Sunday, August 23, 2009

It's difficult to believe...

... that I've been writing this little blog for over a year now, and yet there we are: the first post was back in June of 08. How time flies.

So I felt it appropriate to stop a moment and just muse a bit about this bunch of lyricists and composers who brought so much consternation and, at the same time, joy to a generation of students. Having worked through enough of these scores, I realize we're talking about music that, quite simply, has not weathered well... at least not in the eyes of the theatre and/or music community. Any apparent value it might have as music has been superceded by the inescapable fact that it was written for a negligible purpose. I recently posted a short bio of Arthur Penn on a board dedicated to classical music, and it was greeted with a collective dismissive roll of the eyes. Never mind that the man was good at his craft -- he's simply not on the invitation list anymore.

And I find that sad. After all, Penn and Frederick Johnson and even the slightly batty Estelle Clark did their part to move high school theatre to a higher level, in essence paving the way for the endless performances we have today of RENT and GREASE and WICKED. Before these folks, there was no real school theatre per se, certainly not at the high school level: theatre, like the other arts, was viewed as a waste of time when there were more serious subjects at hand (The more things change, huh?). I dont know whose idea it might have been to write something original for the educational market, but from whatever humble start it might have had, it grew and developed and, for a while, flourished until it was shoved out of the way by cheap knock-offs of Broadway shows. One has only to look at the debacle that was early 50s MERRY WIDOW by Charles George to see how far we plummeted in such a short period of time.

I started writing these firmly thinking that what we have here deserved to be lost, what with their quaint little plots and thin little music and cardboard little characters... and yes, many of them do deserve to be sent into the dustbin of history. But sixty or seventy of these later, I've developed a real affection for not only the works but the people who put them together. Sure, there're lotsa clunkers in the list, but at the same time there's some highly polished work that merits new attention, rather than being shoved into the back shelves of the musty wing of the library and the bargain basement section of eBay. It's sad, in its way, that no one seems to see fit to give these another try, but then I suppose there's a relatively easy answer to that.

I wrote earlier on that these shows came to you as pretty much just words on a page. There were few indications of how something was to be produced beyond the stage manager's guide — assuming the school thought it necessary to spend the extra cash on one in the first place. No cast albums. No YouTube videos. Just the words on the page, which meant you had to find your own way through the material. You had to find your own sound to the music, your own look to the scenery and costumes, your own rhythms to the choreography, and your own interpretations for the characters. And the result was something uniquely your own, not a bad photocopy of "how they did it in New York".

But you had to work to get it. I suppose it shouldnt be surprising that these little works had their glory days during the Depression, when the national attitude towards solving a problem was to just get in there and work it out for yourself, not look to someone else to solve it for you. These operettas and the accompanying books on how to produce them, as minor and dismissable as they may be now, pushed the students into finding things on their own and, along the way, learning to make the most out of what they had at hand. We would no doubt laugh now at the idea of making a costume from crepe paper, but I'd happily bet that in 1931 the little actress wearing it felt as wonderful as her latter-day equivalent does today in her professionally-sewn, expensive New York rental.

Perhaps it's just my own cynical point of view, but it just feels like we've lost something very precious and magical en route to the Junior version of ANNIE. I might even go far as to say we've lost what it simply means to be involved in theatre as an artform, period, but I suppose that might come across as taking on a bit too much. Nevertheless, like everything else these days, theatre — even school theatre — is now an industry, designed for producers and licensing companies to make a few more bucks off the backs of starry-eyed kids. I guess it's best to just accept it as such and move on.

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