Saturday, May 6, 2006

What Happened to the Dream Ballet?

All hail the big, bloated, high production values of the American musical. Ever since Oklahoma hit Broadway in 1952, with a bright golden haze on its medder, we have loved the spectacle of the big show.

When Stephen Schwartz’ Wicked blew through town this month, as the vaudevillians used to say “it killed the people.” Generally speaking, the happy musical plays better than one about domestic violence, so it is not surprising that Gregory Maguire’s dark novel is staged for laughs.

And there is plenty that you pay $100 a seat for: colors, costumes, breath taking lighting design, special effects, sets, smoke and crashing symbols, (the literary kind) and belted out numbers of the Merman/Streisand variety (no offensive to you, Mary Martin and Shirley Jones).

A show with two female leads who are both given interesting things to do, and symbols you know by heart, make up for some of the unjustified character twists -- the kind where the nice character turns inexplicably mean, or the enemy is suddenly a friend. These twists are gentler curves in the novel, where the middle act occurs very slowly and there is more back-story to get you invested in these characters. On stage, things must be more stylized to make their points quickly. (and loudly).

The music is only fine, compared to so much else Schwarz had written – most notably, Godspell, which still mesmerizes, in spite of its 60s era corniness and the fact that you know how it all turns out. Schwartz has more range than Wicked suggests, and the score feels Andrew Lloyd Webber influenced (and not for the good) in the absence of sweet Schwartz monologues like "Day by Day" or "No Time At All," from Pippin.

The most noticeable absence, however, was dance. It’s been many years since new shows incorporated real choreography as a story-telling device. Webber’s Cats, victim of its own dance era, presented aerobics as dance, then came Phantom’s “Masquerade,” until now all the audience requires is some posturing – tableaux in wild costumes that are so geometrically interesting to watch that we think we saw a dance number. But there is no real dancing in Wicked, and that is an unfortunate oversight.

Agnes DeMille’s great contribution to American theatre, the Dream Ballet, has been filed as history. Once so central to the dramaturgy, dance stars and vocal stars literally shared a character through the course of the show, and the audience followed right along. Louise Bigelow’s adventure with the carnival people on the beaches of Maine tells us everything we need to know about her character, and when the Snow family marches past, we understand how far Billy’s widow and daughter have fallen in the eyes of the town.

A dance number introducing Fiyero’s arrival at Wicked's Shiz University would have been far more artful than the song that holds that spot. Dance could have expressed the hierarchy of Oz’s many cultures, including the fading glory of the sentient animals. Both Elphie and Galinda could have danced the conflict between their inner feelings and their outward appearances. Both could have fallen in love with Fiyero before our eyes in a way that felt more genuine than simply declaring that they did. And the kids in the chorus could have had more to do.

So here’s to you, Agnes DeMille. Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse, Tommy Tune, Debbie Allen, Twyla Tharp.

And here’s to the kids in the chorus. Kill the People.

1 comment:

  1. Hear hear! (or is it "here, here" - too lazy to look it up)
    I'm all for more real dancing on Broadway. Spamalot had some real choreography, but since it was Monty Python, they didn't really care about being in synch. I love Twyla Tharp but pretty much hate Billy Joel's music so no "movin' out" for me unfortunately. I'll wait for it to come out on DVD and watch in on mute.


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