Strike Up the Band

Photo by Deidre SchooIn the land of OCWeeklytheater listings (it's really more of a studio), little things mean a lot. Any time we stumble across something that approaches entertainment, it's like catching a glimpse of the Holy Grail. But lately, we've had the opposite problem: last weekend, 12 musicals clogged the county's arteries—giving us a gout of the brain. And interestingly enough, they covered two ends of the form's spectrum: the kind that have been entertaining the hoi polloi for decades (Guys andDolls, AnythingGoes) and the more contemporary, rock-infused, naughty fare such as the glam-rock homage HedwigandtheAngryInch, the New York Dolls-inspired SoAlone, and the Troubadour Theater Co.'s frenetically uproarious Hamlet,theArtistFormerlyKnownasPrinceofDenmark.

Combine this local flurry of musicals with the fact that the biggest ticket in Southern California next to the Harvest Crusade is Wicked, currently playing at the Pantages in Hollywood, and it's indisputable that in the relatively small world of theater, musicals remain big business.

But why? Musicals bring people to the theater, otherwise they wouldn't be produced—but we've always had community theaters and light operas wasting everybody's time with stuff like Annie.What's curious is that so many storefront theaters—such as the Chance, the Hunger Artists, the Maverick and Stages—are producing musicals at the same time. The reason runs deeper than simple economics.

While I'm not sure if musicals are perceived by ironic disaffected hipsters—and the people who need their support to thrive in the arts—as being any cooler than they ever have been, the musicalnumberdefinitely is. The extraordinary success of such TV shows as TheSimpsonsand SouthParkhas helped create a sea change in the way musical numbers are used in pop-culture vehicles. Disney's animated features always use music to tell their sappy stories, but the newer breed of animated sitcoms (see TheFamilyGuy) use song and dance to mock and satirize not only issues but also musical conventions themselves—and, in the case of SouthPark's brain trust, they can also advocate a decidedly political agenda.

Maybe it has to do with the liberties we allow animated programs versus the conventionality we expect of more realistic forms of visual entertainment. The musical number is, at its heart, an inherently silly notion: people do talk and people do sing, but this side of a padded room, people rarely burst into song while speaking. We understand this on some level, which is why we can rationalize Cartman doing it, but we'd shriek in terror if Jack Tripper or Cliff Huxtable ever did. The new musical number, playing to a shrewdly informed audience with parodies of musical theater programmed into its DNA, is inherently ironic and postmodern, and that may be why the hipper storefront theaters are being drawn to them.

Whatever the reason, it's clear musicals—or at least the use of musical numbers—are becoming more accepted by a youth culture that by and large has resisted big-budget musicals for decades. For every person under the age of 30 who can hum a song from Cats, there are probably 10,000 who can recite “America, Fuck Yeah!” verbatim.

With the exception of the Troubadour's recent Hamletexcursion (which returns in September to Garden Grove), recent local musical productions haven't yet begun to emulate the frenetic, pop-culture riffing of TheSimpsonsor SouthPark.Even the more risqu, such as TheRockyHorrorShow, follow traditional musical-theater models, while SoAloneand Hedwigare basically rock concerts with some dialogue thrown in. But they'd do well to start paying attention to TheSimpsonsand SouthPark.Theaters will eventually run out of steam and money by continually producing plays that are mere proven commodities. You might be passionate about Neil Simon, murder mysteries and the two-hour, well-made play with a 15-minute intermission, but that kind of stuff is incomprehensible to younger audiences with short attention spans and sharply ironized pop-cultural antennae.

If theaters—and theater itself—have any hope of staying in business and staying relevant, they're going to have to start attracting younger bodies and fresher minds by learning to speak the language of people more familiar with the Beastie Boys than Bette Midler, more comfortable with Homer Simpson than Homer's Iliad.Musical numbers could be just what they need.

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