The Other Musicals

By Neher, Erick | The Hudson Review, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

The Other Musicals


Neher, Erick, The Hudson Review


Eleven new musicals opened on Broadway in the 2015-16 season, but ten might as well have opened in Poughkeepsie for all the attention they have received, so dominant is the phenomenon known as Hamilton. It is now clear that Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical is not just a smash hit but a milestone: a show that has entered the Zeitgeist, crossing over into mass awareness. It's the proverbial game-changer. Only a handful of shows in musical theater history have achieved this status: South Pacific, My Fair Lady, A Chorus Line, and a few others. What's required is not just an extraordinary artistic achievement and impossible-to-get tickets, but also a sense that the work both reflects and fulfills something happening in the culture. Hamilton, of course, draws much of its power from the casting concept built into its DNA: a powerfully willful disregard for race as a criteria for authenticity, an assumption that skin color simply doesn't matter when casting historical characters, that it is as irrelevant as eye color or height. By zeroing out race in the casting, the show achieves a joyfully affirmative action, a redressing of historical inequalities by refusing to allow them to dictate the present. It's an extraordinary achievement: when watching Hamilton, one is both aware of the non-traditional casting (in an intellectual sense) and also unaware of it, so natural and right does it seem. The show creates an onstage utopia in which the best, or at least most vital, instincts that drove the United States in its infancy are symbiotically wed to the multicultural, multiracial society that we find ourselves in today. It is a vision of incredible optimism and power. Little wonder that President Obama and his administration have embraced the show with such passion.

Wags dubbed this year's Tony Awards the "Hamil-tonys." And, in truth, none of the other ten musicals that opened last season come close to matching its achievement. But many of them dealt, in their own ways, with the same pertinent issues of multiculturalism and diversity. Two shows opened and closed quickly in autumn: Amazing Grace and Allegiance, the former a misbegotten depiction of the title song's abolitionist composer and the latter a sweet but underpowered musicalization of the actor George Takei's childhood experiences in a World War II internment camp for Japanese-American citizens. A third show from the first half of the season, On Your Feet, has proven to have more staying power. This bio/jukebox musical charts the life stories of pop star Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio. All three of these shows brought a welcome diversity, both in casting and subject matter, which transcended their varying artistic qualities. In a year when the film industry struggled with questions of visibility and representation, culminating in the #OscarsSoWhite debacle in which no person of color was nominated for an acting Academy Award, the Broadway industry put forth show after show that examined diverse American cultures and heterogeneous perspectives.

Winter saw the opening of the first real commercial and critical hit of the season, Andrew Lloyd Webber's School of Rock. Based on the wellregarded Richard Linklater film, this show was a comeback for Webber, who has struggled to replicate the enormous success of his 1980s hits Evita, Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera. He returned to his rock-androll roots for this score and came up with a fresh and youthful sound that matches the insouciant plot. The show tells the story of slovenly, ne'er-do-well musician Dewey Finn, who scams a job teaching at an uptight private school where he secredy converts the prim kids in his class into an accomplished rock band, much to the initial horror of the parents and school staff. The usual lessons apply-follow your dreams, let kids be themselves, and so forth-and the show, like the fdm, is a charmingly non-threatening paean to the transgressive properties of rock music (most forthrightly conveyed in the song "Stick It to the Man"). …

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