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Stripping away at the musical theater experience

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Musicals start with music. So why is music often the most disposable element of the show?

Because musicals are expensive, sometimes corners get cut. (Flip side: Musicals are popular. They make lots more money than straight plays.) Sound gets amped; orchestras get downsized. Nothing new there — except an increasing willingness to hail “stripped-down” musicals for their concepts, especially when such “innovations” come at the expense of the score.

Recent seasons have been particularly bad in that regard. Tony Award-winning director John Doyle was acclaimed for his high-concept versions of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” both of which had actors playing all the instruments. It kind of worked for the demented “Todd” but looked and sounded clunky on “Company.”

The Menier Chocolate Factory has been in vogue lately, transferring popular American musicals from its pocket-sized 160-seat London theater to Broadway. “Sunday in the Park with George” began the invasion, with its computer-animated projections drawing attention. The orchestra for Sondheim’s shimmering score? Five musicians. The pianist labored mightily to fill Studio 54 — a Broadway house — with sweep and color.

Menier’s glum “A Little Night Music” came next, star-powered by Catherine Zeta-Jones (and then by Bernadette Peters), and with the lovely, lilting score underpowered by fewer than 10 players in the pit.

“La Cage Aux Folles,” the 2010 Tony winner for best revival, closes its touring stop at the Kennedy Center on Sunday. Fans of Jerry Herman’s big-
hearted romanticism will have noticed the slender sound of the eight-piece orchestra here and in New York practically from the overture’s downbeat. Is this skeletal approach more conspicuous in the wake of the Kennedy Center’s recent “Follies,” which featured a sumptuous orchestra of 28? You bet.

Menier’s artistic director, David Babani, has said that the theater’s shows begin by being “actor-led, rather than scenery-led or orchestra-led,” and that his troupe is really all about“great stories.” In a small chamber, tight arrangements may be fine. But musicals are not plays.

It’s perverse to think that we can find the meaning of musicals (really!) if we strip away at the music. Listen: The scale-it-down attitude fundamentally alters the musical theater experience. And seldom for the better.

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