Sunday, August 12, 2012

The First Post-Musical Musical?

On Friday evening, we went to Saint Paul to attend a performance of the Kander and Ebb musical, “Chicago”, at the Ordway Center.

It was a night out for my parents, for my middle brother, and for Joshua and me, our first—and only—such night out of the summer.

The production of “Chicago” at the Ordway was the current National Touring Company production based upon the 1996 Broadway revival, still running in New York after sixteen years.

Until Friday evening, my brother and Josh and I had never seen a presentation of “Chicago”. In fact, we had never seen even the movie version of the musical.

My parents had seen “Chicago” on a single previous occasion. In 1979, they had seen the original London production, a production in no way connected with or based upon the 1975 Broadway original.

I do not understand how the 1996 Broadway revival of “Chicago” continues to find a New York audience. The production is bare-boned, with minimal stage design, and the material, albeit fully professional, is decidedly second-rate.

The “Chicago” song numbers are good insofar as Broadway songs go—but they are nothing more than typical Broadway songs, and not quite of the first rank. It would be inaccurate, I submit, to call the “Chicago” songs a score—to do so would elevate the songs to a status they do not deserve.

Richard Rodgers composed Broadway scores, but only one post-Rodgers figure has been a composer of scores, that figure being Stephen Sondheim. All other post-Rodgers figures have been mere songwriters, a very different thing from genuine composers—and Kander and Ebb are and were nothing more than songwriters.

The “Chicago” staging is pure celebration of show biz, lacking any frame of reference beyond the strict confines of song-and-dance routines. Indeed, there is a certain purity in the ruthlessness with which the current staging refuses to expand its scope beyond the narrow, closed-circuit world of show-business proceedings.

In that sense, “Chicago” may be the first post-musical musical.

And, as such, the show is decadent, and deformed, and dead . . . just like the art form itself.

I can understand why “Chicago” was only a modest success in its first run.

What I cannot understand is why “Chicago” has proven to be such a lasting commercial success on its remounting.

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