Extraordinary How Potent Ersatz Puccini Is

You may by now have detected, if you’ve been reading my posts about theatre’s post-pandemic reopening, a certain element of cynicism on my part.  (See, for instance, the way I’m inserting this parenthetical about how ridiculous the phrase “post-pandemic” is at the moment.) In large part, this is because that effort has all been focused on the institution of Broadway, and specifically musical theatre.  It’s hard to shake the suspicion that this is all a revanchist movement of sorts, a stealthy way of removing support and attention from the thornier and more interesting corners of off-Broadway and independent theater, and ensuring that the schmaltz and glitz of Broadway remains the only game in town.  I’d much rather see bolder, more confrontational theater; I feel the times we’re living through demand those sorts of voices, and it depresses me that Broadway’s glib inspiration and shallow positivity is being enlisted to drown them out just as they’re needed most.

And yet…

I was making my weekly grocery run on Friday, wandering the aisles of my neighborhood Key Food and filling up my resusable bags with produce.  Easy listening was piped in to soothe my weary fellow Brooklynites and me as we shuffled through our errands.  Generic local commercials played as I examined expiration dates.  Then all at once, a familiar, stirring swell of swings washed over us all, the music seeming to crescendo through us.  Some inspirational word salad was being intoned underneath it – and inexorably, the music changed it from generic pablum into something stirring.  I felt my very posture improve, my head clear, my pulse quicken as the soaring, gushing strings reached their climax and the narrator came to his point – that “The Phantom Returns to Broadway.”

I mean, come on.

Andrew Lloyd Webber has always been an extremely obvious composer.  Each show takes a handful of leitmotifs and grinds them into the dirt.  He works in broad and knuckleheaded gestures.  Phantom of the Opera is a perfectly fine tourist trap, and it has a reputation as one of the better-maintained of the long-running shows – but please.  A big surging melodic violin lines isn’t the most original musical thought, especially when there’s centuries of composers to borrow from who do the exact same thing. 

“Music of the Night” is obvious.  It’s done to death.  Fusing it to a general statement of optimism – about a capitalist cash cow doing business again, let’s remember – is hackneyed.  It’s cheap.  It’s bullshit.

And god damn it, it works.  I practically started bawling in the supermarket.

Don’t get me wrong – I still want whatever theater grows back after this ordeal to encompass a whole spectrum of other, quirkier, thornier, angrier, less commercial voices.  The tourist-trap model that’s dominated Broadway these past decades, with its cheap sentiment and obvious gestures, is one I’ll happily leave behind.  But every once in a while, it turns out you need a little cheap sentiment to get through the day.  Especially these days.   

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