Photo: Joan Marcus
Watching the weak and silly Music in the Air, the 1930s Kern-Hammerstein operetta at Encores!, affords a great opportunity to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the modern musical. On one hand, we have the joy of the grown-up musical. Just the past few years have brought us Caroline, or Change, Light in the Piazza, Spring Awakening, See What I Wanna See, Next to Normal, and Grey Gardens. How amazing and thrilling that these works of art have grown out of a lineage that includes Music in the Air, with its dumb plot, pointless conflicts, boring ingenue and juvenile, and long stretches of nothing happening. (Yes, Kern and Hammerstein also brought us Showboat, probably the more direct progenitor of the musicals just listed, but Music in the Air is no Showboat, even though, strangely enough, it was written afterward.)
On the other hand, we have an amazing array of profoundly talented performers who are being terribly, terribly underutilized. Kristin Chenoweth and Douglas Sills are the best of the best. They have charisma, endless creativity, impeccable comic timing, and singing voices that range from excellent (his) to gorgeous (hers). Why don’t they work more???? For that matter, why doesn’t Donna Murphy work more? Victoria Clark? Christine Ebersole? Marc Kudisch? Brian Stokes Mitchell? I know the answer, of course: musicals are expensive. But just imagine a theatre world where we could see these amazing performers in a never-ending flow of new works by Sondheim, La Chuisa, Finn, Tesori, Guettel, and others we haven't even heard from yet.