What Is That?

I had a couple people tell me that they didn’t like FUN HOME, the musical that Cadence Theatre Company produced this past fall, but that they weren’t criticizing the production. They just don’t like musicals.

A little poking around via Google shows that this kind of aversion is not uncommon; there is even a musical about hating musicals. But when you consider a show like IN THE HEIGHTS that Virginia Rep did last season or HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL that we did here along with TheatreLAB: these shows managed to cover intense topical issues, had plenty of moments of just sheer antic entertainment, creating all sorts of transformative theater magic. I find it hard to believe that there are really people who wouldn’t like a show like that just because it’s a musical.

I wonder how much the aversion has to do with the label. You call something a musical and some people immediately envision unrealistic plotting or over-the-top sentimentality. They get visions of actors overemoting in the midst of soaring ballads or breaking into song at times that would be extremely awkward in real life.

Or perhaps their parents dragged them to a particularly bad production of “Music Man” at a key point in their childhood development. Or maybe they consider musicals patently uncool in the preordained kind of way that the kids in the first “High School Musical” did back before Zac Efron and his abs were such stars.

Maybe. But I keep circling back to labels; they can be powerful. Some folks have told me they categorically dislike Shakespeare. Just the word “Shakespeare” seems to equal “medicine” to them, even though they like plenty of other thoughtful or language-rich shows. It’s hard not to think it’s the label -- not the content -- that people are reacting to, particularly once you’ve seen an extremely playful or deeply affecting production of one of the Bard’s best works.

MARY C. BROWN AND THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN just closed here yesterday and it's been talked about as a musical-in-development. But, in this staging, we listed it as a musical revue. It makes sense: It’s a short piece and is essentially a sung-through album. But wait a minute: wasn’t GREEN DAY’S AMERICAN IDIOT essentially a sung-through album? So why wasn’t that production a musical revue?

“Well, Dave, you idiot” you’re saying, “IDIOT had characters and scenes and, you know, musical theater stuff.” Well, sure, but there are recurring characters in BROWN and under George Boyd’s direction, there were scenes and interactions onstage. So what will it take to push MARY C. BROWN fully into the musical realm? And, on the other side of the spectrum, plenty of productions staged in town every year have forced the RTCC to make an awards-related call -- is it a musical or “a play with music?” K Dance, the company that produced the wonderful YES! Dance Festival here earlier this month, has developed dance pieces with characters and scenes and music and spoken word. Are those “plays with movement and music?”

Which all begs the question: do these labels matter? Can’t we just call these things “performances” and avoid lumping a production into one category or another?

From a simple marketing standpoint, I realize that isn’t really feasible. People want to know basic things before they’re willing to commit their time, money and attention. But it would be nice to find a way to tell people in a short succinct way, “we’re presenting a musical but not a traditional one and even people who hate musicals will love it.”

Next month, Firehouse will be presenting a world premiere opera, TO DAMASCUS. The label “opera” is going to stick in a lot of craws. “Aren’t all the lyrics in Italian or German?” “Isn’t the singing always loud and potentially glass-shattering?” “Don’t only old people like opera?”

Well, obviously we hope not. Joel sometimes talks about the show as an anti-opera and maybe labeling it that way will counteract the immediate negative response some people are going to have. But maybe it’ll make opera purists concerned that it’s not a “real” opera. It was written by Walter Braxton, a musical prodigy who has been composing for years and yet hasn’t been produced hardly at all (Style Weekly did a great cover story on Walter a few years ago). That alone makes it worth staging and hopefully will pique the interest of a lot of folks.

Mostly, we hope people will look beyond any specific label and come see something that will be challenging and interesting to both opera snobs and musical theater fans alike. It’s hard to gauge what will push people to take that leap and try something they wouldn’t usually be interested in. In “High School Musical,” it was the basketball player trying out for the school play. Maybe Walter Braxton can be opera’s Zac Ephron?

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