Right now, I’m working running crew for the show “The Music Man” at Sharon Tri-Arts Playhouse. The show opened in 1957, and won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1958. Astoundingly, The Music Man beat out West Side Story for the Tony.
West Side Story is probably the most influential piece in American Musical Theatre. At its heart, West Side Story is, of course, Romeo and Juliet, but the story is told through the lens of racially-motivated urban street gangs of the mid 50’s. The extra music Bernstein wrote for West Side Story became Chichester Psalms. West Side Story was a game-changer, without it there would be no Rent, no Angels in America, no Sondheim (perhaps there would still be a Sondheim, but would he have broken the Rogers and Hammerstien mold without realism and melodic complexities of West Side Story?).
Why, then, did The Music Man win Best Musical? I believe that it is because it made the old men who were judging the Tony awards comfortable. The story is about a fast talking con man who makes a living selling boy’s bands. He comes to River City, Iowa, convinces the people of River City that the moral integrity of their community is threatened by the town’s new pool table, sells them the band equipment to “keep the young boys pure”, and eventually falls in love with the one citizen of River City that was suspicious of him, the librarian and local piano teacher. The messages of the musical: it was of no harm to the community to purchase instruments the children aren’t taught to play, there should be at least two six-minute songs about love by the leading woman in any musical, lisps are funny.
The Music Man, again, was released in 1957. Also in ’57: Dr. Seuss invented the Cat in the Hat, Betty Friedan released The Feminine Mystique, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the National Guard had to escort the Little Rock Nine to School. 1957 was obviously an influential year, but the Tony Award winner for best musical was a fiction about Iowa in 1912. More than anything else, The Music Man is an agreeable and contented fiction.
Fiction no longer has to be so complacent to be a commercial or critical success. Modern fictions (and by fiction, I mean almost every form of artistic expression) are partially valued for its ability to challenge us and incite very base, fundamental responses. Those who take their fiction seriously expect to be challenged by art and are disappointed when it seems cliche. But cliche today was heady stuff 50 years ago, and few take their fiction seriously.
Most fiction consumed today is a commodity, derived from a set of cliches that grew out of original work in the music and movie industries in the 1970’s and standardized primarily by large corporate entities based in Los Angeles, California. In other words, we’ve traded the standardized stability that came to its climax in 1950’s America for standardized chaos born when very bright people realized that the counterculture was a potential market. Today, scantily-clad ladies, explosions, wailing guitars, teenage rebellion and the like are tropes of the old media and the basis for our most widely-indulged-in fictions. We are no longer being challenged because what were once challenging topics are now institutionalized and sold to us shrink-wrapped.
We are today in a conflicted state where more art is consumed than ever but the making of art is considered the specialized persuite of the wealthy, the special, the “creative.” Making a living off of fiction in America is challenging today, though nearly everybody has access to innumerable methods to lose oneself in fiction. The most atavistic forms of art, theater, live music, sculpture, are now expensive luxuries…
When I have another three free hours, I’ll continue this.