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THAT's a Musical?

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Western Union Messenger: I have a telegram for you.

Woman who Answers Door: Is it a singing telegram? I've always wanted a singing telegram. Please tell me it's a singing telegram!

Western Union Messenger: Well, it's not, it's-

Woman who Answers Door: Oh that's such a disappointment! I would so have loved a singing telegram. Are you sure it isn't a singing telegram?

Western Union Messenger: Well I -

Woman who Answers Door: Please! Oh please let it be a singing telegram! There'll be a generous tip in it for you!

Western Union Messenger: Golly, I guess there's no harm -

Woman who Answers Door: Oh Thank you! Thank you! Now go on - SING!

Western Union Messenger: Da da, Da da, da DA: Your sister Rose is Dead!

And so it was that at a very young age watching Beatrice Lillie on the Jack Paar Show I learned that you can get away with all sorts of bad news by singing it.

Anything can be (and has been) a musical it's just a matter how the creative team finds their way "into" the project. Bill Finn's Falsettos aside, there are a lot of shows which deal with harsh realities that would seem to be unlikely fodder for musical theatre practitioners. Mr. Finn's A New Brain for one. What without music could simply be a peculiar Lifetime movie about a struggling songwriter's encounter with the threat of a brain tumor becomes something much deeper and more moving thanks to Mr. Finn's gift for heartfelt melody and quirky way with words.

What follows are four musicals which challenged both their creators and their audiences.

Parade, conceived by Harold Prince with a book by Alfred Uhry and a score by Jason Robert Brown, is a perfect example of a great musical emerging from an unlikely subject. Based upon the famous Leo Frank case it involves the themes of Anti-Semitism, Race, the South still mourning their loss of the Civil War, political and judicial corruption, and of course a complicated and enduring love story.

I've always loved this show, and while it certainly is emotionally draining and depressing the surprise is how damned lively and catchy Mr. Brown's Tony-winning score is. There's so much bad news that occurs during the show that, under less assured hands, the music would've been an unrelentingly depressing spiral of sturm und drung. But it's not. It's jazzy, syncopated and at times downright joyful while almost always delivering bad news. There's the soaring opening number "The Old Red Hills of Home," which firmly establishes the social climate in which the story takes place; Evan Pappas's vaudeville delivery of "Big News;" the incomparable Carolee Carmello's heart-stopping "You Don't Know This Man;" the sheer musical theatre theatricality of "The Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office" (wherein Brent Carver in a brave unlikeable performance as Leo is allowed to let loose and break through that character's reticence); Rufus Bond Jr.'s show-stopping "That's What He Said;" and of course the soaring love ballad "All the Wasted Time." All of this is brought to life by an exemplary cast with gorgeous orchestrations by Don Sebesky. This is a great modern musical telling of a difficult complex story. Given that we are living in a time where race-baiting, religious prejudice, and manipulation of the press and the crowd is happening on a national stage, if you don't know Parade already, you need to.

Wings. For me this show is one of the unsung musical masterpieces of the last 25 years. Jeffrey Lunden and Arthur Perlman's musical based upon Arthur Kopit's acclaimed play sort of fell between the cracks when it was produced at the Public Theater in 1993 after a sensational attention-grabbing engagement at Chicago's Goodman Theatre the previous year. (Raves in the New York Times of regional theatre productions tend to do that.) The Public Theater was going through a shift of artistic administrations, and, as is usually the case, the outgoing administration which brought the project in wasn't there to shepherd the show with the time and attention it deserved; and the new administration had no real emotional ownership of this challenging property, but did have an obligation to produce it.

All that aside, the beautiful recording produced by Tom Shepard is an engrossing and rewarding experience. It's not a show album in the usual sense; it's a complex radio play which takes you inside the mind of Emily Stilson, a former aviatrix who has a stroke. The central performance by Linda Stephens is a wonder. The score is complex, intense, soaring and deeply moving. It's one of those shows where you when you put it on you need to listen all the way through to honestly experience it. I'm confident that at some point the show will get the recognition it deserves.

Floyd Collins. With a book by Tina Landau and a score by Adam Guettel (and additional lyrics by Ms. Landau), Floyd Collins is a difficult, challenging and, please forgive me, ugly piece of musical theatre. It concerns the story of a man trapped in a cave, the attempts to rescue him, and the media circus which is created around the rescue. Like the harsh (but brilliant) Billy Wilder film The Big Carnival, which covers the same subject, the artists involved have held up a mirror to our lowest selves, and I find it hard to take. It doesn't stop Mr. Guettel's score (and the recording) from being one of the more influential and powerful musical theatre recordings of recent times. What the ugliness does do, though, is make for an inevitably claustrophobic uncompromising evening. One that I deeply admire but find difficult to enjoy. It served as Mr. Guettel's arrival as an artist with great promise on the musical theatre scene, one whose gift for melody and intelligent lyric was to be realized a few years later with the masterful The Light in the Piazza.

London Road. This is a divisive musical with a book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe and music and lyrics by Adam Cork. It premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2011 and concerns the true story of one street's efforts to clean up its reputation in the wake of a series of murders of prostitutes by a serial killer. Now that's a musical! What makes it all the more challenging is that there are virtually no songs. The words are all verbatim taken from interviews with the people who lived the story. It's entirely sung through in its own unique style. It was a huge hit for the National and garnered acclaim and a fair number of awards. There is also a film version of it with a stellar cast which has recently been released. I saw the show a couple of times (I haven't seen the film yet) and found it deeply moving and unlike any musical I had ever seen. Not only for its style but also for its variety of characters and its central theme of the need for community in times of unexplainable darkness. The antecedent of this show would be Street Scene, the magnificent Kurt Weill musical with lyrics by Langston Hughes and a book by Elmer Rice (based upon his play) which is also entirely sung-through. But London Road is harsher and more focused. Now I'll be honest here, I sent a fair number of American visitors to see it when they were visiting and I believe all of them fled the theatre screaming at the interval. Hence my use of the word "divisive" in my first sentence. You've been warned. [Editor's Note: the original London cast recording of this one is not available digitally, but you can get a sense of the show through the original motion picture soundtrack.]

That divisiveness though goes to the heart of what urges creative teams of unlikely musicals to find and develop challenging material. As the song in Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell's too brilliant and hilarious [title of show] says: "I'd rather be 9 people's favorite thing, than 100 people's 9th favorite thing." None of the shows I've mentioned is an evening's light entertainment, but all of them, whether you "like" them or not are deeply rewarding, thought-provoking and surprising.


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