Is There Such a Thing as Good or Bad Idea for a Musical?

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

How many times have you heard someone say, “What a horrible idea for a show!”  I said it many times, although many years ago.  I have come to believe through the ensuing years that there is really only one distinction between a good idea for a show and a bad one.  If people like it and are willing to pay to see it, then it was a good idea.  If not, then it was a bad idea.

The notion of a pop-opera based on the last week of Jesus Christ’s life was, I thought at the time, a horrible idea.  After the concept album and subsequent musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” both became international sensations, it suddenly seemed to have been a brilliant idea.  Conversely, I considered the idea of a Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical adaptation of Kaufman and Hart’s 1934 play, “Merrily We Roll Along,” an inspired idea for a musical.  And directed by the illustrious Harold Prince, no less!  When it closed on Broadway two weeks after opening in 1981, the common wisdom was that it was a rotten idea to begin with.  But was it?

Is it possible that the success of a musical has more to do with execution than content?  (I’ll probably be asking more questions in this column than offering answers.)  Who thought, when they read Ron Chernow’s dense biography of Alexander Hamilton, “Now there’s a great idea for a multi-cultural rap musical!”  Well, we all know how that gambit worked out.  Does the premise of a depressive woman suffering from bi-polar disease and the emotional havoc it wreaks on her family really sing to you?  It sure sang to the Pulitzer committee, which awarded “Next To Normal” its prize for drama, and to Broadway audiences, which awarded it with a 733-performance run.  I doubt that when Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern decided to adapt Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel, “Show Boat,” for the stage in the mid-1920s that they got many encouraging slaps on the back as opposed to droll comments along the lines of, “Yeah, good luck with that.” 

Theater being the most collaborative of arts, there is much that accounts for success aside from the material itself.  Foremost are a producer and director who have a clear, shared vision for the show that’s in sync with that of the writer.  Then you bring in the set, costume, light, sound and props designers and hope you can get them all on the same page to tell the same story.  Hopefully the orchestrator will jibe with the composer and lyricist to fully realize their score.  And finally there is the casting, about which there are many axioms.  (“Casting is 90% of the battle.”  “Cast the right actors then get out of their way.”)  Many a show has been doomed by ill-advised casting.  (My mother raised a gentleman so I will not point out specific examples.)  But imagine if, in the season when both “Gypsy” and “The Sound of Music” opened, Mary Martin had played Momma Rose and Ethel Merman had played Maria.  Chances are that neither musical would have become a classic.

I once received permission from the always-game Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to do Rodgers and Hart’s youthful musical, “Babes in Arms,” with a cast of 50- and 60-somethings.  Although I did not intend to change one word of the text, my notion was a reunion of sorts where these folks revisited that long gone summer when they put on a show.  I would trust the audience to understand the premise without spelling it out.  The project collapsed when I couldn’t pull the right cast together.  Casting, I felt, was paramount.

Which in its way brings me back to “Merrily We Roll Along.”  The impetus for that musical came from director Prince’s wife, Judy, who suggested that he do a show about kids.  After all, he had kids, he liked kids and it was a novel idea.  Prince thought of the Kaufman and Hart play and pitched it to Sondheim and Furth, both of whom bit.  The plot follows a group of tight-knit showbiz friends whom we meet in their middle age and proceeds backward in time to their high school graduation.  The production was cast with up and coming 20-somethings (including the director’s daughter, Daisy).  From the moment the curtain went up, the audience was confused.  Who are these people?  Eventually the creative team resorted to sweatshirts identifying the characters, literally spelling it out for the audience (“Franklin Shepherd,” “Best Friend,” etc.).  It didn’t help.  

Was “Merrily We Roll Along” really ever about kids, as the creative team seemed to believe?  Or is about adults reflecting on the dreams and schemes that never came true – lives that didn’t work out as planned?  It’s my theory that casting young people, however talented, threw the show off the rails.  It’s awfully hard, when the characters are introduced, to identify with a young woman in her twenties as a middle-aged alcoholic.  Ditto the other “movers and shakers,” as we are told they are at the top of the show.  Might it have worked better if, when the curtain rose, the actors were the same ages as the characters they were playing?  

Imagine, for instance, the lights coming up on Elaine Stritch, John Collum and Jerry Orbach (circa 1981 when the production opened) as the three disillusioned, life-long pals.  The audience would know immediately who those people are.  Now imagine those actors as teenagers at the end of the story, on a rooftop awaiting Sputnik passing overhead, signifying all of their hopes for the bright promises ahead that we know won’t be realized.  “It’s our time, breath it in.  Worlds to change and worlds to win.”  Might that image have delivered the pathos and heartbreak that the musical, as presented, never quite achieved?  

So was “Merrily” a victim of its material or of its concept and execution?  (As I said earlier, more questions than answers.)  Nowadays when someone says to me, “What a horrible idea for a musical,” I hold my tongue.  The audience may be the judge of whether it’s an idea that works, but not of whether it was a good or bad idea to begin with.