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The Greatest Musical: “I Can’t Live With ‘West Side Story’ Not Being Among the Finalists”

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Yul Brynner backstage at The King and I, 1978.  

Rich: Which is also true of 98 percent of American plays of that period.

Green: So we’re content not to consider any early musicals but Show Boat and Porgy?

Wolfe: I’d like to make a plea for Shuffle Along. Although it has an incredibly stupid book, it has a great score that brought jazz dance to Broadway and invigorated the form. I don’t think it’s the best musical, but I wanted to argue for recognizing that phenomenon.

Green: Which raises a question: Must a great musical provide an opportunity for great dance? Like A Chorus Line?

Rich: Because Floyd Collins, for example, has none, and really neither does Annie Get Your Gun.

Ephron: Is there dancing in Sweeney Todd?

Green: It’s mostly staged action. Which means, I think, that the answer to the question is “no.” Yet we would all agree, I assume, that while books may vary, a great score is an absolute requirement for a great musical. So looking at the 23 here, are there any we can shoot off the list for perhaps being very good scores but not top of the heap? I’m going to go suggest A Chorus Line. Nora, you look injured.

Wolfe: Wait, I’m confused because if you isolate the elements it’s not a musical. A musical is what happens when text collides with motion collides with song collides with spectacle. And spectacle can be the human heart; it doesn’t necessarily have to be a helicopter crashing. You can go see ballet in its purity; you can go to a recital to hear music by itself. But what the American musical does so thrillingly is bastardize these forms into something that is exhilarating and compelling and deeply moving.

Green: But there might be shows that do that less well than others because one component is simply not up to snuff.

Wolfe: But if one component soars in relation to it, how can you discard it?

Green: Well, with A Chorus Line, for instance, we have the problem of performance versus text. Is a musical that is great largely because of its dancing, or largely because of a performance, still great?

Rich: If the staging exists in a codified form and people can keep reacting to it years after the creator of it is dead, as with Michael Bennett, you can argue that it becomes part of the text. The actual text of A Chorus Line, the book, was considered so insignificant that it was published only after it closed. And yet the proof is in the pudding.

Tunick: Then there are musicals that despite major shortcomings really land. 1776 has a very weak score and yet is mesmerizing.

Ephron: Well, it has a good story.

Rich: And a brilliant piece of stagecraft at the end.

Ephron: That’s the thing with A Chorus Line. Emotionally, it’s so powerful. Let’s talk about the emotional impact of these shows. Long before my parents were involved with it, I saw Carousel and I just couldn’t believe the music. But now you see it and it’s got that political thing that completely interferes.

Green: The unfortunate wife-beating aspect?

Ephron: You could call it that. “If a man loves you, really loves you, sometimes a hit doesn’t hurt.” Or whatever that horrible line is. It seems terrible and politically correct to throw a show out because of something like that, but it does hang me up about Carousel.

Rich: I love Carousel.

Ephron: Yes, but you’re a boy.

Green: Really, a lot of our 23 have these problems. Annie Get Your Gun is, at best, racially insensitive.

Tunick: And Oklahoma!

Green: But we’re back to tearing them down, when Nora wants to compare what’s most powerful about them.

Ephron: Can we each say what our first show was? Mine was Oklahoma! at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Knew every word of the songs before I saw it.

Wolfe: Mine was the West Side Story revival at the State Theater in 1968 or 1969. I was sitting in the front of the mezzanine, and I remember very specifically leaning forward during the Quintet. It defined a kind of aesthetic that follows me to this very day.

Rich: The first show I saw was Damn Yankees in Washington, which I was taken to because I was a Washington Senators fan, and I remember very little about it except Lola turning back to a witch at the end.

Wolfe: It’s a great score. “You Gotta Have Heart” is one of the most ridiculously perfect amazing musical comedy songs ever. And underneath, the show is fueled by this incredible energy of regret: “If I had a second chance, what would I do with it?” That’s what fuels Follies, too. My theory is that really great musicals have something scary and frightening underneath them that are threatening to eat the musical, and that’s what motivates the singing.


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