Broadway’s New Musicals: Retro Rules

I am starting to get discouraged about the Broadway musical. 

A half-dozen new ones have opened this fall, but the chances of finding something really original or musically adventurous are increasingly slim. It’s not just the surfeit of jukebox musicals— shows that repurpose old pop songs, either to celebrate a particular artist or to embellish a new story. Even the shows with original scores feel derivative and second-hand, often on purpose.  

Which isn’t to say they don’t have their musical pleasures. I’ve never been a fan of Neil Diamond’s music, but what I realized from A Beautiful Noise — the pedestrian bio-musical about the singer-songwriter’s life and career — is that it was his brusque, gravelly voice that turned me off. I hate to say it, but his parade of hits (“I Am … I Said,” “Solitary Man,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”), parceled out among star Will Swenson, as Diamond, and various wives, collaborators and others from his life, almost all sound better on the Broadway stage. 

Similarly, the new British import & Juliet — in which Will Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, set about revising Romeo and Juliet so that Juliet survives and goes off in search of new men — is a fairly ridiculous piece of fluff. But the pop songs sprinkled throughout— familiar hits by Britney Spears, Katy Perry, the Backstreet Boys and others, all written or co-written by Swedish hitmaker Max Martin — sound pretty darn good when belted out by a solid Broadway cast and pit band. Even the ersatz K-Pop score concocted by Helen Park and Max Vernon for KPOP, the backstage musical about the Korean hitmaking industry (which has already closed), made a good case for the vitality of that often disparaged genre. 

The ostensibly “new” musicals of the fall season, meanwhile, seem to get their juices flowing only by harking back to older, richer musical traditions. Almost Famous, based on Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical movie about his teenage years as a rock journalist, has a pretty generic retro-rock score that doesn’t really catch your attention until you realize you’re listening to a cover of a real rock song, like Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”  

Some Like It Hot, the splashy new musical based on the classic Billy Wilder-Jack Lemmon-Marilyn Monroe film comedy, presents a more complicated problem. The show is staged with unflagging, tap-tap-tapping energy by that master of Broadway pizzazz Casey Nicholaw (Aladdin, Something Rotten!, Mean Girls), and the cross-dressing comedy plot — two Prohibition-era jazz musicians disguise themselves as members of an all-girl band to escape some Chicago mobsters — has been made more palatable to modern sensibilities by its interracial casting and a cagey (if predictable) gender-bending plot twist. But the Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman score, while bright and melodic, never rises above period pastiche — jazzy big-band numbers with old-fashioned verse intros, a bluesy torch song here, a Cole Porter knockoff there — all dialed up to the max. It finally wears you out.

Which leaves the one most authentically new (and critically acclaimed) musical of the season, Kimberly Akimbo. Adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his off-Broadway play, the show centers on a teenage girl who suffers from progeria, the rare genetic disease in which the body ages at four to five times the normal rate. Kim, who at 16 has little chance of living past 20, faces her trials with poise and pluck, with the help of her circle of nerdy high-school friends — but very little from her dysfunctional parents.  

I found the show perfectly pleasant, and certainly a nice break from the bombastic retreads elsewhere on the Broadway strip.  Composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline or Change) has written one of her better scores — low-key, character-driven, somewhat repetitive, but enlivened by a few playful up-tempo numbers that you might actually be able to hum on the way out of the theater.

My problem with Kimberly Akimbo is that, for all its quirkiness, it never really engages the tough subject matter it so bravely tackles. None of Kim’s classmates (including the shy boy who has a crush on her) seem to care, or even notice, that their 16-year-old friend looks like she’s 60. Nor does Victoria Clark, as Kim, do very much to convince us that there’s a 16-year-old girl inside that middle-aged body. Far from it: compared with her clueless family — alcoholic father, narcissistic pregnant mother, and a disreputable aunt who (one quirky plot twist too many) enlists the kids in a mailbox-robbery scheme — Kim is easily the most mature.

It reminded me of those sentimental, soft-focus disease-of-the-week TV movies of the 1980s. The uplifting message is that the terminally ill are not to be pitied; they’re to be revered. Their misfortune gives them wisdom and gravitas; they appreciate life; they can smell the roses. And with a little musical help, I suppose, so can we.           

4 thoughts on “Broadway’s New Musicals: Retro Rules

    1. Yes – Mike Birbiglia’s solo show at Lincoln Center (“The Old Man and the Pool”), which I just saw last night. He’s excellent. (And I did like “Topdog/Underdog.”)

      Liked by 1 person

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