The megamusical, that old British invader, has crept back into the theater district. No panicked talk of Broadway’s colonization this time: This is just a reunion tour. Jesus Christ Superstar, the pioneering rock opera that helped usher in the Age of Amplification, has returned in a very earnest, vaguely ridiculous, vocally relentless production from the Stratford Shakespeare festival. Evita is back, as well, cloaked in fathomless imperial shadow by director Michael Grandage and featuring both the affable, translucent presence of pop star Ricky Martin (as Che) and the unique voice of Elena Roger, a de gustibus proposition if ever there was one. Both of these shows are proto-megas, predating the true Reagan-era behemoths Cats, Les Misérables, and, of course, The Phantom of the Opera, which still haunts the Majestic after a quarter century and claims the mantle of Most Profitable Entertainment of All Time, in Any Medium. This being the first time since the mid-nineties that Andrew Lloyd Webber, forefather and chief metonym of the megamusical, has had three shows running concurrently on Broadway, I visited all of them in the past two weeks, trying to determine what the mega is—or rather, what it was, why we loved it, and why we feared it. I came away with my ears ringing and my nostalgia abuzz: It all looks so innocent now.
It certainly didn’t 25 years ago. America was afraid of many things in the eighties: AIDS, crack, Soviet Russia, the Japanese, killer bees, Willie Horton, and splashy British theater, to name just a few. In New York, megamusicals easily ranked No. 3 on that list. The triumvirate of Cats, Phantom, and Les Miz—immense, plastic, through-sung stage spectacles all produced by one diabolical Anglo-Scotsman, the goldfingered Cameron Mackintosh—was seen as a shot across the bow of the great American book-musical tradition (which had been tirelessly cultivating its self-destruction by the time Mackintosh came along to stop Broadway’s bleeding). The problem with megamusicals, American critics complained, was not their bald commercialism, reliance on technical dazzle, or reductio ad Casio derivations of opera. It was that they were not really musicals at all, but Met-lite-lite spectacles, with gesture in lieu of character and image in lieu of storytelling. “You come out humming the scenery,” Clive Barnes famously carped. Stephen Sondheim, in his annotated-lyrics compendium Look I Made a Hat, declares these shows modern “operettas,” characterized by “grandiosity, humorlessness, romantic sweep, melodramatic stories which take place in long-ago times and faraway places, brimming with spectacle and recitative.” This, he coolly claims, is “not a criticism, merely a description of a phenomenon, which in turn is now receding—it would seem. There will always be a public for the past.”
So what, exactly, was the “megamusical”? That eighties coinage, with its Sharper Image techno-sheen and unmistakable suggestion of excess, actually refers to a trend that began in 1969, when a pair of Brits named Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber synthesized the lessons of Hair and the Who’s Tommy to produce a concept album called Jesus Christ Superstar, then turned it into a stage show. The megamusical and the rock opera are distinct (well, as distinct as these artificial categories get), but with the second Rice/Lloyd Webber production, Evita, the Who-vian DNA had begun to mutate into something newer, more ambitious, and, above all, more marketable. By the time Cats opened on Broadway in 1982, the transformation was complete—and the backlash began. Today, despite the return of a few adored curios and the ascent of Les Miz to the big screen (in an adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway), the megamusical’s cell line is, for the most part, dead. (Though I await David Henry Hwang’s inevitable Sino-centric reimagining of Chess.) When Sondheim revivals suffuse Broadway, we talk about timelessness. When Lloyd Webber marches back to town, three shows abreast, we mostly just feel old … and I mean Grizabella-old. Why is that?
Despite a childhood spent pilfering my parents’ record collection for theater-cheese (out of the way, Graceland! Avant ye, Dan Fogelberg!), I didn’t actually see a megamusical in an actual theater until my junior year of high school. The show was Phantom, and I was fatally disappointed, despite a deep (and abiding!) attachment to the score. The problem was this: I’d been listening to the original cast album for years, and it had done its work too well. Megamusicals—which function more like film scores with words than classic musical-theater storytelling—implicitly promise the cinematic, not the theatrical. Thus, I thought the chandelier should plummet! Instead, it glided, on sturdy guide wires, gently downward, Glinda in her soap bubble. The Phantom should sweep Christine down to his lair, à la Batman. No dice: The romantic leads scampered back and forth on what appeared to be a series of slowly descending jet bridges. The gondola was kinda nifty, but if you squinted (through the eyes of the young and literal-minded), you could peer through the dry ice and see where the black hull met a highly unromantic mechanical wheeled assembly. * I did find “Masquerade” to be suitably awesome. But that was the extent of my breathlessness. It had promised a world without limitations, a world as free of weight and mass as it was free of irony, complexity, and depth. Instead, Phantom proved to be just a bigger theater piece, not entirely unlike the ones I knew from my high-school stage.
*This article has been corrected to show that the gondola in Phantom was wheeled, not on a track.