Photographs: from left, Joan Marcus; Terry O’Neill/Getty Images; Joan Marcus (3); Richard Termine
This world of massless massiveness began to vanish in the early nineties, and the correction has been felt for years, in such also-rans and never-weres as Sunset Boulevard, Martin Guerre, Whistle Down the Wind, and The Woman in White. The Disney musical replaced the megamusical, substantially reembraced the “book” tradition of the American Golden Age, and implicitly declared children’s entertainment off-limits for adults: There would be no more bloated fairy tales for yuppie grown-ups (bankers weren’t taking their dates to Beauty and the Beast), and jukebox musicals would eventually prove safer bets for low-impact musical satisfaction—who’d risk $250 on dangerously untested new tunes? On top of that, the genre’s great melodists—Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schoenberg, principally—were no longer cranking out great melodies at their peak rate. Say what you wish about Sir Andrew, call him a thief and an opportunist, but the man can shape a phrase. He is a pop compositor, yes, but that describes many talented composers. The allegations of his wholesale lifts from Puccini, Mendelssohn, et al., have always been somewhat overblown. As for the megamusical’s lyrics, well, they were always kind of beside the point, weren’t they? Personally I’ve never understood the appeal of Tim Rice, dubious wordsmith of Superstar and Evita. What Jessica Sternfeld calls his “efﬁcient, pointed slang” in her excellent treatise / apologia The Megamusical, I’d characterize as casual sloppiness, Bernie Taupin–esque arbitrariness, and total metrical suicide. I present this unforgettable, unforgivable refrain from Evita: “I want to be / a part of B.A. / Buenos Aires / Big Apple!”
In a pileup like that, performance is everything—another reason why megamusicals, while they can be effectively and profitably cloned (a process perfected in country after country by Mackintosh), can’t be easily revivified from the ground up. These shows, as functional drama, are very shaky mirages, and attempts to alter them at the genetic level depend critically on the star-leads. (Phantom has been through many a Phantom, for example, but they’re all doing a Michael Crawford impression.) Consider Michael Grandage’s imposing new vision of Evita at the Marquis, an achievement of scale and dynamism, thanks in large part to Rob Ashford’s whirligig (and only occasionally muddled) choreography. Grandage has cast newcomer Elena Roger as Eva Perón, the sainted First Lady of mid-century Argentina (really, a distaff version of the fame-haunted Christ from Superstar). London went mad for Roger: her elfin apoplexies and unique vocal interpretation were met with bouquets. Personally, I found her performance almost too good a fit with Rice’s jagged, herky-jerky lyrics: She is memorable in part because she is irritating. Her upper register sometimes approximates a subway-gate alarm, and her quick-runs in tricky passages throw all normal concepts of pitch to the wayside. It’s as if her voice breaks a heel and just keeps hobbling at high speed. There’s pungency and pathos in this approach, but it all felt a tad shambolic to me. One place it works well: her plaintive yet needling “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” which she delivers with a hypodermic. Finally, there’s a version of this song that doesn’t allow you to luxuriate in its melodic velour. Roger, whatever else she’s doing up there, keeps us on our toes. (The same cannot be said for Ricky Martin’s narrator-gadfly Che, who, despite his grinning avidity and entirely competent singing, fades into the scenery almost instantly.)
There is no scenery to speak of in Des McAnuff’s brisk, dour, darkly dorky interpretation of Superstar. The show amounts to a mild apostasy: We’re presented with a stripped down Power Christ (the lank, note-perfect wailer Paul Nolan) who refuses to play to the arena at all. Maybe that’s because he’s tired of the spotlight (his constant theme); maybe it’s because he’s tired of being dance-mobbed by the cast of Waterworld. This Superstar’s constant brow-furrowing is so cosmically at odds with the intrinsic goofiness of its design and execution—fake Rasta-payess wiggery, silly leather dusters and plastic armor, and the kind of lazy postapocalypticism that blends Blade Runner with the bargain rack at Ricky’s—I often wondered whether someone was pulling my leg. But one glance at Griefer Jesus told me, definitively: “We are not amused (and by ‘we’ I mean the Trinity).” The new Superstar isn’t a dud, just a bit of a grind, as we wait for a wink that seems implied, but never arrives. (One place where the graveness works like gangbusters: Bruce Dow’s furious, self-loathing Herod.) No worries: The kids will love it.
Because kids do—and should—love megamusicals. They certainly still love Phantom, which I caught at a Wednesday matinee last week. The Majestic was packed with hormonal teens and preteens, and these txt-gen moppets—weaned on Avatar and Transformers and the Spider-Man killing, er, thrilling machine—weren’t there for the chandelier. They were there for the fat spatters of hummable romance, for the seat-shaking shock chords, for the great fondue pot of nonsensically swirling motifs. They were there for, and visibly rapt by, the music—yes, the megamusic. And also because someone put them on a charter bus, at a steep discount. Either way, it’ll be a memory, even if it’s a hand-me-down, for the future public of the past.