A century and a half after the first American musical, the art form “is growing up, and it is time for us to address the growing pains,” historian Margaret Hall said at her TEDx Broadway talk yesterday.
Some shows have aged better than others. “Many older shows are difficult for us as modern audience members today,” Hall said. “Honestly, that is one of my greatest joys, because it is a direct sign of progress. Frankly, I would be a little bit worried if sensibilities had not changed.”
Hall has created five categories as a framework to consider how viable an old show is for modern audiences. Her framework, she conceded, “is not perfect and I’m going to spend the rest of my life refining it, but it is a start.”
She used musicals by Oscar Hammerstein II to illustrate each category, acknowledging that not everybody would agree with where she places each show.
Description: The show communicate its message effectively without any potential problems getting in the way.
Hammerstein example: The Sound of Music
“Its message of heart, hope and humanity resonate with audience members across the world, making it one of the most performed regional community and educational theater pieces in the entire country. It still has a tale to tell and audiences are still learning its lessons.”
Description: The problems within the piece can be mitigated by how the piece is directed or performed.
Hammerstein examples: Oklahoma and South Pacific
These are shows that, Hall believes, “can drift into stereotype if not directed and performed in a responsible manner.” Both “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific” were revived recently in a way “that upended the way the current generation views them. without changing a single word that Oscar Hammerstein wrote. This is material that has the strength for a modern retelling.”
Description: The problems are baked into the piece itself, but if they are addressed carefully, the show still has something salient to say. “They still resonate with modern audiences, but we may squirm a little bit in our seat if we look too close.”
Hammerstein example: The King and I
The King and I is a perfect example of a show with many worthwhile messages — the importance of being a lifelong learner, working together toward a common goal, etc. — while also having aspects that would not be well received if it was first presented today — the white savior is embedded in the source text; the treatment of East Asia, the way the women are underwritten, and so on.
Description: You need to completely redo an aspect of the piece in order to make it palatable. This is where the concept of a “revisal” comes in.
Hammerstein example: Flower Drum Song
“Flower Drum Song was written from a place of deep abiding love and respect for the Asian American community. But at the end of the day, Oscar was writing from the perspective of a community that he could never truly be a part of. In 2002 David Henry Hwang, an Asian American playwright ,was brought in to dramatically revise the piece using songs that have become a part of the American Zeitgeist as the soundtrack for far more honest representations.”
Description: The piece has value historically, but it does not need to be publicly performed anymore. It has more value as a piece of where we have been been where we are going. “Some people confuse this category with bad and they are not at all synonymous. Just because of shows archived does not mean it was never useful. In fact, typically they were extremely useful in their day.”
Hammerstein example: Show Boat
“Show Boat is inarguably one of the most important musicals in the history of the American theatrical canon. It changed the kind of conversations we could have on stage and revolutionized what a musical could look like. It also has ceased to create productive discussion with modern audiences. Now the book has been rewritten ad nauseam as we continue to pour showboat into the modern era, but in my opinion, it now holds more value as an example of where we have been than an example of where we are going.
Hall conceded these are porous categories, open to debate. “A show may be tricky to one person and troublesome to the another.” What’s important, she said, “is we have these conversations.
“We have to make conscious decisions about what art does and does not serve us as a community and what does and does not serve us going forward.”
A video of her complete talk will be available soon on the TedXBroadway website.