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The American Musical, Part 2

Mr. Wattenberg: From Showboat to The Lion King, from Oklahoma to Chorus Line, the lights of Broadway burn brightly in the imaginations of millions of people around the world. The Broadway Musical is a unique 20th century art form, combining comedy and romance, music and dance. Who will join the ranks of Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein and Sondheim? What do the themes of musicals tell us about the story of America? To find out Think Tank is joined by Wiley Hausam, The executive Director of the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University, Associate Producer on the Tony Award winning Broadway show Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk and Editor of The New American Musical: An Anthology from the End of the Century. And by Judy Kaye a long time performer in musical theater. Among her many roles she has appeared in The Sound of Music, Kiss Me Kate, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and Sweeny Todd. She won a Tony for her performance in The Phantom of the Opera. The topic before the house; The American Musical, This Week on Think Tank!

Mr. Wattenberg: Judy Kaye, Wiley Hausam, welcome back to Think Tank.

Both: Thank you.

Mr. Wattenberg: I interviewed Sydney Pollack once and I asked him what’s the basic theme of American drama in music and in film, and he said very quickly, “The hero shapes destiny”, which is a very individualistic American sort of theme. If you have to put it in a sentence or two, how would you put that?

Mr. Hausam: I think the basic worldview of the musical is the American dream. A better life is coming; it’ll be prosperous; you will find love; your life will be happy; there will be a happy ending. As long as that holds true in our society about our daily lives and that matches up with what you see on a stage, then people will continue to embrace that. And they may embrace it after that because it’s reassuring and it is an American mythology.

Ms. Kaye: That’s –- that’s the American musical comedy probably, and then there are those trips left and right that we have taken over the years in the history of the form to tell the dark stories and the sad story. I mean, we’re talking about “Grey Gardens”. Well, that’s –- those are people who wanted something, too. They didn’t quite get it, but...

Mr. Hausam: Well, you know what’s interesting about “Grey Gardens”? You know, it’s about the -– it’s based on the documentary about the Beales, the mother and the daughter who had a house in the Hampton’s in the early ‘70s that was falling apart and they became notorious because they’re the cousins of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. And so basically they’re kind of out of their minds. So these guys have made a musical about it. Scott Frankel’s the composer; Michael Korie is the lyricist; Doug Wright who’s a very wonderful playwright has done the book, and it’s about these two women who searched for love but couldn’t find it; whose lives were filled with disappointment; who –- but who find some kind of love hiding out in their house with each other. And that kinda –- I can see how that reflects today. People are hiding out after September 11th. They’re hiding out with their iPods and their technology and yet, you do find (unintelligible) some kind of happy ending.

Mr. Wattenberg: I’m just looking through some of the names and the tunes and the composers and it’s an incredible roster. You begin with Gilbert and Sullivan, Irving Berlin, George Cohan, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Showboat, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Sound of Music, Sweeney Todd, A Chorus Line, Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Lion King, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein. It’s the all-star roster of American life in letters.

Ms. Kaye: You know, we’re talking about the development of the musical over time and how it reflects what’s going on in societ. There was a time when popular music started on Broadway. When the hit songs came from the scores of Broadway shows, but that sort of doesn’t happen much anymore. Maybe the last one was “Send in the Clowns”, I’m not sure.

Mr. Hausam: I guess there’s probably a song from “Cats”.

Ms. Kaye: Well, yes, there might be a song, that’s right...or “Phantom”. I don’t know about “Phantom” so much, but certainly “Cats”.

Mr. Hausam: Well, “Music of the Night”, you know.

Ms. Kaye: Yeah, but that never –- it was never top forty.

Mr. Hausam: Right.

Ms. Kaye: I mean, people love the stuff but...

Mr. Hausam: Memory.

Ms. Kaye: But we don’t generally find our pop tunes anymore coming from the scores of Broadway shows. That’s not to say that it can’t happen. I mean we’ve got Duncan Sheik who’s writing for the Broadway Theater. I think as it develops through time we want to encourage more of those kind of guys and gals who write. It’s kind of a reverse pollination. The folks who are writing for the popular culture should come into the form and write for musical theater and then it will start to reflect what’s going on now, for better or for worse, but it’s -– I don’t know, it might lose some of its optimism as it goes forward. It certainly has sometimes.

Mr. Hausam: Well, there was that period between 1966 and sometime in the late ‘70s when the musical was reflecting America during the Vietnam War and the Watergate era, so “Cabaret”, “Hair”, several of the Sondheim musicals where there was this disenchantment with marriage. I think that when it’s really healthy the musical does reflect what’s going on in America. It doesn’t recede into the past and have this kind of nostalgia and false relationship or disconnectedness from current society.

Mr. Wattenberg: How do you think the musical stars of today and yesteryear, how to the modern people compare to that?

Mr. Hausam: Well, I think the stage actors are every bit as good as they ever were. I think that there’s, you know, we have a culture that’s obsessed with celebrity.
People who are obsessed with being famous. So now we’re casting people on a TV show to be the stars of a revival of “Grease”.

Ms. Kaye: (Laughing) Yeah, that’s really depressing to me.

Mr. Hausam: There are a lot of incredibly skilled actors out there who have trained for many years and do it brilliantly. They’re there. They need to be appreciated. Judy’s one of the best.

Ms. Kaye: Thank you.

Mr. Hausam: You are. You’re fantastic. I saw Judy in on the 20th Century in Chicago when they came out on the national tour and you know, this was like a big moment in your career. It’s like “star arrives” really was that moment I think. And then I followed her ever since then. She’s brilliant.

Mr. Wattenberg: Well, we heard some...

Ms. Kaye: (Laughter) Well, I’m not bashful anyway.

Mr. Hausam: And then when you get on a stage you can bring a whole other level of kind of artifice to it.

Ms. Kaye: Oh, yes, and I have colleagues who are, you know, miles deep. There are so many of them who are so wonderful. I just did an old Irving -– it would have to be old –- it was an Irving Berlin Moss Hart piece called “Face the Music” and there’s a series at City Center called Encores and they revive, however briefly and very beautifully, old musicals. And so we just did “Face the Music” which hadn’t been done for 75 years, and man, was that a great cast! Oh, my God, were they good. Every one of them. Some of them were like 22 years old and they were brilliant.

Mr. Wattenberg: I think the first theatrical work I was in I had a little walk-on in Moss Hart’s “Light up the Sky”.

Ms. Kaye: Did you really?!

Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah. I forget what it was, but he was great.

Ms. Kaye: Oh, my goodness; oh, my gosh. The script was hysterical.

Mr. Hausam: Is it? Is it?

Ms. Kaye: It’s so funny. So that there is hope. There’s hope.

Mr. Hausam: There is hope, and thank goodness for City Center Encore and there are a couple of that type of thing around the country where you kind of semi-stage them and it’s in concert and you have the full orchestra and the original sound of the orchestra. Shows that you couldn’t really fully produce anymore because there probably wouldn’t be a big enough audience for them or it would be too expensive, but you could still get a sense of this original heritage of the musical.

Ms. Kaye: Yeah, and the thing about Broadway that was always, always true from the very beginnings is that it was a place of diversity. You would have Eugene O’Neal playing next to Moss Hart and Irving Berlin next to what they would call just a tired businessman’s show where it was just the girls and the feathers and stuff and all of this existed in the same world. And I think there has to be room for that always. That the musical will continue to grow and change with the culture and -– but that doesn’t mean that we don’t honor and enjoy “Oklahoma” and “Showboat”, the very beginnings of the American musical. There’s a place for all of that.

Mr. Hausam: And you know, some people think that the musical is kind of old-fashioned and there’s a certain kind of disdain for it and we went through this period where there was like this parody and irony about musicals, making fun of musicals, but there’s this -– have you heard of “High School Musical”?

Mr. Wattenberg: What?

Mr. Hausam: I just got introduced to this the other day. Have you heard of it?

Ms. Kaye: I’ve heard of it but I’ve never witnessed it.

Mr. Hausam: It’s fantastic, I think. Disney made a TV movie called “High School Musical”. It’s set in a high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico and it tells the mythology of life in high school. So a girl who’s kind of a brainy girl meets a guy who’s the star of the basketball team at a karaoke thing, they sing a song, they discover that singing is great, they go back to their high school, they audition for the high school musical, and it kind of starts to blow the high school apart. Kids all over the country are watching this obsessively. I watched it with an 8 year old girl and an 11 year old boy. She watched –- that was her fourth time watching it. The boy, who’s a jock, who knows all the sports teams but doesn’t like musicals and doesn’t want to go to “Mary Poppins”, this was his second time seeing it.

You know, a whole generation of kids are going to grow up and love the musical and can’t wait to get to high school and be in one.

Mr. Wattenberg: Is it something worthy of academic study or...?

Mr. Hausam: Absolutely.

Mr. Wattenberg: Doesn’t most of it just flow naturally? I mean, Irving Berlin never learned musical notation. He started out as a singing waiter and he wrote poetry.

Mr. Hausam: You know, it’s not necessary that you study it in an academic setting, but the problem is it’s just like the film business; you know, all the people who make films now come out of film schools, and usually three or four of the film schools, because there’s no natural system to work into the business. It’s a technique and you can’t not –- you cannot get it right the first time. The most successful people did not write a successful show the first time out, so you need to have opportunities to practice. If the business won’t give it to you because it’s so expensive, you have to learn it as a craft in a school setting.

Mr. Wattenberg: So much of the theatrical ability comes from live television and on stage where you don’t have the ability to do cuts and edits and you just have to improvise and that gives you the sense of –- I mean, wasn’t that the whole theme of the idea of the Actor’s Studio? I mean, just get into it and let it flow?

Ms. Kaye: Yeah, but those guys studied pretty assiduously to learn how to let it flow. Let me tell you, I mean...

Mr. Wattenberg: No, I understand that.

Ms. Kaye: It’s quite something. I learned what I know mostly from an audience on stage working. That’s not to say that I didn’t take a fair amount of acting classes where I in general rejected most of what I was being taught. And in the laboratory of a night-to-night performance I learned my craft, I believe.

Mr. Wattenberg: Now, you’ve done film as well as...?

Ms. Kaye: A little bit. A little bit. That’s a different technique and you know, you need to learn that in front of the camera, too I think.

Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah. And so much of it is silent. In other words just what we call in television the reaction shot: “Oh, really?” And some of the great lines are not great lines at all. The famous Jack Benny one where he’s being held up by a gangster and he says, “Your money or your life.” (Laughter). And there’s this long pregnant thought (unintelligible).

Ms. Kaye: “I’m thinking!”

Mr. Wattenberg: “I’m thinking. I’m thinking” (laughing).

Ms. Kaye: But I just want to interject one thing. Steven Sondheim may have happened anyway, but it would have been very much more difficult if he hadn’t had Oscar Hammerstein II.

Mr. Hausam: Absolutely.

Ms. Kaye: Someone to learn the craft from. Someplace to make mistakes. And because it’s so expensive to produce stuff, it’s very difficult to find a forum where you get to make those mistakes either as an actor or definitely as writers. So...

Mr. Hausam: And those are (unintelligible, cross talking).

Ms. Kaye: Theater schools become an important kind of a cocoon for awhile, don’t they?

Mr. Hausam: I think they are. I think they are important. I mean, with a writer you, you know, unfortunately because of the expense of producing films, even in schools, much of the process is write the show, learn the structure, do a rehearse reading of it and you never get to the production part. But until you’ve been through the production and until you’ve had it through an audience of strangers who are paying, you haven’t been through the process. So you can learn as much as you can in a class and then hopefully some producer will give you a chance to write something the first time, and the chances are it won’t succeed because you’ve got to learn by doing.

Mr. Wattenberg: You know, there’s sort of been a scorn sometime of things that are popular as opposed to artistic, but the great works of theater, I mean, going back to the Greeks and to Shakespeare, these were popular productions and people would vote with their pocketbook. They wanted to go to the Globe Theater and see somebody get killed. I mean, it’s a lot of...

Ms. Hausam: Absolutely.

Mr. Wattenberg: ...a lot of blood and gore and sex and danger. It’s what life’s about.

Mr. Hausam: Um-hm. Absolutely. And then over time they attain this aura of great works of art like Shakespeare, like [Boccioni?], like Mozart. Those were works of the people originally.

Mr. Wattenberg: Judy, tell me the story of this remarkable, I guess it’s an operetta, Phantom of the Opera. What, did it go 8,000 performances?

Ms. Kaye: I think it’s about to hit 8,000 performances, or it just did a couple days ago.

Mr. Wattenberg: And that’s on the road and everything?

Ms. Kaye: It’s everywhere


Mr. Wattenberg: Alright. One more. Let’s hear it.

Ms. Kaye: Oh...

Mr. Wattenberg: Come on; you can do it.

Ms. Kaye: Okay. Which one will I do, then?

Mr. Wattenberg: What a great voice, huh?

Mr. Hausam: Yeah, beautiful.

Ms. Kaye: (Singing.) I played an Italian Diva. (Singing.) If Michael were here he would sing something else (laughing).

Mr. Wattenberg: That’s just absolutely wonderful.

Ms. Kaye: Oh, thank you.

Mr. Hausam: Do you know on “The Twentieth Century”, the show we were talking about that Judy was in? It was written by Comden and Green, the book and lyrics, and the music was by Sy Coleman and it’s based on the movie, Twentieth Century, so it’s on a train.

Mr. Wattenberg: On the train, yeah.

Mr. Hausam: So one of the great things that I remember seeing was the character of Lilly Garland, I think, if I’m remembering this right, is originally a secretary? She makes her entrance as a kind of a secretary?

Ms. Kaye: She was -– in the musical she was an accompanist.

Mr. Hausam: Accompanist. That’s what it is.

Ms. Kaye: Mildred Plotka.

Mr. Hausam: Right. And you came on just perfectly embodying that and then the transformation to Lilly Garland the movie star and you know, it’s vocally very demanding. It’s a kind of a mock operetta and you know, you’re a great comedian and a great singer and it was just really, really memorable.

Ms. Kaye: Boy, was it fun!

Mr. Hausam: I bet it was.

Mr. Wattenberg: There’s a great saying which goes “When the emotion becomes too strong for speech, you sing; when it becomes too strong for song, you dance.” How do you switch from one to another, or is it just seamless? Is it what flows? I mean, speech, dance...

Ms. Kaye: Yeah. I will speak first to the fact that that’s absolutely true. In the best musical theater the best writers always knew that they would write a story and that basically it would then be cannibalized so that the songs would occur in the most emotional places, when the character could no longer talk about their -– what they wanted, they would burst into song.

Mr. Wattenberg: In the really great musicals you don’t say, “Well, here’s one of 13 songs”, I mean it just...

Ms. Kaye: No.

Mr. Wattenberg: I mean, Some Enchanted Evening just...

Ms. Kaye: And that’s how it’s approached as an actor, too. I believe the song is extension of dialogue. It is dialogue. It is set to music but it is absolutely dialogue, and so the building of a character and the telling of a story just moves through the spoken word into the song, as you say seamlessly. It should be seamless.

Mr. Wattenberg: They say, somewhat scornfully, that we’re in the age of the commercialized mega musical, but all these things have to react to the test of the market. I mean, if it’s fun and enjoyable and tells a story, it doesn’t matter whether a big corporate behemoth put it together or some guy humming a tune. It’s sort of seamless.

Mr. Hausam: Um-hm. Absolutely. I mean, certainly there’s nothing wrong with long running musicals, but the one problem that can creep in is if you only have 32 theaters on Broadway that can hold musicals, and 20 of them have shows in them that have been running for, I don’t know, 10 years to 20 years, and another 5 or 6 of them have revivals, that means you’ve only got a small number of theaters that are able to receive new shows written by new writers. If you don’t have writers writing new material, you don’t have a vital theater going on.

Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah, but you have other venues. You have regional theater, you have television, you have movies, you have books.

Mr. Hausam: You do.

Mr. Wattenberg: I mean, there are all kinds of ways that...

Mr. Hausam: But a writer can’t make a living really in an off Broadway theater or a regional theater. A writer needs a Broadway theater and a Broadway run to make a proper living. I mean, they don’t have to do it every year, but three or four times in a career they need a show that runs. Otherwise we won’t have writers writing musicals in 20 years because none of them will be able to make a living. So we need to keep leaving space for the new.

Ms. Kaye: And then there’s always the expectation for the producers, be they Disney or other corporate entities, or individuals who are trying to produce for the American theater, that if the show doesn’t run the prescribed 8,000 performances that Phantom has just made, is it then not a success?

Mr. Hausam: Not a hit.

Ms. Kaye: There was a time when 150 performances was a massive, massive success on Broadway. Now we have “The Producers” about to close. It won the most Tony Awards of any show in the history of the Tony Awards and it’s closing in well, six years, how many years?

Mr. Hausam: Yeah, six or seven years later. That’s a hit.

Ms. Kaye: That’s –- in my book that’s a big hit, but there are people who are saying, “Gee, man, they should have been able to keep that going longer”, you know? But (laugh) our expectations are changing.

Mr. Wattenberg: Judy, Wiley, just summing up a little bit. What is the future of this remarkable American art form, the musical?

Ms. Kaye: Well, I think it ebbs and it flows like all art, but I think its future is bright as long as we’re able to continue nurturing new audiences and new artists, writers, composers and actors. Because I think there will always be an audience, some audience for it. I want a huge audience of course. I want a very vital, healthy audience so I want to encourage that. I think we’re not going anyplace. The –- what do they call us? The magnificent invalid, the theater. People need live performance. They love movies; they love their iPods, too but I think...

Mr. Wattenberg: And they love to write.

Ms. Kaye: Yeah. But there will be an audience for us.

Mr. Wattenberg: I mean, that’s such a primal urge. You know, you have these prehistoric cave paintings in France. And some people say, well, it’s the guy shooting a reindeer with an arrow and some people say he wanted to show that he could draw. I don’t think so. I think it’s sort of saying, “I was here. I made a difference. I fed my family.” And that’s what we all do through our children or through our work and people want to be remembered.

Now, Wiley Hausam and Judy Kaye, star of stage, screen and radio, thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank.
Please come back again.

Ms. Kaye: Thank you.

Mr. Hausam: Thank you. Its been great talking to you.

Ms. Kaye: Really wonderful.

Mr. Wattenberg: Thank you.

Mr. Hausam: And you (laughter).
Mr. Wattenberg: And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via email. We think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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