About a week and a half ago, I took myself out on a date to see the Kaufman Center's Ridiculously Talented: Songs by Composers and Lyricists You Probably Don't Know But Should. Hosted by William Finn, the night offered a great selection of talent from NYU's graduate Musical Theater program with a bunch of incredible performers giving voice to their creations. Some of these writers have been mentioned on this blog before and some I had never heard of, but possibly one of the coolest parts of going to this event was hearing William Finn give a mini lesson in the art of writing songs. Where else are you going to hear someone explain that the job of a composer is to "not fuck up" or that writing lyrics can be compared to a Turducken (a lot of meat in a very small package)?
While there was a lot going on onstage, there was also another show going on in the aisle in front of me, as 3 older gentlemen watched the show. Their sighs and bragging about having seen "everything on Broadway for the pat 40 years" already kind of warned me that this event might not exactly be their type of thing, but I certainly didn't expect when one of them launched into a tirade at intermission about how what we were watching wasn't musical theatre but "conversations set to pop music."
Which is not to say that I don't feel like he has a point. The cabaret-style music was definitely the trend of the evening, and while it was appropriate for the event, I can see how it can get a bit tiresome. Also, with many musicals taking on a very "contemporary sound," distinct voices and melodies seem to be harder to come by these days.
And at the same time, I wanted to point out that musical theatre is changing with the times-- a necessary evil that doesn't diminish the genre, but helps it endure. While I love the days of On the Town and Oklahoma, subject matter is shifting so that it's not always about young, white heterosexual couples finding love. In fact, I loved the observation made by Mary Anna Dennard on The New York Times Arts Beat Blog about how now, despite the proliferation of musical theatre "types," views of masculinity and masculine characters have shifted from that of the "masculine neutral presence." Musical theatre is becoming more encompassing of the community that creates it, and this couldn't have been more evident in the incredibly personal and intimate songs, from Michael R. Jackson and Kori Withers' "Old Mr. Drew" to Will Aronson and Sam Salmond's "Pole Song" to Nikos Tsakalakos' "My Trip to Africa" to "Driving Home on the Freeway" by Katya Stanislavskaya and Frank Terry.
When his angrier friend stepped out during intermission, one of the men in front of me turned back and asked me if I knew anyone in the show (he assumed I was an NYU student supporting a friend). I explained that I wasn't and was instantly met with another question. "Then may I ask why you're here?" he asked. And it was a question that caught me a little off-guard.
I gave him a simple, honest response, but I don't think I really had an answer until I realized how swept up I had gotten in some of the songs from the show long after it was over. I'm not exactly musically inclined, but something comes over me when I hear a good piece of musical theatre. There's a kind of magic in hearing a song that seems to perfectly describe a moment-- a high that makes you hope the song will never end so you could capture that instance forever. There's an art to it that escapes me, even as a writer, where the lyrics take on dimension and rhythm and music carries it off any page. I love that feeling, and it's the reason I started this blog and the reason I was captivated throughout the show. William Finn provided some context for many of the songs that evening, trying to also root them in his mini lesson about craft, but for all I could tell, there was another force at play and I was just lucky to take it in.
Anyway, enough babbling. I look forward to much more from everyone who was represented that evening. And, just so you can't say you've never heard of them, here is the full list of writers from that night:
Yea Bin Diana Oh
Anna Ruth Nirmala Jones
Julianne Wick Davis
Michael R. Jackson