The Form Without a Name: American Music Theater

There was a time when the American Musical Theater was not only dying, but seemed to be actively being killed off. Howard Ashman of Menken and Ashman died, Jonathan Larson died, and William Finn almost died. Disney took what was left and took over Times Square as well. If you wanted to see exciting new Musical Theater, you’d be better off crossing the Atlantic to England’s West End.

But today there is new excitement in the United States. Playwrights Horizons, the Vineyard Theatre, the Goodspeed Opera House, the New York Theater Workshop, the National Music Theater Network, the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, the newly-energized Disney/Stephen Schwartz ASCAP Musical Theater Workshop, the O’Neill Music Theater Conference, the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at NYU, and the Prince Music Theater are all devoted to nurturing creators and their work.

Now, I would guess that over 95 percent of musicals working their way through these not-for-profit workshop pipeline in hopes of being picked up for a commercial run are being written by post-Sondheim wannabes and Bernstein imitators, or in generic popular or pastiche musical styles that make me laugh but bore me silly. Fifteen years ago, when I submitted to BMI the most musical theater-like numbers (sung by musical theater voices) from my crossover work, Love and Idols, I was told, “But this is opera. We’re looking for songs.” Today, however, there is some evidence that that snap judgement may no longer apply.

In Chicago, the Goodman Theater and the Lyric Opera are jointly workshopping two new works, one by Michael John LaChiusa and one by Adam Guettel. Ricky Ian Gordon and Randall Eng, a student of Anthony Davis, seem to be freely crossing back and forth between the theater and opera worlds, as are quite a number of librettists who have formed a new support network called Prima Le Parole. Michael Sahl’s John Grace Ranter, directed by Tom O’Horgan, was workshopped by American Opera Projects but given a full production at Theater for the New City. Even David Rodwin, whose credentials run the gamut of alternative music and theater, got workshopped by Disney this year.

The old definition – that opera was through-sung and musicals were not – was questioned by rock operas and laid to rest by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Then, when Webber started sounding like Puccini and wrote a Requiem, and opera houses revived Candide, Porgy and Bess, and A Little Night Music, conventional wisdom separating opera from musical theater was bound to get a bit blurry.

The Form Without a Name: American Music Theater
by Barry Drogin
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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