Long 174th Street there is not a single bad song – not a tuneless number, or a witless one. Kaye Ballard brings tears of laughter to my eyes every time I listen to her sing ‘My son, the druggist,’ because she was portraying a real mother, and singing a very funny ode to human vanity -- sweet and hilarious at the same time. What did the estimable Clive Barnes say after the musical opened?
“When the music and lyrics do not work for a musical, the musical does not work.”
Well that’s biting criticism.
What he should have said was:
“The American musical comedy is dead. When money and art fight, money always wins.”