The Music Man, The Arena Stage, and Musical Theatre

I’m frequently reminded that unless I keep up with posting on a more regular basis, it’s hard to build a following for my “View in the Dark” blog.  On the other hand, my very few and very loyal fans know this is a specialty blog that deals almost exclusively with being a live-theatre audience member  — except when I go off on a tangent or a rant  [Can’t help it … Sorry.]  The pocket-book is the ultimate determiner of just how many plays I can take in on one of my beloved theatre binges, so there’s bound to be a lot of space in between.

I know you readers share my love for the theatre.  I don’t imagine you want to spend your valuable time reading the sweet nothings of many of the daily blogs.  And I have little patience for blogging just for the hell of it if I don’t really have something to say.   Hence there are long periods of time when I make no new posts.

All that being said, I encourage you to please spread this one around among your theatre friends.  The more the merrier, and the livelier.  If you’re willing, I’m particularly eager that you take a few minutes to respond, approve, disapprove, argue, etc.  I don’t really deem these scribblings to be critical reviews, because I am seeing only one vision of a performance.  There are as many visions as people in an audience.  I don’t claim to know whether something is a good or bad show, worthy or unworthy of your attendance.  I don’t know what affects you.  I can only tell you how I felt sitting in that dark theater, in that moment.  You take it from there.  I can tell you what did or didn’t impress me, and how … if I can find the words for it.  But I prefer to leave professional judgments up to the professional judges, who get paid for their opinions – the ones who can make or break a show.

So please, at this site, feel free to leave all the opinions and reactions you’d care to, of a show or my response to it.  Take exception to, or lavish agreement on me.  Your thoughts are equally valid and valuable to us all.  And if you’ve a mind to, please put your email address in that little box at the top on the right, and subscribe.  You’ll receive a notice when there is a post, but you will NOT be hassled with junk.

Then, when you’re through reading, please push that little button at the bottom of this post, and leave a comment.   I haven’t made a post since Joan and I got back from New York back in April.  So there’s the proof:  You can rest assured I won’t be clogging up your mailbox.

Still, it’s been a while, and Joan and I did slip up to Washington a few weeks back to catch The Music Man at the Arena Stage, for old times’ sake.  So I owe at least a few words on that.

If you look back through some of my former entries (Search “Arena”), you’ll know I’m a long-time huge fan of the Arena Stage, in Washington.   If you haven’t yet seen their magnificent new glass, wood and concrete structure, which completely incorporates the old Arena Stage building, roof and all, as well as two more theatres, just go for that.   It’s a mighty expression of the codependence of art and commercialism.  It’s beautiful, functional, expensive, and impressive, and it changes the Washington skyline.

I first went to the Arena on a school trip when it was in the converted vat room of an old brewery up on 9th Street.  It was 1955, and I suspect the play was The Mousetrap. Were I to do a thorough search of my attic, I might even find the old program.  Two years later, our school did a production of it in which I played Detective Sergeant Trotter — my almost-stage-debut at age 17.  You probably all know that damn play is still going strong in London, the longest running play in history.  The Mousetrap is now celebrating it’s 60th year, having clocked around 25,000 performances.  Go figure.  Okay, it’s fun, but it’s not THAT good.  Still, you can’t blame me for being side-tracked by that little piece of trivia.

For the past twelve years, the Arena has been under the artistic leadership of the dynamic Molly Smith, a fine director recruited from Juneau, Alaska.  She’s long been instrumental in encouraging new work for the American stage.  In 2009, with a million dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, she established the American Voices New Play Institute, a think tank for the development of new American plays.  Its Playwright-in-residence Program houses five emerging and established playwrights in a townhouse that Arena has rented three blocks from the theater.   For three years, they receive a $40,000 annual salary, health benefits, and production seed money that they control to revisit older works or write new ones. Arena promises to produce at least one play by each of them.  Playwrights can take comfort in the hope that this project will provide the incentive for regional theatres around the country to take up the standard.  The Arena is now one of the top spots in the country for assuring that new American plays will continue to be “wrought.”

At the same time Ms. Smith is building new work and new audiences with her Arena seasons, she is also expressing herself as a great fan of the classic American musical theatre.   Last year, she directed an absolutely magical production of Oklahoma.  The production was legendary for its sensitive performances, its fine energetic dancing, its bi-racial casting, and the surprising performance by 16-year-old June Schreiner as Ado Annie.  It was a legendary sold-out production, extended and then brought back for an additional summer run.   When I saw it, whatever cynical doubts I may have entertained as to the modern day relevance of Oklahoma went out the window in the first five minutes.  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music, or course, is undeniably addictive; the history is fascinating; the new insights bountiful, and the personal connection with the audience rewarding.  If you didn’t see it, you missed a gem.

Okay, Bill.  Enough stalling.  You were going to talk about The Music Man, remember?  All right, all right.  I have to say that the music in The Music Man is also absolutely wonderful.  It’s got 76 Trombones, and Goodnight My Someone (the same tune, but in waltz time), and Ya got Trouble in River City, and Gary, Indiana, and Lida Rose, and Marian the Librarian, and The Wells Fargo Wagon.  Great stuff!    Meredith Wilson could sure write … songs.  And the folks in the Arena cast can sure sing those songs.  There are some beautiful renditions.  And Molly Smith sure does know how to move people around on a stage.  The dancing was terrific, and the acting was more than competent.

However, I have to confess I was not sufficiently moved this time.  Perhaps it’s because I never have thought that the book for this show is all that heart-grabbing.  It seems to have some scenes missing, and others feel repetitive or out of order.  I just don’t think the structure of the story is all that well put together for building any kind of expectation and suspense, or enough affection for the flim-flam man, the librarian, or little Winthrop.  I couldn’t find the sense of rhythm so crucial to providing significant payoffs.   I got flustered by questions, like … How does Harold Hill con all that money if he’s ordered all those band uniforms?  Maybe I was just in a sour-grapes mood.  … but I tried!  Joan liked it … kind of, somewhat.  On the other hand, most of the real critics raved about it … almost as much as they had raved about Oklahoma.  So there ya go.

Okay, so I’m in the minority, but here’s my chief problem with the way so many musicals are done these days (not just at the Arena, whose Oklahoma I thought was a significant exception).  Modern musicals have largely turned into concert performances, not plays.  Songs are sung not to elevate the intensity of the language or heighten the dramatic conflict, but only to impress the audience.  Singers show off absolutely magnificent voices, but only by stopping the play, stepping out of character, and virtually saying to us “Watch me, now…  Listen to this.  This is what I can do.”  In a split second, the dramatic intensity between the characters is gone, or the inherent character comedy turns into stand-up.  And with that loss, my involvement in the play and my empathy for the character goes out the window.  I came to see first and foremost a play, not a concert.   How can you sing a love song meaningfully, for instance, if you’re looking not at your lover but at the audience for their approval?  That style of delivery happened far too often for me in The Music Man.  And as a result, I got disconnected from the story and the characters, as they did from each other.  I could find few believable relationships among them.  And the story didn’t seem to build well; it lacked its own plot connections, and the payoffs were kind of wimpy.  I’m not sure whether the problem was with Wilson’s book, or with Molly’s now formulaic if still appealing approach to musical extravaganza.  Or maybe I’m just being curmudgeonly.

I’ve had similar and far greater disappointments with other musical productions, where the vast majority of rehearsal time seems to have been spent creating stage pictures with fancy sets and costumes, and stock choreography.  Spectacle is pleasing and necessary, and it does provide those emotional “wow” moments.  Everybody knows a good parade can make us laugh or cry!  And if it has talented kids in it, I can do both.   (We didn’t even really get a good parade here.)   Dialogue lines may be correct and audible these days, but they tend toward the impersonally robotic and less human, and they have little genuine dramatic impact.  New audio technology and the ever-improving body microphones aren’t helping.  (Who’s singing that, anyway?)   Too often voices fail to produce that lump-in-the-throat gasp that we go to live theatre to experience.   Sadly, this impersonal trend seems to have become the new convention and expectation, and directors play to it.  I suspect it derives from the popularity on the Broadway stage of so many contemporary concert performances disguised as musical plays:  Witness Spiderman, Memphis, Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages, Bloody Andrew Jackson, etc.  That’s where the big bucks are, and producers know it.  Nobody expects to find human relationships in those plays.  They all depend on microphones to “enhance” voice, and they are all formulaic concert performances with a gimmick, with as little dialogue as necessary to string together as many songs as possible.  It’s a trend that has unfortunately even crept into new stagings of musicals that still retain meaningful  dialogue and story, as well as into straight plays.

Whatever happened to the notion that lyric and music is an integral elevation of dialogue to more effectively communicate emotion, etc.?  Whatever happened to real connections between characters?  Whatever happened to genuinely motivated dialogue?  Whatever happened to ACTING in musicals?  It’s become a disappearing art, side-tracked by the need to present a concert.  Concerts are one thing.  Musical Theatre is, or ought to be, something else.

On the other hand, other musical theatre productions I’ve seen recently, like Oklahoma, The Book of Mormon, Anything Goes, Follies and the New York version of Billy Eliot  could still gift their audiences with recognizable humanity, still make money … and still leave us with that good old lump in the throat —  something to be truly treasured.  And if you want to catch The Music Man, I certainly wouldn’t discourage you from seeking it there.  It plays at the Arena through July 22, 2012.

There.  That ought’a raise a hackle or two.

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3 Responses to The Music Man, The Arena Stage, and Musical Theatre

  1. Francine Brady says:


  2. Barry says:

    Sorry but I can’t debate plays as I have not the background to be critical. When I go, I go for entertainment, and frankly, the musicals that I have attended have been hugely entertaining. A concert maybe, but a great way to spend an evening or afternoon! Now if you want to debate movies . . .

    Keep ’em commin Bill. Love to read them. B

  3. jzrart says:

    It’s Joan, here. I just need to clarify my “kind of, somewhat,” mentioned in the post above. I dislike the play, The Music Man, always have, always will. I enjoyed the music to a certain extent. It was too stiff, little heart involved, but I did go home humming a few tunes. I loved most of the costumes, liked some of the acting and dancing. The part I LOVED was being with my sweetheart, away from the crunch of the real world.

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