When you watch The House's new All the Fame of Lofty Deeds – and you probably will – you might be struck by the surprising perfection of Country Music for Musical Theater. It is narrative, rangy, soulful, showy, familiar, easy to sing, and ripe for virtuosity. Moreover, it’s unburdened by rock music’s essence of rebellious posturing. Country is populist without needing to be new, and it’s strong and gutsy without rock’s pretense of counter culture.
The problem with the Rock Musical is that the idea—to incorporate contemporary music—is inspired and necessary, but the institution of this idea is necessarily lacking the very appeal of Rock Music. The Rock Musical has only ever the shadow of Rock, the reminder of Rock. The flaw germane to a High Fidelity musical as such—regardless of the production—is that Rob Gordon would hate it, that he couldn’t sing those songs. The secret lie of the Rock recording is that, by some accident, someone captured an amazing moment of bravado, performance, and expression, and then someone else sold it. The institution of the American Musical is too inescapably commercial for even this lie, ridiculous and remote, to ever exist.
The Rock Musical, then, must be a kind of meta-musical to be successful, either deliberately performative (Million Dollar Quartet) or aware of its artifice (Urinetown). The Pop Musical, on the other hand, is what musicals have always been. The genre of this music is unmarked, invisible, and ever-expanding, allowing for the characters, their voices and their words, to have full effect. Pajama Game or Rent, this is their promise.
Country, though, is an inspired choice. Its genre is still evident and so carries the weight of its every association, but it needn’t be necessarily a watered-down image of itself (like those asinine and frustratingly popular jazz covers of Radiohead). Also, and this I think is desperately important to The House, it can be actually hip. Hip in a way that Rock can’t be because it can’t ever quite be right and hip in a way that pop can’t be because it’s, well, pop.
And why make a musical at all? Famously, James Joyce refused a career in music despite his concert-worthy voice because he feared the non-intellectual, emotional, irrational power of music. Plato’s Republic is almost entirely without music except for patriotic and heroic historical songs. And the incomparable Greg Allen, in his rules for theater, suggests you use music whenever possible because it resonates so strongly with audiences. This year in Chicago, ATC, Northlight, and in fact The House are all producing seasons either entirely or almost entirely musical. The New Colony's First and Second Seasons will be 2/3 Musical each. Chicago is at this moment playing both morgue and maternity ward for nearly half a dozen Broadway Musicals.
Music has the power to move: a statement as obvious and untenable as tomorrow. My high school drama teacher insisted that the only worthy question at the end of a play is “Was I moved?” If this is indeed the only question, it’s certain that Musicals are a potent inroad to effective theater.
But, there are other ways to move people. A ridiculous example of this is in the new sitcom Community (watch until about 40 seconds in), or Eisentstein’s baby carriage. It would be very easy at any important moment in a play to drop a baby from the flyspace and have an actor catch him. Would this be a great play? Maybe the first time, but it’s difficult to imagine this spawning a whole genre of its own.
Is All The Fame of Lofty Deeds a great play? Not really. Though there are a few truly powerful moments (the end of Act One, for instance), but in general, not much happens, there’s a lot of arguing about the play’s own world, and the characters are remarkably two-dimensional (though the acting is not always), and there's a healthy ration of the stupid fad of "ironic" racism. It is compelling stylistically (the arrows are great, the headlights are miraculous, the dancing is lovely, the puppetry charming), the music is fantastic, and it looks and sounds expensive.
So, I suppose what I’m wondering is, what makes this show different from Mamma Mia or Jersey Boys or Legally Blonde: The Musical? What makes it non-profit? What makes it new? Is it Country Music? Because the most familiar criticism of musicals as a genre is that they affect us in a way that permits them to be silly, campy, or simple, and All The Fame of Lofty Deeds certainly takes advantage of the same strength and certainly suffers from the same weakness.
Literally then, what is the purpose of art? What is entertainment? This show will be a hit. A lot of cool people are going to like it a lot (I've never read a program with the word "cool" in it so many times, by the way) and they're not wrong. How can an honest person point at this show and say "bad" if he or she is moved by it? And how can an honest person point at this show and say "great" when it falls short? What are the lessons of this play? People die, corporate suits want money, cowboys talk like a sunset in a june-bug's eye and boy howdy that's a good Jack Daniels? Is the whole form - not just musical theater, but theater in general, art as a thing - a game of manipulation? What's the difference between manipulation and movement? In what way is Cordelia's death less manipulative than "It's Not Enough" in Lofty Deeds?
I don't know, exactly, and these are a lot of questions to ask of one show, but they seem desperately important to ask not just "in general" or to strive toward the good, or because it's good to ask, and not because this show wants us to ask, but because the American position toward contemporary art is deeply steeped in an anxiety about substance. Why don't people go to modern art museums? Why is the most common comment "I don't get it?" It's because the whole things smells to us like the emperor's new clothes. In a world of naturalism it's easy to evaluate who's good and who's bad, what's it a picture of, etc. In an abstracted era these rules are gone and two paths are left: I like it/don't like it, or this is 'important'/'unimportant' for blah blah blah reason.
But the theater is different because a lack of substance can still easily be overcome by a song, a good performance, a beautiful set, a million things. This is why there's no danger of the death of theater that everyone likes to whisper about. And there's no risk of an end to substantive theater either, because it's better and because someone will always reach higher than the rest, and because audiences are looking for excellence (if you don't believe that, quit now). More finally also, if there's no end to one, there's no end to the other. I don't, I guess, have the vocabulary to distinguish them, and I'm not sure it's be worthwhile.