Theater: Yesterday and Tomorrow


Throughout the late '80s, when knowing theater observers referred to the "British Invasion," they weren't talking about The Rolling Stones or The Who making yet another geriatric farewell tour. They were alluding to England's apparent stranglehold on Broadway's musical-theater trade.

Theatergoers wanted to see the West End hits, and prescient producers, doing what producers do best, happily obliged. Long a genre cherished and perfected by Americans, the Broadway musical—our only indigenous art form aside from jazz—succumbed to the drawing power of the big British spectacle, losing its decades-old role as The Great White Way's staple product. The hallmarks of American musical theater—good tunes, good dancing, and corny happy endings—suddenly seemed trivial next to the awesome settings (complete with crashing chandeliers and hydraulic train tracks), enormous budgets, and slick professionalism served up by accomplished English craftsmen such as producer Cameron MacKintosh and songwriter Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose Cats, Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera achieved the financially stupendous feat of running simultaneously during the 1988–89 season.

Even with the Royal Shakespeare Company's Carrie debacle, which expired after three performances and nearly $5 million in irretrievable losses, the ability of the Brits to export hits appears unhindered. By the time you read this, Webber's Aspects of Love and MacKintosh's Miss Saigon (by the creators of another West End and Broadway megatriumph, Les Misérables) will have opened to sizable box-office advance sales.

Still, the 1990 season has the distinction of hosting two American productions that embody the past, present, and, one hopes, the future of the Broadway musical. They are Jerome Robbins' Broadway and City of Angels, and for aficionados of homegrown musical comedy they are bookends on American theatrical history.

The shows could not be more different. Jerome Robbins' Broadway celebrates the choreographic and directorial achievements of its eponymous creator, who, engaged by the New York City Ballet, stopped working on Broadway more than 25 years ago. His legacy, embodied by people like Gower Champion (42nd Street), Tommy Tune (My One and Only), and Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line), lives on in Broadway musicals that always include a liberal dose of theme-advancing dance sequences—numbers which masterfully blur the distinction between human motion and emotion. As an honor to both a renowned man of the theater and the lasting impact of his work, Jerome Robbins' Broadway transports viewers back to a time when beautifully constructed songs and dances mattered more than pyrotechnic effects.

Jerome Robbins' is a compilation, a greatest-hits collection from Broadway's golden age. The show's advertisements, in fact, tout it as "ten hit shows in one." West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, On the Town, Gypsy, Peter Pan, Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I—all contribute at least one number to the production. The result can be alternately astounding and depressing: When one show features music and lyrics by artists like Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, and Rodgers and Hammerstein (all choreographed, of course, by the same genius), one cannot help but realize how great Broadway's musical comedies were during the '40s, '50s, and '60s, and how barren they sometimes seem in the present.

For those too young to have seen the originals, Jerome Robbins' is a living document, an animated record of the kind of American musicals that became a part of our national vocabulary. Even if you never saw them on Broadway, your high school or local summer theater probably put them on. Everyone knows their stories and everyone can sing their songs, many of which remain much-recorded standards. They are as much a part of our popular culture as The Catcher in the Rye and "Star Trek."

In addition to its primary purpose of showcasing Jerome Robbins's extraordinary versatility and talent, one of the show's important functions is displaying what the old pros did right. Watching the sailors from On the Town (1944) sing "New York, New York" or the Sharks and Jets from West Side Story (1957) conducting a knife fight in dance, one marvels at the evocative simplicity and durability of the authors' imagination and craftsmanship. Audiences must often depart Jerome Robbins' thinking, "They just don't make them like they used to."

Visitors to City of Angels might well think the same thing, but their observation is likely inspired by astonishment rather than wistfulness. City of Angels is unlike any musical ever mounted on Broadway.

Simultaneously shunning and embracing the esteemed tradition established by Mr. Robbins and his cohorts, Angels boasts an iconoclastic Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity) score that, although written in a '40s swing idiom, contains the most refreshingly original music heard in a Broadway theater since Leonard Bernstein lent his symphonic talents to West Side Story. Filled with Sinatraesque ballads, Manhattan Transfer–inspired harmonies, and Count Basie–derived rhythms, Angels's jazzy score spurns typical Broadway-style music for a heretofore untapped yet undeniably American brand of sound.

Equally revolutionary is director Michael Blakemore's staging. Set in Los Angeles during the era of Bogie and Bacall, Angels chronicles the travails of a talented novelist-turned-screenwriter whose life begins to parallel the events in a murder-mystery script he's been commissioned to write by a craven Hollywood producer. Scenes from the movie are played upon washed-out, black-and-white sets (by Robin Wagner), while those involving the writer are in vibrant, living color. Cinematic conventions, including "dissolves" and "rewinding," are incorporated into the blocking, requiring the actors sometimes to speak and move backwards. This is their most difficult physical challenge, because—with no disrespect intended toward Jerome Robbins—City of Angels contains virtually no dancing.

Given a one-liner-laden book by Larry Gelbart ("M*A*S*H"), David Zippel's sexy lyrics, and the entire cast's inspired performances, the dancing is hardly missed. What Robbins and his followers expressed in choreography, Coleman and company do with language and rhythm. Utilizing the music of the past and the theatrical energy of what must surely be the future, City of Angels reinvents the Broadway musical without ever losing sight of its roots.

That Angels is housed in the Virginia Theatre, whose last major musical tenant was none other than Carrie, should not go unnoticed by those resigned to bloated imports. With Jerome Robbins' Broadway and City of Angels now running simultaneously, producers and theater artists need not look across the Atlantic for a powerful model. Jerome Robbins' reminds us we've always had one, and Angels exemplifies how it can be put to use. Indeed, 1990 might well be remembered as the year two dissimilar yet equally effective productions—one presenting history, one making it—showed Americans what musical theater can and ought to be.

Michael Konik, a journalist, critic, and playwright, lives in New York City.