Monday, November 20, 2017

It's Always Something

I recently saw the musical Something Rotten!.  It was enjoyable enough, but there was a built-in problem.

The story is set in 1590s England, where two brothers try to present plays but can't compete with Shakespeare.  So they decide to put on a musical.  (There was music in Shakespeare's plays, of course, but I guess that's not quite the same thing as a full-blown musical.)

It's a comedy, and the plot isn't really meant to be taken seriously.  But you should at least be able to get involved enough in the story to care about the characters.  However, much--perhaps most--of the humor is based on anachronism, so you're constantly being taken out of the show.

Anachronisms can create easy laughs, but are probably best kept to short comedy bits.  A show that asks you to invest two-and-a-half hours in the story and characters should demand more.

I would guess over half the jokes are based on our awareness (and sometimes the characters' awareness) of life now versus life then.  And quite a few of the big laughs are simply references to modern Broadway musicals in an Elizabethan setting.

There have been plenty of period musicals, but they work a lot better if you believe, on some level, in the story.  Look at Hamilton, the biggest hit on Broadway.  The show may be performed in a modern idiom, but the characters take their situation very seriously, and we believe in them.

And that doesn't change with knockabout comedy.  Consider a show like A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, a farce set in ancient Rome.  The characters have problems to deal with, and the problems are real, while none of their jokes or situations are out of place for the time period.  (The book writers, Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove based their work on Roman playwright Plautus.  They made sure to avoid anachronistic jokes, though they would have been easy enough to make.  (The same goes for Stephen Sondheim's lyrics.)  Their original lead Zero Mostel allegedly drove them to distraction with his ad libs, including lines they would never allow, like, referring to wine, "Was 1 a good year?")

So I don't think you could call Something Rotten! a classic. Even the silliest show needs something more.

PS  There were also a lot of near-rhymes that weren't pleasant to the ear.  This is apparently the new standard.  We get the same thing in The Book Of Mormon (though Mormon, even with its outrageous comic plot, takes its story and its characters seriously).

PPS  Something Rotten! is also another one of those musicals that's aware it's a musical.  A surprising number of shows are like this.  Can't say it's a good trend.

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