OnStage New York Columnist
The first time, but not the last, that I got in trouble in the world of musical theatre was for saying I was a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Must have been one of those summers in musical theatre camp, spending time with people who really cared. I was wrong, apparently; Stephen Sondheim, with whom I was not yet familiar, was where it was at. But I loved Webber, I thought. After all, singing the medley of songs from The Phantom of the Opera and sitting back “stage” as part of the crew when my middle school put on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (which was put on in a gym) were why I’d gotten into musical theatre in the first place. They seemed adamant though, and over the years I have found the same attitude in many people. But I’ve also met people who love Webber and dislike Sondheim. And it’s always those two, the two giants of the last sixty years of musical theatre history. Now I’m not trying to usher them out the door, but these days musical theatre has an exciting new giant in Lin-Manuel Miranda. What I wonder is who will be his Webber?
You may ask, why isn’t Miranda Webber, what with Hamilton currently the most likely musical to break Phantom’s record for years running on Broadway? Well, sure, he could be. These are arbitrary designations designed to bring a childish tradition of arguing over who is better to the next generation of theatre geeks, anyone could be anyone. But I make him the Sondheim figure for a few reasons. First, like Sondheim, Miranda writes both music and lyrics in his sharp and clever word-centric scores that can twist the tongue of an inexperienced singer. And if you’re looking for a deeper, more symbolic reason, how about the fact that Miranda literally rewrote Sondheim’s first musical for Broadway, translating the lyrics and dialogue of West Side Story for the 2009 revival, so that the Puerto Rican characters would speak and sing in Spanish when interacting only with each other.
So I’m not taking into account levels of success or critical acclaim, nor am I trying to start a feud between Miranda and some composer. After all, Webber and Sondheim themselves never actually feuded; they didn’t care about the rivalry, only their fans did. Their birthday was last week (they share one), and I saw a video on social media that I haven’t seen in years, the two of them honoring Cameron Mackintosh with parodies of “Send in the Clowns” and “Music of the Night.” This is more about someone who gets fans so riled up, they would go so far as to say, “Hamilton’s ok, but wait until you hear this musical by this person.” Who is that going to be? Will it be someone who, like Webber, only writes music, and works with a variety of lyricists?
I like the idea of it being Jeanine Tesori, the composer of such diverse works as Fun Home, Shrek, Violet, Caroline, or Change, and Thoroughly Modern Millie. Then again, there’s always Frank Wildhorn, who, like Webber, has adapted some pretty dark material for the musical stage. I’m talking Jekyll & Hyde and Dracula, but he’s also responsible for recent musicals based on the escapades of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole. Tom Kitt’s been doing some important work, with Next to Normal and If/Then, and collaborated with Miranda on Bring it On, which would add some spice to the debate. These people have all been around since before Miranda’s earliest success, but so was Sondheim writing musicals long before Webber.
Perhaps it could be someone who writes the lyrics, the book, or both. Alex Timbers, Brian Yorkey, Jeff Whitty, Douglas Carter Beane, Lisa Kron: all worthy competition. Maybe, especially in this day and age, it is destined to be another composer/lyricist. Two in the running, Amanda Green and Adam Guettel, are descendents of Broadway musical greats Adolph Green and Richard Rodgers, respectively. Green worked with Miranda on Bring it On, and Guettel’s style contrasts nicely with Miranda’s for the purposes of debate. The same goes for the styles of John Bucchino and Jason Robert Brown. Robert Lopez has some major hits under his belt, and is the youngest and quickest recipient of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). Well, Miranda’s got a MacArthur Genius Grant. Or perhaps Miranda’s great rival has not been represented on Broadway yet. I hear great things about Joe Iconis and Georgia Stitt.
By the way, I love Sondheim now, too, even if he’ll never have the sentimental value Webber does for me personally. And they’re both still going: Webber’s got maybe the second biggest hit of this Broadway season with School of Rock, and Sondheim is working on a new musical with David Ives. Those two might yet compete for more Tonys. And I don’t mean to diminish the importance of other historic writers of musicals, but Rodgers and Hammerstein were in a category of their own, and I doubt many people have gotten into arguments about whether Kander and Ebb were better than Bock and Harnick. Some artists just bring out more competitive nature than others. Miranda needs competition, and musical theatre needs balance and diversity (which, depending on the musical, may or may not involve white people). There is, of course, only one way to determine this: go out there, see musicals, and talk up your favorite composers, lyricists, and book writers. Future disagreements at musical theatre camp depend on it.
Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and writes about literature and politics at http://cantonaut.blogspot.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.