Once upon a time, the Broadway musical was something of a mediator between the worlds of popular music and classical music. Its songs were Top 40 hits and could be heard almost anywhere. But at the same time the Broadway musical hinted at larger forms. It has been frequently described, quite accurately, as America’s vernacular opera. It was even frequently a hotbed for innovation, pushing boundaries both of accepted social mores and musical styles. And, with a balcony seat costing only twice the price of a movie up until the late 1970s, it was something that could potentially reach almost anybody.
For the musically adventurous, musical theatre served as a vital bridge to all of the remarkable music that happened outside the commercial mainstream. Ironically, however, show music operated completely within the commercial mainstream. But, over the past generation, the economics of Broadway changed drastically, and with that change its central role in American culture has waned.
Composer Adam Guettel and I are almost exact contemporaries. We both grew up during what Mark N. Grant, author of The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, claims was an irreversible period of decline. As a teen, I was just getting introduced to the music of Richard Rodgers, sitting in the balcony on the opening nights for his final shows, Rex and I Remember Mama. Adam’s grandfather was Richard Rodgers. His mother, Mary Rodgers, was also a musical theatre composer.
You might assume that having such a lineage would mean that the Broadway tradition was in Adam’s blood from day one, but Adam is trying to reinvent American musical theatre, incorporating stylistic idioms not normally associated with show music. At one point in our conversation he wryly remarked that he hoped that in the extremely eclectic mix of genre that informs his sound world that only “the slimmest sliver is the canonic Broadway sound.”
Indeed, an initial listen to the original cast album of his off-Broadway Floyd Collins—the first show of his to be recorded—reveals a strange musical stew. Early Southern string band music, contemporary folk song, and Feldman-esque introspection seamlessly blend with a dramatic sensibility totally informed by the tradition of the musical from Jerome Kern to Stephen Sondheim. Later comes Myth and Hymns, which adds an almost surreal take on sacred harp, gospel, and R&B to the mix. Then there’s the quasi-operatic and completely infectious The Light in the Piazza, whose score earned Adam a Tony last year and which has just embarked on a nationwide tour following a PBS Live from Lincoln Center telecast. And now he’s working on a musical version of The Princess Bride and has hinted at writing a “real” opera soon thereafter.
But could such simultaneously innovative and immediate work ever happen on “Broadway” again? Adam is now based in Seattle and is reveling in a grass roots musical theatre movement that has been blossoming everywhere in the country except Broadway. But he would also like to see Broadway once again become a hotbed for exciting new work; and, if anyone out there can make such a thing happen, it’s him.