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Broadway, Just Loony About Musical Comedies

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page N01

The Broadway musical has moved. To the sunny side of the street.

Up and down the theater district, you see evidence of the shift. The juggernaut shows are no longer based on teary epics or lugubrious legends or dark poems. The singing gloom-and-doom characters of the Great White Way -- the bedraggled street urchins and guilt-ridden Vietnam War veterans and weather-beaten felines -- have packed up their dressing rooms. One formidable survivor, that spectral opera-house haunter in the half-mask, is looking ever lonelier.

Inspired lunacy: From left, Emily Hsu, Greg Reuter (with drum), Brad Bradley, David Hyde Pierce and Christian Borle in the Broadway hit "Spamalot." (Joan Marcus Via AP)

Today, the hits are all about tee-hee and ha-ha and oh-ho-ho. What packs 'em in is hilarity in major chords. Monty Python, Mel Brooks, sex-crazed puppets, Harvey Fierstein in a triple-D cup: These are the new aristocrats of Broadway. Types with a thing for the funny bone.

After years of taking a back seat to moodier offerings, musical comedy is making its comeback. Beginning with the delirious launch in the spring of 2001 of the stage version of Brooks's 1968 movie "The Producers," lighthearted musical fare has been establishing an ever more tenacious beachhead. "Hairspray" and "Avenue Q," the 2003 and 2004 Tony winners for best musical, are buoyant shows that have ascended to box office heaven. They're such raging successes that each is getting a long-term deal for a spinoff company in Las Vegas.

If anything, the tempo is picking up. The Broadway season is awash in musicals that go for the laughs. While more dramatic works, musical versions of "Little Women" and "Dracula," have gotten tepid reviews and done mediocre business, the musical comedies flourish. "Spamalot," an adaptation of the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," is the New York theater's hottest ticket. "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," a clever musicalizing of the 1988 movie, has returned "screwball" to the comedy vernacular. And still to come is the Broadway transfer of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," William Finn and James Lapine's disarming off-Broadway lampoon of an American battlefield for cutthroat nerds.

The impact can be felt far from Manhattan. Last summer the road company of "The Producers" became the highest-grossing production in the Kennedy Center's history, and ticket sales are already brisk for this summer's potential cash cow, "Hairspray." It's plain the center sees the handwriting: Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center president, announced in March that the main course on next season's theater menu will be the center's own revival of Jerry Herman's 1966 musical comedy, "Mame." Signature Theatre, that little temple to the contemporary musical, is reading the tea leaves, too. Eric Schaeffer's company will lead off the 2005-06 season with that irreverent tuner from 2001, "Urinetown."

An outgrowth of the reinvigoration of funny musicals is the emergence of a group of composers and lyricists who are bringing new energy to Broadway songwriting. From "Avenue Q's" Jeffrey Marx and Robert Lopez to "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' " David Yazbek to "Hairspray's" Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, this infusion of new voices has left the musical-theater landscape holding wider promise than it has in decades.

"It certainly seems to have come in a wave," says Shaiman, who wrote "Hairspray's" music and co-wrote the lyrics with Wittman, his professional and life partner. "I was happy to see Mel Brooks got there first, but I did harbor a fantasy that we'd be the ones who would bring musical comedy back to Broadway." Before the advent of "The Producers" and others of its kind, he observes, "people seemed to have forgotten how to entertain while you're telling a story."

Entertaining is definitely in, and precisely why musical comedy has reemerged so robustly is a matter of conjecture. Some hold that its time had simply cycled back around, that with the waning interest in the spectacles of the 1980s and '90s popularized by Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Cats," "Phantom of the Opera," "Sunset Boulevard") and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg ("Les Miserables," "Miss Saigon"), another genre was bound to fill the gap. (Disney's Broadway forays, with the blockbuster "Lion King" and theme-parky "Beauty and the Beast," have made a mark less as comedic than as family fare.)

Certainly the trend has at least something to do with many in the new generation of writers moving out of the shadow of Stephen Sondheim, the musical-theater genius whom some young composers vainly sought to emulate. And there is another important factor, the sense that Brooks's success with "The Producers" made silliness profoundly marketable, particularly in a time of skittishness for the country. This may also help to explain the unbridled success of some recent confections of considerably less artistic accomplishment, "Wicked," the "Wizard of Oz" prequel, and "Mamma Mia!," the show devoted to the pop song stylings of Abba.

"I think what's going on right now is a response to the dolorous climate in which we find ourselves," says Jack O'Brien, who over the past few years has directed three major musical comedies, Yazbek's "The Full Monty" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" as well as "Hairspray," the last earning him a Tony. "There's a feeling of, 'I'm not happy in this country right now,' and these comedies give us the ability to laugh in the face of depression."

The Great Depression, of course, was another period in which escapist frivolity was highly prized, epitomized by shows such as the Gershwins' "Girl Crazy" and Cole Porter's "Anything Goes." Musical comedy reigned supreme in the 1930s, and it would never have such an unchallenged position again. The rise in the 1940s of perhaps the most influential songwriting team the musical theater ever produced, Rodgers and Hammerstein, would see to that. Their astonishing string of hits, from "Oklahoma!" to "The Sound of Music," cemented the role of dramatic storytelling as a viable facet of the musical. Though comic elements remained a vital aspect in theirs and dozens of other musicals, from "West Side Story" to "Sweeney Todd," cheeky asides, smart ripostes, pun-filled songs -- funny for funny's sake -- were no longer the musical's major thrust.

You can rummage in the archives of the past half-century and find any number of musicals that honor the tradition of playing for laughs: "Bye Bye Birdie," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." We'll have to wait for the verdict on which of the current productions assume places alongside these classics. But it seems safe to suggest that all of a sudden, audiences at Broadway musicals are laughing as hard as they ever have.

And what they find amusing has evolved with the culture. It seems no coincidence that some of the funny people writing musicals nowadays share a basic love of the theater but honed their senses of humor in other media. Brooks was a sketch comedy writer for television in the '50s before writing and directing a spate of hilarious movies; Shaiman wrote sparkling songs for films such as "The First Wives Club" and co-wrote the Oscar-nominated "Blame Canada" for the movie version of "South Park." Eric Idle, the major creative force behind "Spamalot," is first and forever a Python. Yazbek shared an Emmy as a writer on "Late Night With David Letterman," and the "Scoundrels" book writer, Jeffrey Lane, has written for soaps, TV dramas and sitcoms.

Though often teamed with experienced Broadway directors such as O'Brien, Mike Nichols and Susan Stroman, these writers bring a sense of what's funny in a wider world, and that may explain why many of their shows espouse a jaundiced view of show business in general and Broadway in particular.

"I think I'm one of those people who always had a really wide frame of reference," says Yazbek, who recorded three albums of his own music before composing the score of "The Full Monty," the well-received 2000 adaptation of the film comedy of the same title. Yazbek grew up listening to an eclectic catalogue, from classical to show tunes, but one of his major influences was comedian-songwriter Allen Sherman, whose recordings included the eternal "Hello Muddah, hello Faddah / Here I am at /Camp Granada."

Sherman's songs acquainted Yazbek with the exhilaration of mixing music and laughter. On Sherman's first album, Yazbek says, the audience can be heard, "and they applaud, and they realize they are in the presence of genius. That got me." When he was invited to write some sample songs for "The Full Monty," he discovered the range that show tunes allowed him: "I like the idea of doing a song that's witty in a Noel Coward sort of way. And then doing a song with a lot of fart jokes."

Clearly, musicals mixing highbrow and low have a place on the Broadway of today. Tastes, and the inclination to laugh, change in the theater. Shaiman recalls a time in the 1980s when he and Wittman wrote an irreverent show -- about how Ken and Barbie met -- called "Living Dolls," and when it played at Manhattan Theatre Club, a friend who came to see it laughed out loud. "He got up during intermission," Shaiman says, "and when he returned to his seat someone had left a note: 'Shut up or go home.' "

These days, in the theaters where "Hairspray" and "Spamalot" and "Avenue Q" are playing, there is no such thing as a silent majority. Audiences know that Broadway musicals have once again been made safe for lunacy. And the people who write them are euphoric, too -- laughing, as a matter of fact, all the way to the bank.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company