Taking a new direction

The musical theater of this country was once the envy of the world for its innovation, style and pizazz. Broadway musicals are our contribution to the world’s theater, and the recent PBS series on the American musical detailed that rich history. But now, American musical theater relies heavily on productions from England (The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérable) and rehashes of the classics that made Broadway famous (42nd Street and Chicago) or story lines from movies (Hairspray and The Producers).

Perhaps it is time to stop the rehabs and imports and to invent anew.

The strange-bedfellows collaborative aspect of dance diva Twyla Tharp and singer-songwriter Billy Joel is surpassed only by their seemingly odd combination of classical ballet and pop rock. But in watching the energy on the stage during a performance of Movin’ Out this past weekend, the unlikely duo may have done its part to rejuvenate dance on Broadway. (See our review, “The piano man.”)

Tharp has used the story songs of Joel to create a narrative line without the use of dialogue. At first it seems odd, but then you see and hear the story develop and build, and it becomes something new, less obvious. Forget the words mouthed by actors; it’s all about dance and music—which is a welcome change.

Joel’s pop songs of the post-greaser, New York-state-of-mind genre pale in comparison to the classics from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (but what doesn’t?). However, the songs do evoke an era of our pre- and post-Vietnam past and are romantic and danceable. A very competent rock band suspended above the stage adds still more live energy. And such songs as “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “Goodnight Saigon” add some relevance to the narrative.

And that issue of putting some relevance in theater is one that local stage director Frank Condon can grasp. (See “Behind the Spotlight.”) He believes an infusion of issue-oriented topics onto the American stage will give us something new to think about—and, if not, why bother? It’s time to move past the reliable, yet tired, standards.