Keeping Amused, with Leah Zeldes

Longing for lightness

What's become of the musical comedy?

Theater Critic Beverly Friend and I were talking last week about Steppenwolf Theater's current production, "The Ballad of Little Jo." This world premiere is the first musical the company has produced in its 25-year history, and, Beverly and I agreed, a very fitting vehicle for Steppenwolf.

We both thought the music was good, better than many of the current crop of musicals. We thought Director Tina Landau did a brilliant job. We thought the acting was very good and the set was terrific. All in all, we agreed, this is a play well worth seeing.

But then Beverly applied her partner David Miller's acid test: "Would you go see it again?" And in unison, we both shook our heads and cried, "No!"

Because the fact is, this is a very grim story. Poor Jo suffers rejection from her father and deceit from her lover, she conceives a child out of wedlock, is forced to give it up, and then is robbed, thrown off a train and raped -- all in the first act. And things don't get any better in the second.

In less skillful hands than Landau's, the play could be excruciating. Even with her tasteful handling of the most unpleasant scenes, this is not light entertainment. It is, as Beverly says in her review, a far cry from "Annie Get Your Gun."

Indeed, "Little Jo" is perhaps the epitome of the fin de millenaire musical. Says Landau, who has also directed some revivals of "Golden Age" musicals, "Traditionally, 'musical' has meant 'musical comedy.' A lot of us today like the musical form, but the things we want to say are better expressed as musical drama."

Make that musical tragedy. Today's musicals are probably more akin to opera, a form that's often looked at the tragic side of life, than they are to the sprightly, lighthearted musical comedies of the Golden Age.

It is, by all accounts, a popular form. "Rent," an unhappy tale about unlikable people, is still running on Broadway and touring after four years. (It's playing this weekend at the Rosemont Theatre.) "Sunset Boulevard," another dismal story, ran for nearly 1,000 performances.

And yet at every dinner theater in the suburbs, people flock to see the old standbys of the 1940s and '50s ... "Oklahoma!" (1943) ..."Annie Get Your Gun" (1946) ... "South Pacific" (1949) ... "Guys and Dolls" (1950) ... "The Pajama Game" (1954) ... "My Fair Lady" (1956) ... "The Music Man" (1957) ... "The Sound of Music" (1959). Chances are, you can hum a few bars of a song from each of them.

The plots are usually silly, if not nonexistent. The production numbers often do little to advance the story. A good song is its own excuse. (Consider "Hernando's Hideaway" in "The Pajama Game" -- "I know a dark, secluded place..." -- what's a tango doing in a play about clothing-factory labor relations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Who cares? It's a great song.) There is always a happy ending. And you leave the theater humming.

I miss that. While I may be surfeited as anyone with revivals of classic musicals, I'm even more tired of grim, dark stories in which actors trudge around in circles to funereal music.

"Little Jo" succeeds above many recent musicals because the music is better. It doesn't repeat the same dreary tune over and over, and several of the songs can stand alone. Yet its plot won't let you leave the theater humming.

What's become of musical comedy?

Comments, compliments or complaints about this story?