Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Dirty, Rotten... / Piazza

Over the years, the Broadway musical has developed into two stylistic entities. At the risk of offending the buffs, one of these camps is occupied by the serious musical, and the other, well, ... shall we say, the not so serious musical. Always a risky thing to call a musical creation not serious, especially since these creations have been more popular and more profitable than the so-called serious ones; and when it comes to money, seriousness is everyone's middle name.

Stephen Sondheim's musicals, brilliant in their execution and thought-provoking in their ideas, are the pinnacle of the genre of our time. The audiences to these works, however, are limited and as a result the shows themselves have always suffered disappointing runs. The recent revival of Pacific Overtures, one of Sondheim's most interesting shows, closed prematurely despite favorable reviews and positive audience reaction.

It's been the mind versus the heart when it comes to Broadway musicals. In 1939 the incredibly popular show Hellzapoppin opened, and so did Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock; the year 1954 saw the Broadway premiere of the sardonic The Threepenny Opera as well as The Pajama Game. More recently, Cats and Little Shop of Horrors opened the same year as Maury Yeston's Nine; and to the great delight of Broadway audiences, who normally relish the great variety that a rich theater seasons can bring, at one point you could see Annie, Sweeney Todd, Sugar Babies, and a nifty revival of Oklahoma! all running simultaneously. Many times, in shows such as A Chorus Line, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and almost everything by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loewe the mind and the heart meet, and masterpieces are born.

Two shows this season, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Light in the Piazza are representative of this stylistic split down the middle between the heart and mind that we have come to know (and love) about Broadway.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Imperial Theater is tacky, loud and filled to the brim with fun. It is a funky romp where the best thing for the audience to do is just let it all hang out and go for the ride. There is an inherent slyness to the show, as well as an inherent crudeness, and all of it is cleverly sugar coated by the wonderful performances of the five talented principals. David Yazbek's music is a hodgepodge of styles, all with a decidedly agreeable Broadway swagger. The songs are loaded down with lowbrow humor and range from the unforgettably delish to the instantly forgettable. Norbert Leo Butz steals the show. His Tony Award was well-deserved. I dare anyone not to laugh out loud when he performs the number "Great Big Stuff," which at this point of the run flows out of him so effortlessly that it will be hard to see anyone else doing it. It's like he owns it! It is an early showstopper that gets the audience going, and it alone is worth the exorbitant price of admission. "All About Ruprecht," another number also prominently featuring Mr. Butz, is what Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is all about: sheer zaniness translated as popular entertainment. It is the kind of show that can run for years if properly taken care of.

The Light in the Piazza is as ephemeral as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is brassy. Currently running at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, this musical is based on a novella that first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker magazine. The show has the radiance of summertime in Florence, and it flows with a calculated delicacy that not even the Arno river can equal. The show is all about restraint, both musically and dramatically. Adam Guettel's music and lyrics are rooted in operetta, which is to say that the musical language is post-Sondheim with a backward glance to Gian-Carlo Menotti. The result is music that Guettel's grandfather, the great Richard Rodgers, would have never written for a Broadway show, but could have written any time he wanted. The music is subtle, intelligent, at times extremely complex, expertly written and orchestrated and, like the worst moments of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, utterly forgettable as well. (Just to be fair, though, did audiences come out humming the music of Maurice Ravel when they first heard it at the beginning of the 20th century? Of course they didn't!) The music to this show is not really pretentious -- it just sounds that way! In this regard, The Light in the Piazza is the "serious" show of the season. It is the one that intelligent critics will discuss intelligently; it is the one that won the Tony award for best score, and of course, it is the one that will give its final performances at the same time that the producers of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels will be busy trying to find a replacement cast.

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