November 20, 1997


'Ragtime' vs. 'Rent'

Why the musical theatre's future rests in the hands of seasoned pros, and why the dream of making it rock is yesterday's news.


by Rob Kendt


What is the quintessential American music? The inquiry begins pretty squarely in the century we're almost done with; to go back much further is to glance inordinately across the Atlantic for models: to the folk tunes of Ireland, the hymns of Scandinavia, the music halls of England and France, the operettas of Austria, the choral incantations of Africa.


Indeed, it's worth asking if one can speak at all of an indigenous music in this proverbial nation of immigrants. But the contenders are legion, and all were born on American soil in the last century, give or take a decade: blues, gospel, jazz, rock 'n' roll, country & western, and a sort of American "classical" concert music. These, along with the cinema and television, define the culture of our American century.


Or do they? It is my contention, and growing conviction, that the quintessential American music--indeed, the definitive American art form--is found in the musical theatre. It is as distinct a contribution to the world's cultural landscape as swing, bluegrass, or grunge rock, and while it carnivorously synthesizes elements from every other style of music, it is not synonymous with those musics. It is a genre of music unto itself.


The true birth of this art form as an American staple can be traced to Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's 1927 masterpiece, Show Boat. Its Golden Age as a popular music form was in the 1920s and '30s, and its young adulthood and maturation as a dramatic form spanned a rough, uneven period from the end of World War II to the 1970s. Its decadent period, in which it very much seemed near death, came in the 1980s, with imported theme-park blockbusters like the execrable Cats.


Recent years have seen a revival of interest in the form, with several heroic attempts across the country to develop, nurture, and mount original American musicals, and the animated film musical becoming the newest big-money employer of musical theatre talent. The musical theatre form, however, may have reached its apotheosis in a show now playing in Los Angeles and scheduled to open on Broadway in January.


Yes, Ragtime is the best evidence I've seen that not only is the American musical not dead but is, in fact, in little danger of dying--the wellspring of its native language is so deep and rich that it can do anything and express everything. It just took the right project, and the right craftspeople--in this case, the whole Livent team, but especially book writer Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and composer Stephen Flaherty--to reaffirm the musical's preeminence. Like a feature film, a musical is a remarkably complex mechanism, with so much that can go awry that it's far more likely to go wrong than right. But when it's great, there's nothing better than a musical, and Ragtime is among the upper echelon of American musicals which can lay claim to greatness.


Also playing in Los Angeles is Rent, which has been touted as the future of musical theatre, the next great hope for a moribund medium, etc. Rent is not great; it's not even good, really. It does offer an absurdly poignant spectacle: a relentless pageant, nigh a commercial, for the promising career of a composer/lyricist, Jonathan Larson, who is dead. Promise is all it shows, however: Apart from a stunning opening number, a delightful tango, and a few apt character songs, it is a desperately under-nourished and unedifying entertainment that has not earned its air of self-importance as much as learned it from its adoring press and fans.


What has made Rent a cause celebre, apparently, is that it's a "rock" musical, which is to say it employs instrumentation and vocal styles not unlike those you might hear on rock or pop records of the past 20 years or so. But the notion that a musical either needs, or can survive, a whole-body transfusion from any particular brand of non-theatrical music is patently ridiculous, and ignores the durability of an art form which, in its day, has embraced and exploited rock stylings--as well those of jazz, Asian folk, Viennese waltzes, gospel, and R&B, to name a few--in a properly single-minded pursuit: to tell a story with song.


Flattened Grooves

Lyricists and composers for the theatre have spent the better part of the century developing a musical language with a stress on the rhythms of natural human speech for the simple reason that a theatre audience must hear every word at the first sitting. This mercilessly unbending rule has constrained, shaped, and nourished a distinct musical form and discipline which, typically, can embrace some of the harmonies of jazz but not its improvisatory character; can capitalize on the directness of folk but not its simplistic arrangements; can employ the energy and abandon of rock but not the insistently hard-edged, lyric-quashing insistence of its beat.


The craft of making a song's lyrics sit clearly and pleasingly on a melodic line is a science that's been raised to an art by the medium's great practitioners, and this art takes the deceptively familiar form of the showtune. A showtune is an instantly recognizable creature, whether it's set in three-quarter time, belted over distorted electric guitars, or intoned over taiko drums, because of its unmistakable debt to the art of marrying lyric and tune, music and drama. This immediately identifiable quality is not an abstract property, and it's not dependent on brilliant or passionate performances or flying sets; it is as concrete and unshakeable as the syllables of speech, notes in a scale, or beats per measure, and it is as enduring and singular a contribution to the musical literature as the sonata form, the bebop solo, or the Bo Diddley beat. "A Bowler Hat" from Pacific Overtures is a showtune as much as is "Hello, Dolly"; "Sodomy" from Hair is as much a showtune as is "Bali H'ai." These songs share not a musical style but a musico-dramatic form.


There are effective showtunes in Rent--the opening title song and the beguiling "Tango: Maureen." The rest of the show, to my ears, is a witlessly chugging parlando broken up by numbers that are neither convincing showtunes nor satisfying rock songs--an unfortunate pretension to a "through-composed" score inherited from the worst excesses of Webber/Rice and the mysteriously overrated Boublil and Schonberg. One might say that it's a perverse measure of the integrity of Larson's score as a rock composition that we can't decipher most of his lyrics, or if we do, it's in that sort of piecemeal catch-up we do when we watch a foreign-language film with subtitles--not the kind of direct communication the musical theatre has developed so artfully. And anyway, most of Rent isn't particulary gratifying as rock 'n' roll, either; when an interesting groove gets going, it's typically flattened by commonplace, unmusical recitative lyrics.


It's especially frustrating that Larson didn't even draw on America's other lyric-driven musical form, the troubadour tradition, which surfaces mostly in folk, country, and some rock. Instead, he tried to make mid-'80s vintage pop/metal tell his story. He tried to approximate artless rock diction in "Glory," which hammers away unrewardingly at its ungainly lyrics about the search for inspiration; he tried to have the transvestite, Angel, tell a story of sorts in the Paisley Parkish "Today 4 U," but bungled it halfway through (what happened to the landlord's dog?); he tried to do a breathless patter song cataloguing the countercultural icons of "La Vie Boheme" in a brassily syncopated litany that collapses under its own insistence, and, least successfully, he tried to set conversation to a restless rock-style soundtrack that strains for a wide dynamic palette by wildly switching tempi, stopping and starting, and generally tripping all over itself.


Shoulders of Giants

To Larson's credit, he did try all this. And indeed, every composer, in the theatre or not, strives to integrate his own experience and the sounds of his own world into his work, and every dramatist strives for a similarly personal inspiration. Theatre composers from Frank Loesser to Elizabeth Swados have challenged themselves to bring fresh sounds to their work, and to audiences.


But at a certain level, Larson, I think, disrespected or at least misunderstood the showtune by imagining that it could be improved, or made somehow more immediate and accessible, by making it sound like what's on the radio or in our record collections, harking back to decades when the music on the Broadway stage sounded more or less like what was on the Hit Parade or the Victrola. Indeed, while the musical theatre of the 1930s produced a peerless songbook that has beautifully served the interpretive needs of jazz players and pop singers, I would argue that it wasn't until the 1940s and the decades following that the musical theatre came into its own--when it expanded on its 32-bar commercial pop vocabulary to embrace whatever musical style served the dramatic needs of theatrical storytelling.


Guys and Dolls is not a Big Band musical, nor is Oklahoma! a folk musical; Cabaret is not a Weimar revue, while Hair is neither really rock nor opera. It is the genius of the musical theatre medium--and perhaps the very reason it has often seemed marginalized or moribund in relation to the popular music mainstream--that it co-opts these musical styles and subjects them to the demands of lyrics and drama.


What the panoramic Ragtime affirms above all is that, 70 years after Show Boat, there remain artists who know how to make this unique storytelling medium work for an audience, and that there's still a wide audience for it. That composer Flaherty artfully employs gospel, pop, Americana, music hall, Eastern European folk, and above all the music of the title in his brilliant score, is incidental to his and lyricist Ahrens' mastery of their craft; based on their other work together--Once on This Island, Lucky Stiff, My Favorite Year, the new animated Anastasia--I'm convinced they could as artfully employ blues, ska, or 12-tone serialism to the needs of their medium.


If the future of the musical theatre rests in anyone's hands, it's in those who, like Flaherty and Ahrens, respect its lineage and its craft, and can meet its exacting demands. Tomorrow belongs to those artists standing firmly on the shoulders of the giants who created this century's great art form--not those who, like the misguided Larson, would make an end run around it in search of "relevance" or "immediacy."


As we reach the end of this noisy American century, there is no art more immediate and direct than a good showtune delivered straight in a center spot.