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Theater 30.2 (2000) 24-33

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Music-Theater Lite for a Dark Age

Kyle Gann


Who's interested in music-theater these days?

IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= Not I. Nor anyone I know in my milieu, which is basically the downtown Manhattan new-music scene. Oh, there are certainly composers who make theater works with music whose performances we run to with interest: Robert Ashley, Mikel Rouse, Elodie Lauten, Michael Gordon. Some of them even call their works operas. But even their fans don't quite think of them as "music-theater" people, only as composers whose vocal works sometimes have a visual and even acted component. We shy away from the term music-theater; it seems contaminated with an accreted layer of shallow conservatism. We define it as something unoriginal, commercially tainted, not worth serious intellectual investigation.

After all, I have students whose ambition is to write music-theater. And what do they mean by the term? Andrew Lloyd Webber on one hand, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein on the other. Either the old, sappily romantic, Broadway-style music-theater, or the new, "intellectual"-because-the-lyrics-are-complicated style. And what progressive musician these days could be interested in either? Music-theater is one of those terms that could have evolved but chose not to and now sounds connotatively stodgy, like whig or freethinker. It happens to some terms without anyone quite knowing why. Symphony, for instance, has calcified, while string quartet is still a supple, unpredictable little beast. Even opera, for all its connotation of fat ladies singing in foreign languages, has made something of a modest comeback.

Why not music-theater?

Because of its overtones of commercial viability, expensive productions, tourist audiences, the onus of having to make good on the backers' investment. Opera may remain a nonprofit venture, supported by quixotic philanthropy, but music-theater is expected to meet a bottom line.

And that responsibility has quickly become more leaden in recent years--at least in New York City. With the Disneyfication of New York (specifically Disney's purchase of Times Square in the mid-1990s) and Mayor Giuliani's clean-up-the-streets-and-damn-the-residents [End Page 25] mentality, more tourists than ever pour into the city. Conventional theater and music-theater have become profitable, and thus theaters--the mere buildings, not necessarily the artistic products of theater companies--have become greatly in demand, tied up for years in advance. You have a great, new, groundbreaking piece of experimental music-theater? Forget it. The halls are booked. We're making too much money with The Lion King, Miss Saigon, and Jekyll and Hyde.

And thus it is that my favorite theatrical work of the last decade by a composer has spent the past three years searching for a major venue with little success. In 1996, composer Mikel Rouse premiered his Dennis Cleveland at the Kitchen in New York. Dennis Cleveland is an opera in the form of a talk show. Rouse himself sings the title role, a dapper, white-jacketed cad with sunglasses who promises his guests unlimited redemption. He moves suavely around the room, sticking his microphone in the faces of people sitting, perhaps, right next to you--and they stand up and sing. As at real studio talk shows (to the extent that any of them are real), cameras project live images of audience members--yourself, perhaps--on giant screens. You don't know who's the audience and who are the actors. Dennis sings,

This time the finger
that I put into the pie
'sgonna be a gold retriever
not just pointing to the sky
This time the mystery,
the questioning of life
will surrender to addiction;
the celebrity of hype.

The chorus answers, "Beautiful, beautiful murders," while Dennis croons over their response, "Celebrity all the time."

It's a brilliant, cynically idealistic show, and it was a brilliant hit. It was, in fact, the first show ever at the Kitchen--a mecca of experimental work with a relatively small audience--to attract scalpers. Rouse quickly found producers and agents who anticipated a career for the...


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