“There's a little bit of Broadway in everyone,” declares this year's Tony Awards website—the local corollary, then, is that there's a little bit of La Jolla Playhouse on Broadway. The Des McAnuff-directed Jersey Boys continues to do well in New York, and two Playhouse-connected shows have been nominated for a total of eight Tonys this time around. Cry-Baby, a funny piece about a bad boy's crush on a good girl, got its start at La Jolla last fall; Xanadu, centering on a struggling artist's foray into roller disco, will be produced at the Playhouse in November.
You'll learn the shows' fates if you watch the Tony Awards broadcast this Sunday, June 15, at 8 p.m. on Channel 8.
Meanwhile, it's worth noting that both Cry-Baby and Xanadu are musicals. That's not hot news in and of itself, but it fuels a discussion on the state of musical theater, Broadway's boon in recent seasons and a hallmark of San Diego performance. This city is a major exporter of East Coast musical fare, and to boot, Xanadu is directed by Christopher Ashley, who last October took over McAnuff's post as Playhouse artistic director.
Ashley's entry just might win the 2008 Tony for Best Musical. Whatever happens, he's part of a medium that's undergone wholesale shifts in claiming its place in pop culture. The Oklahoma!s and My Fair Ladys of the genre's Golden Age (about 1948 to 1968) read more like eight-track tapes alongside musical theater's CDs of today.
Actually, Ashley said, the comparison's not that far off.
“MTV is somewhat responsible [for the shifts],” Ashley told CityBeat from New York last week. “It's created a fast-moving vocabulary for music and stories. It used to be that musicals were where Top 40 hits came from—when Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a musical, [many] of the songs would wind up on the pop charts. Now, a lot of people are looking to music from the pop charts, how you grab that and make a successful musical out of it.”
Xanadu follows suit. Its “Magic” and the title track, recorded by Olivia Newton-John as singles, predate the show by almost 30 years. Jersey Boys, the bioplay about the rise of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, features nearly 400,000 Seasons hits from the '60s. Both shows enjoy considerable clout back East; both are by no means creative exceptions.
“There's a real rock trend now,” Ashley said, “with Passing Strange and Spring Awakening last year [the latter, which won eight 2007 Tonys, opens in August as a Broadway/San Diego entry]. In the Heights has a Latin score, which is a fresh idea on Broadway. And other people are writing dark, ambitious, brooding stories. There are as many different kinds of musicals out there now as there are plays, from small to large, from comic to tragic, from spectacular to simple. I think everybody's interested now in what makes the musical break new ground, in what way is the musical form being asked to change. That's the new hot thing.”
Eight new musicals were part of a 2007-08 Broadway season, ended May 25, that sources estimate would have topped a record $975 million in box office receipts but for a 19-day stagehands strike last fall. Grosses totaled $937.5 million this season, down exactly one hair from last year's record $938.5 million.
With Broadway/San Diego's Cats (which I had the good fortune to see at the Civic Theatre before it closed Sunday), the local big-budget musical season is heating up. As it does, one thing's sure: Whatever may or may not be transpiring theatrically here, San Diego stages remain friendly to a genre whose stock is rising in the face of a new public demand. There's a certain reassurance in that—looks like that “little bit of Broadway” even applies to steadfastly beach-oriented cultures like our own. And that's a pretty cool thing.