FROM THE GOLDEN AGE TO MODERN-DAY BROADWAY
By Joanna May Hunkins
Since TMTP began in 2000, we’ve focused on celebrating classic musical theater with you: the great songs of Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Sheldon Harnick—and most recently, Jerry Herman, to name a few. But of course, while we’ve been looking back, as usual Broadway has been moving forward (perhaps you’ve heard of a little show called Hamilton). So, upon completing our 15th anniversary season, Bill Rudman and Nancy Maier thought this was the perfect time to check in on some of the innovative work produced since TMTP’s inception.
Co-hosted by Nancy and longtime TMTP artist Sheri Gross (who also wrote the show), For Good: The New Generation of Musicals will be presented Thursday, August 4 at Cain Park’s Alma Theater. The concert offers selections from musical theater created in the 21st century and features vocalists Jessica Cope Miller and Eric Fancher. They’ve been tasked with demonstrating the wide range of styles that will give us a glimpse of Broadway’s—and Off Broadway’s—new directions, some of which relate in fascinating ways to the so-called golden age.
I spoke with Nancy, Sheri, Jessica and Eric about developing this concert and why new musicals play such an important role in the ongoing development of the art form.
Joanna: Sheri and Nancy, you’ve been working on this one for a while. How did you decide what to include in the concert from more than 15 years of material?
Nancy: We compiled a list of all the musicals on or Off Broadway that have opened since 2000. We both had our favorites, so our first “must include” list was way too long!
Sheri: To avoid putting on a five-hour marathon, we had to narrow down the material. We really wanted a mix of songs that our audience would know and love—and songs that we were dying for our audience to hear so they could fall in love with them as we had.
Joanna: Here’s your chance. If you had to pick one show from the 21st century that you’ve fallen in love with, what would it be?
Nancy: I think my favorite is Next to Normal. When I saw it on Broadway, it drew me into a different world. The music has a unique quality that’s magical and strange and beautiful all at the same time.
Sheri: If I’m forced to pick, I’d choose Wicked because I will never forget seeing it with my daughter and the expression on her face. Sharing the excitement and delight made that show a winner for me.
Eric: I would typically say Avenue Q or Urinetown, but I’m going to have to give it to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first show, In the Heights. When I saw it on Broadway in 2008, I was absolutely floored by the music, the passion and the energy erupting from the stage. Nothing has come close to that experience.
Jessica: And his Hamilton is pretty hard to beat right now.
Joanna: Lin-Manuel Miranda is definitely the man of the hour. Do you think he’s this generation’s Stephen Sondheim or Richard Rodgers?
Eric: I think he will define this era of musical theater, as they each did their own.
Nancy: There seems to be nothing he can’t do, and do well. He’s established something very new and exciting that still pays homage to what classic musical theater is all about.
Jessica: He is definitely in that category. Hamilton aside, I believe his positive attitude, generous spirit and openness—not to mention his command of social media! – will absolutely put him down in the history books.
Sheri: There are so many beautifully scored contemporary musicals, but I don’t know that we have found anyone who is consistently unique and stands out over everyone else. Maybe I can be persuaded!
Joanna: What aspects of the golden age of musical theater have generally stayed intact with new musicals?
Sheri: The golden age—certainly since Oklahoma! in 1943—really focused on plot. The songs furthered the story, whether it was with humor or pathos. I do think most contemporary musicals are still plot-driven. I also think the trend of using theater to highlight social issues is actually one that’s been around for quite a while.
Eric: The only thing that’s consistent is change. Modern theater, like that of the golden age, is always taking risks and exploring human nature. Even the oft-dreaded jukebox musical was an experiment in creativity.
Joanna: So what can musicals do now that they couldn’t 50 years ago?
Jessica: There are still tons of “feel-good” musicals out there, which are needed. But as society has brought to light issues that were seldom discussed publicly in the past, shows like Next to Normal and Spring Awakening continue to open up new conversations in mainstream America.
Joanna: How has the writing style in new musicals affected performers?
Nancy: They have to be able to do everything—every style of singing, every style of dance. The demands are tremendous and require great training and resilience. The days when a large show could have both a singing chorus and a dancing chorus are long gone.
Joanna: Jessie, you’ve sung so many styles in TMTP’s previous concerts. Is there a “sound” that defines new musicals?
Jessica: My first thought is always to be truthful and find the “sound” or voice of the character and where I fit in the story. As far as general new sound or style, I think there’s more spoken text within songs. Dialogue and music is more seamless as opposed to stopping the action to sing a song.
Joanna: Eric, how are you feeling about making your TMTP debut?
Eric: Jessie is a phenomenal talent so anytime I get to share the stage with her is fun. Also being at Cain Park is always a pleasure!
Joanna: Why will audiences of all generations enjoy this particular concert?
Nancy: I think there’s something for everyone here. There are fun songs and edgy songs, as well as beautiful and emotional songs, no matter the style. And we hope to show some connections to the past, and therefore open doors to a new understanding.
Jessica: I think the reason to see this show is the same reason to see any TMTP show. Songs from musicals speak to all of us.
Joanna: And as long as there are new musicals, we’ll be listening.