‘A Funny Thing Happened’ to musicals

“It is only slightly overstating the case to say that all American pop culture since the 1950s from Rock n Roll to Stephen Sondheim’s highbrow deconstructions of their aesthetic has been a reaction to Rogers and Hammerstein,” –Stephen Holden,  The New York Times.

I write about what I want. Today, I’m writing about musicals, not travel or nature. So bite me.

I just recently finished seeing “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in Oak Ridge. The cast and set designers did an excellent job. It brought back memories because I was in a production in college.

Me as the courtesan Vibrata. I do wish my dress showed off my fake breasts better, but still pretty great.

“Forum” might at first seem like a dead end. Vaudeville shtick, gloriously dated gender roles — show tune music that makes no bones about being show tunes, chorus girls. Oh and sex slavery played for laughs. In reality though, it was actually a sign of the direction musicals would take. Or rather the direction they wouldn’t take.

For everything that “Forum” is, there’s a pretty important thing it’s not. It’s not Rogers and Hammerstein.

The stage musical “The Sound of Music,” arguably Rogers and Hammerstein’s most famous, came out in 1961. “Forum” came out in 1962.

“Forum” in its stage incarnation interestingly enough has a scene in which a character tries to think happy thoughts to calm himself down … and fails.

Rogers and Hammerstein musicals have, for better or worse, shaped what people, especially older people, think musicals are supposed to be. People who say they hate musicals are probably thinking of that model. And indeed it’s a model that includes other shows like “Oliver!” “Annie” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Sentimental, family friendly, and above all else: realistic.

Realistic is the wrong word here. Rogers and Hammerstein musicals do indeed have people singing when singing wouldn’t really fly in our world as a way to address themselves or others. They also make little to no attempt to represent cultures or historic periods accurately, just ask people from Austria or Thailand.* But no one breaks the forth wall, nothing is truly campy or over the top. You aren’t being reminded that you’re watching a play like in “Forum” where the lead actor starts out addressing the audience and explaining the exactly what kind of play you’re watching: one that isn’t serious. A comedy tonight.

In Forum, there’s no attempt to assume this is reality.

Looking on movie musicals with American origins over the past few decades, there are only a few that actually seem devoted to the Rogers and Hammerstein kind of sincerity. The others, “Mulan Rouge,” “The Producers,” “Mama Mia,” “Chicago,” “Rock of Ages,” “Into the Woods,” to a lesser extent “Sweeny Todd,” all exist with either a sense of camp, unreality, taking light things that are serious or avoiding serious things altogether. The only 100 percent sincere in the Rogers and Hammerstein sense musical released recently in movie theaters that I can recall was “Dreamgirls.” Which I doubt many people still care about. Please note: I’m not endorsing the above, I’m just saying that none of them are really following the old model, or if they ever do, they’re not following it closely.

Plenty of modern people’s exposure to old fashioned style musical numbers, outside of Disney is “Family Guy” of all places, which says something about how modern people view musicals: as something that belongs in a realm of unreality and insincerity.

The truth is, I’m not really an expert on the mainstream musical as it’s progressed. I’ve never seen “Hamilton” or “Wicked!” I’ve not even seen “Rent.” But what I can say is that the brief period of Post-Watergate, boomer musicals seemed like a deliberate attempt at skewering everything Rogers and Hammerstein stood for.

Take “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the movie of which actually references Watergate. It’s silly, forth wall breaking and yet still with a lighthearted view of sex. In other words, it’s not dissimilar from “Forum.”

It was striking that I saw “Forum” after seeing “Urinetown” (from 2001) at the Clarence Brown. It struck me the two shows had more in common with each other than either did with “Oklahoma!”

And at the end of the day, that’s a good thing. Musicals are a place where songs can have unreliable narrators. They’re a place where reality can just end. They can be a place where any idea can become important just by being sung, something which can lend itself to silliness by its very nature.

The world will probably never see another Rogers and Hammerstein. At the very least their model is not the only one. And that’s a good thing.

*As a side note, while I’m definitely not much of a Rogers and Hammerstein fan, I don’t hold their shows’ inaccurate portrayals of foreign settings and real people against them or their collaborators. “The Sound of Music” is really about imagining the reasons affluent Americans might fall to a totalitarian regime: because they might find it sexy or just want to use what they view as history’s inevitable tides to their advantage. It has little to do with why Austria embraced Hitler. The King and I uses Thailand and its class relations to explore American slavery and by extension its current manifestation at that time, Jim Crowe.  It’s so thinly veiled it includes a ballet-within-a-show of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The exotic settings are there to hide that you’re doing a serious portrayal of something that either could happen or has happened and something rather dark at that. It’s a way of sneaking your message to an audience that might not otherwise listen.


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