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“What’s Wrong with These Kids Today?”

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‘Twas ever thus through history. And musical history too. Face it, we were all jerks between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. All along the way at every birthday we thought we had it all figured out. The amazing thing is perhaps no matter how old you are you never quite have everything figured out.

And teenagers in past musical theater are mostly delightfully lost. The first stirrings of adulthood. Beginning relationships. Finding out who we are and our place in the world. All themes explored through song and story.

Older musicals of screen and stage tended to romanticize youth. Think of Judy Garland at MGM. Seemingly the eternal teenager, (she even sings Roger Edens’ “In-Between” in the film Love Finds Andy Hardy, which can be heard on a Decca Masters Compilation), Judy romped with Mickey Rooney, never growing up in films or the public’s eyes.

Her most famous film is the classic The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy Gale finds herself in a strange land with a lion, a scarecrow and a tin man. Oh, and a couple of witches. Of course, it’s all a dream. A dream that Freud would have a field day with. In today’s musical, Wicked, Glinda and her arch enemy Elphaba inhabit an Oz that isn’t quite as nice as the “marvelous land of Oz” of the film. Elphaba is horribly teased and ostracized while Glinda just wants to be “Popular.”

Back to Judy Garland, she created the role of Esther Smith in the MGM picture Meet Me in St. Louis. She’s interested in “The Boy Next Door” but he still considers her a child. Of course, he comes to his senses. The flop Broadway version couldn’t capture the spirit or innocence of that time.

Another flop Broadway show based on an MGM musical is also about a boy and a girl who slowly becomes a woman in his eyes. That show is Gigi with a glorious score by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner. The male lead Gaston, singing the title song, realizes that he’s in love with the much younger Gigi. In the flop Broadway production Gigi sings, “In This Wide, Wide World” which Lerner used to replace, “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.” In the song, Gigi tells Gaston that she knows he loves other women but she “would rather be mis’rable with you than without you.” Cheery, no? In the horribly disfigured Broadway revival, “Say a Prayer” was sung by Mamita and the show closed with Gigi singing “In This Wide, Wide World.” “Say a Prayer” (originally written for My Fair Lady) was the better fit as sung in the film version.

Lerner wrote about another young girl edging toward womanhood in the musical Paint Your Wagon, again with Loewe. This time the ingénue is Jennifer who falls in love with an older, romantic young dreamer. But Jennifer doesn’t quite know “What’s Going on Here?” Naturally, the final curtain falls and the two lovers find their way to their own happiness.

Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields’ stunning score for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn finds the young Francie soothed by her father who explains she’s just having “Growing Pains.” But it’s not only girls who have growing pains. Take Me Along, based on Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness, featured a young Robert Morse as Richard Miller, sweetly clueless as he sings the first act closer, “That’s How It Starts.” Songwriter Bob Merrill understood the naïveté of youth and an awakening to adult feelings..

Another show set in approximately the same time as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is 1951’s Seventeen with a sadly underestimated score by Walter Kent and Kim Gannon. Seventeen revolved around the innocent love/romance between 17-year-old Willie Baxter and the cutesy flirt Lola Pratt. Ann Crowley played Lola and in the lead role of Willie was a young Kenneth Nelson. Willie sort of grows up by the end of the show and sings, “I Could Get Married.”

Seven years later Nelson would again play a teenager in a little show titled The Fantasticks by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. In that show, Nelson’s Matt falls in love with the girl next door, Luisa played fetchingly by Rita Gardner. But the teenagers’ fathers are confused by the youngsters’ love, and they’re absolutely against it. They don’t know quite what to do about it and sing “Never Say No,” pretending they know exactly what to do to manipulate their children. Needless to say, they have no clue.

Jones and Schmidt revisited two children with Grover’s Corners, their musical version of Our Town.  It’s a true tragedy of the theater that this show suffered a horrible fate with the underlying rights withdrawn. It’s a remarkably beautiful, heartfelt score, perhaps Jones and Schmidt’s best (you can hear four of Jones and Schmidt’s demos on Jones & Schmidt: Hidden Treasures). In the show, like the play, George Webb and Emily Gibbs find themselves in love but think themselves not quite ready for marriage yet married they become. And the second act... well, you’ll have to discover that for yourself.

Eliot Green is the leading character in the underrated musical Bar Mitzvah Boy by Jule Styne and Don Black. It recently had a triumphant production at New York’s York Theatre. Turning thirteen, Eliot is frankly afraid of his responsibilities when he “becomes a man” at his bar mitzvah. By the end of the show he pulls it together and sings “That’s How It’s Done” and Eliot discovers he really is becoming a man.

Speaking of becoming a man not symbolically like Eliot Green but actually waking up to find you are really a man is the entire plot of the musical Big. Okay, technically Josh Baskin is a 12-year-old boy living in New Jersey, one year from being a teenager. He’s confused that whenever he spies13-year-old Cynthia Benson something strange is stirring. He wishes he was a man (a common trope in musicals and plays) and actually becomes one to his delight and later his consternation (another trope). When toward the end of the show he sings, “When You’re Big,” we know he’s ready to become a boy again.

Grease and Hairspray both take a lighthearted, satirical look at teenage life in the 1950s. But both also explore serious subjects. The teenagers at Grease’s Rydell High School deal with teenage pregnancy, rebellion, and sex. And the teenagers in Hairspray's Baltimore take a stand against racism. Both shows are comedies but with a message. It’s a far cry from the teenagers in Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ Bye Bye Birdie where Kim MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio thinks she’s all grown up when she sings, “How Lovely to Be a Woman.”

Speaking of teenagers and sex, some children find themselves in an adult world against their better judgment. In the flop musical by Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry, Lolita, My Love, the character sings “All You Can Do Is Tell Me You Love Me” Her lyric begins:

The kids in this town—
Go out and you’ll see—
They’re all having fun,
Excepting for me.
And I could be, too,
Excepting for you.
‘Cause all you can do
Is tell me you love me.

Not exactly same problem as other musical theatre teenagers face.

And in current musicals teenagers can also have serious problems.

In Dear Evan Hansen the stakes are much higher than musicals of the past. The title character can’t quite fit in with his fellow high school students. When a boy commits suicide Even concocts a story that brings solace to the parents of the dead boy but it becomes a lie that increasingly makes the truth harder and harder for Evan to admit. When he finally owns up to the deceit he sings, “Words Fail” and by the end of the show it seems that Evan’s lies actually did sooth the family of the boy and Evan is taught a valuable lesson.

And the most current show of all is The Prom, still in previews at this writing. Like Grease and Hairspray it’s primarily a comedy but the theme of this modern musical is homophobia by students and faculty alike.

These modern shows are a far cry from Liesl declaring that she is “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. Teenagers today are more sophisticated and know a lot more that kids their age did in past decades. Some of their innocence is gone and that’s a bad thing but also they’re more involved in issues of the day and that’s a good thing.

 


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