A century and a half after the first American musical, the art form is “growing of age, and it’s time we addressed the growing pains,” historian Margaret Hall said in her TEDx Broadway talk yesterday.
Some shows have aged better than others. “A lot of older shows are difficult for us as modern viewers today,” Hall said. “Honestly, that’s one of my greatest joys because it’s a direct sign of progress. To be honest, I would be a bit worried if the sensitivities hadn’t changed.”
Hall created five categories as a framework for examining how useful an old show is for modern audiences. Her framework, she conceded, “isn’t perfect and I’ll spend the rest of my life refining it, but it’s a start.”
She used Oscar Hammerstein II musicals to illustrate each category and acknowledged that not everyone would agree with where she places each show.
Description: The show communicates its message effectively without potential problems getting in the way.
Example Hammerstein: The Sound of Music
“Its message of heart, hope and humanity resonates with audiences around the world, making it one of the most performed regional community and educational plays in the country. It still has a story to tell and audiences are still learning its lessons.”
Description: The problems within the play can be alleviated by how the play is staged or performed.
Hammerstein Examples: Oklahoma and South Pacific
These are shows that, according to Hall, “can drift into stereotypes if not staged and performed in a responsible manner.” Both “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific” were recently revived in a way “that has turned the way the current generation sees them on its head. without changing a single word that Oscar Hammerstein wrote. This is stuff that has the power for a modern retelling.”
Description: The problems are burned into the play itself, but when carefully addressed, the show still has something outstanding to say. “They still resonate with modern audiences, but we might squirm a little in our seat if we look too closely.”
Example Hammerstein: The King and I
The King and I is a perfect example of a show with a lot of valuable messages – the importance of lifelong learning, working together toward a common goal, etc. – while also having aspects that wouldn’t go down well if aired today for the first time Times would be presented — the white savior is embedded in the source code; the treatment of East Asia, the way women are insured, and so on.
Description: You have to completely remake one aspect of the play to make it palatable. This is where the concept of “revision” comes into play.
Hammerstein example: Flower Drum Song
“Flower Drum Song was written from a place of deep love and respect for the Asian American community. But at the end of the day, Oscar wrote from the perspective of a community he could never truly belong to. In 2002, David Henry Hwang, an Asian-American playwright, was brought in to dramatically revamp the play, using songs that have become part of the American zeitgeist as a soundtrack for far more honest performances.”
Description: The play has historical value but no longer needs to be publicly performed. It’s worth more than a piece of where we’ve been, where we’re going. “Some people confuse this category with bad and they are not synonymous at all. Just because of archived shows doesn’t mean it was never useful. In fact, they were usually extremely useful in their time.”
Example Hammerstein: Show Boat
“Show Boat is arguably one of the most important musicals in the history of the American theatrical canon. It changed the kind of conversations we could have on stage and revolutionized what a musical could look like. It has also ceased to be a productive discussion with modern audiences. Now the book has been rewritten ad nauseam as we continue to cast Showboat into the modern era, but I think it now holds more value as an example of where we’ve been than an example of where we’re going.
Hall acknowledged that these are porous categories to debate. “A show can be tricky for one and tedious for another.” What’s important, she said, “is that we have these conversations.
“We need to make conscious choices about what art does and doesn’t serve us as a community, and what does and doesn’t serve us in the future.”
A video of her full talk will soon be available on the TedXBroadway website.