The Death of the Broadway Showtune:Why, Oh Why, Oh?

7.7.2014

By Michael Musto

Plus: What does George Takei think about the return of Miss Saigon and The King and I to Broadway?

Anthony Wayne (left), Ciara Renée & Andrew Fitch in Broadway's 'Pippin' | Photo by Joan Marcus

Let me sing it out, Louise: I happen to be a regular at Marie’s Crisis, the long-running West Village piano bar where inebriated people and their friends gather to group-sing Broadway hits till the cows from Shenandoah come home. It’s a nonstop theater-queen funfest, but I’ve come to realize that the top shows represented there by the in-house pianists are: Anything Goes (1934), Oklahoma! (1943), West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), The Sound of Music (1959), Company (1970), Pippin (1972), Chicago (1975), A Chorus Line (1975), and Little Shop of Horrors (1982). That’s a lot of tattered old sheet music! In fact, the most recent show played at Marie’s is 32 years old—almost ready for a mid-life crisis.

Yes, they’ll throw in a Rent tune every once in a while, but it’s usually with a sense of dutiful obligation. (You’ve never heard “525,600 minutes” go by so quickly.) And they’ll occasionally drum up some Mary Poppins numbers that were featured in the 2006 Broadway extravaganza, but that was based on the 1964 movie. Old songs! And while other piano bars might favor the belty bars of “Let It Go,” let me remind you that just sounds like a show tune. It happens to have been from a movie, which is why it won an Oscar, even though Broadway people were involved. And when Frozen inevitably hits Broadway (no doubt on ice), “Let It Go” will sound as borrowed as “Chim Chim Cheree.”

So, why don’t show tunes ever advance into the modern age? With so many Broadway musicals doing boffo business these days, why must a visit to a piano bar (or even a look at Glee, with occasional exceptions) be the equivalent of a time tunnel trip back to the same old top 10 from the golden age?

Well, for one thing, a huge chunk of the new Broadway musicals have old songs themselves! They’re jukebox shows, revues, pastiches, or Disney adaptations that specialize in trotting out pleasingly familiar sounds for Boomers and their relations.

And if they are original, today’s shows don’t always aim for socko hit songs. Their music is often more integrated into the script—sometimes surfacing as recitative—so the tunes aren’t necessarily stand-alone numbers designed to get ovations. In decades past, there was more effort made to insert hit songs into the proceedings, so they could be performed on variety shows and played on the radio. (Yes, Broadway show tunes actually got airplay, but that was then. Can’t imagine Big Fish knocking Pharrell off the charts next week.)

Another point of view may be that back then, there was more polish and artistry when it came to writing great songs for Broadway. Today’s musicals often sound like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Sondheim wannabes, flailing around in search of a tight, witty lyric set to a soaring, memorable melody and ending up unhummable and/or unspeakable.

But a lot of the blame has to also go to the pianists and the assembled crowds who help select the bar repertoire via their requests and tips. Surely someone could occasionally ask for “Popular,” a perfectly fun song from Wicked, which is only 11 years old and practically in kneepants. Lord knows it wouldn’t kill them if they launched into “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon or “Santa Fe” from Newsies. (No, they’re not “Climb Every Mountain” or “Gary, Indiana,” but they’re quite contagious in their own right and could certainly benefit from heavier rotation.) And honky tonk virtuosos could also dare to play tunes fromHairspray, Matilda, Kinky Boots, or even The Bridges of Madison County. (Surely there’s a duet in there that could give “Suddenly Seymour” a rest for a  minute and purify me.) But no! They fall back on the above 10 shows, with an occasional “Maybe This Time” thrown in, turning communal show-tuning into a sparkly but safe experience that proves nostalgia‘s not what it used to be.

Broadway composers are just going to have to try harder to write smash hits that will wow the piano bar crowd enough to get noticed while their show is still running, not decades later. I swear it can be done, so let’s all applaud until the show tune revives like Tinkerbell. Come on, clap for the ailing show tune and point me toward tomorrow.

But wait a minim! Hold everything! I recently went back to Marie’s Crisis, and in between serving up the essential A Chorus Line and Little Shop, pianist Jim Allen was actually playing a couple of songs from Avenue Q and Wicked! Wow, my public kvetching points get around really fast, lol. “It’s all about popular!”

Fire Island Invasion | Photo by Colin Shanley

LISTEN TO THE MUSIC OF THE NIGHT

Show tunes were lipsynched at Boots & Saddle, the long-running Christopher Street hole in the wall where drag queens perfected their craft with a ragtag yet game fervor as rats gave attitude outside. Well, B&S just closed up shop, but they have a new space on the gay horizon, and it’s way nicer than the old one. They’ve put in an application for 290-8th Avenue, the Chelsea spot of a fancy-ish former club called the Gates. Owner Robert Ziegler tells me he’s planning to make the place into a snazzy drag supper club (sans vermin singing “Be Our Guest” at the front door, I’d imagine).

There happens to be room for such a joint now that Lucky Cheng’s new location—on West 52nd Street—has unfortunately ended like a pop tart’s career post meltdown. The drag restaurant for bachelorettes and their admirers has shuttered its doors following the sad death of feisty owner Hayne Suthon, as “drag” takes on its less festive meaning again.

Thankfully, unquenchable party queen Susanne Bartsch is bringing her multi-gender caravan to even more places than before. Bartsch’s recent soiree at the Chelsea Hotel, featuring art both human and hung, is morphing into a MoMA experience as well as a runway event for next Fashion Week. After that—a theme park?

In clubs, Thursday has become a go-to night, thanks to Jose Colon’s Station party at the Bryant Park Hotel, where the ethnicities and genders are all over the map, and Justin Luke and Alan Picus’s Penthaus, a twink bash that fills the Copacabana’s geometrically designed rooftop areas with a summery sizzle. Both events are darkish, studded with drink tickets, and feature way more bopping than dancing. And they are big hits.

A Magic Kingdom full of drag queens converged for the tuckers’ answer to the World Cup—the annual Fire Island Invasion, whereby a bevy of cross dressers ferry from the Grove to the Pines, as the Pines queens marvel at creatures with chests larger than their own. This year‘s event brought out sparkly gals like Paula Tix, Felice Navidad, Dolores Clitoris, Anita Richman, Ann Phetamine, and the always lovely Dixie Normous, while my personal drag character, Minnie Cupcakes, mercifully stayed in the closet.

All dressed up and manly, I invaded a party for DIRECTV’s showings of the wonderful documentary To Be Takei, about the out, proud Star Trekker George Takei. At the event, I witnessed Takei saying to BoyCulture.com blogger Matthew Rettenmund, “You mean Diane McBain slept with Richard Burton?” (You can’t make this stuff up, kids.) Takei then took the stage to tell the crowd more up-to-date gossip—namely, that he sleeps with his costar (his husband, Brad Altman) and “Brad’s an absolutely shameless thief, because he steals the movie! I wish he’d shown some shame.” He’s right. Being so shameless is positively shameful these days.

Anyway, I got to chat with Takei that night about…show tunes! We talked about the imminent Broadway return of both The King and I and Miss Saigon, and Takei said, “My friend Jon Jon Briones plays the Engineer in Miss Saigon.” After a potent second, he added, “He’s Asian.” Whew! That’s good news. And so is the fact that the show’s score is only 25 years old.

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