March 26, 2005

Is "American Idol" hurting Broadway?

The NYT's Ben Brantley bemoans the effect of "American Idol" on Broadway singing:
The tentacles of the "American Idol" sensibility ... reach much deeper, into the very throat of the American musical, and may change forever the way Broadway sings. This is not a happy prognosis.

The style of vocalizing that is rewarded on "American Idol" - by its panel of on-air judges and by the television audience that votes on the winners - is both intensely emotional and oddly impersonal. The accent is on abstract feelings, usually embodied by people of stunning ordinariness, than on particular character. Quivering vibrato, curlicued melisma, notes held past the vanishing point: the favorite technical tricks of "Idol" contestants are often like screams divorced from the pain or ecstasy that inspired them.

The Broadway musical has always had its share of big-voiced belters, from Ethel Merman to Patti LuPone. But they have usually belonged to the tradition of Broadway as a temple to magnified idiosyncrasies, to performers for whom song is an extension of individuality. Which is why when Simon Cowell, the most notoriously harsh of "American Idol's" judges, describes a contestant as "too Broadway," it is meant as a withering dismissal.

Hmmm... I don't think that's what Cowell means by his "too Broadway" slam. I think he thinks Broadway is traditionally exactly what Brantley thinks "American Idol" is turning it into. I think "AI" wants the contestants to have more life and individuality, but the people with the nerve and stamina to get through such a high-pressure competition tend not to have soulful, artistic depth.
That self-congratulatory element is also part of the "American Idol" package - the subtext that goes, "I deserve to be a star because it's my right as an American, and because I try so hard." It seems appropriate that musicals as seemingly different as "Wicked," a politically corrected back story of "The Wizard of Oz," and "Little Women," adapted from the Louisa May Alcott classic, both have first-act finales that are brassy (and virtually interchangeable) declarations of self-worth and self-determination.
Well, actually "American Idol" judges and voters are constantly hitting I'm-a-star kids with on-the-spot rejection, and many of us viewers watch to see the smuggest ones get the boot. (Kimberly Caldwell -- known as KimberME -- was a Television Without Pity punching bag in Season 2.)

And those brassy first-act finales are scarcely a post-"AI" development, as Brantley himself must concede. He notes, among other things, that "Jennifer Holiday was bringing down the house in 'Dreamgirls' by wrapping her voice like a boa constrictor around an angry ballad called 'And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going.'" And that, of course, was the original song choice of "American Idol" fan favorite, Frenchie Davis -- blamed in the article for bringing "AI" to Broadway. Last season's winner, Fantasia, became the frontrunner by singing a beautiful and sensitive rendition of "Summertime," a Broadway musical song.

There is some kind of interplay between "American Idol" and Broadway, but it's more complicated than Brantley lets on. Brantley hates "American Idol" -- I can surely understand why he (or anyone else) hates it -- but he also can see that Broadway is pretty bad. Both are bad, but he wants Broadway -- and not "AI" -- to survive. But that's no reason to blame "AI" for Broadway's problems.

UPDATE: Matt Marcotte addresses Brantley's article from the perspective of not having seen any "AI" to speak of. But he loves Broadway and has seen a lot of the recent shows. I saw about five Broadway shows back when "Ragtime" came out, but -- as with movies and concerts -- I dislike sitting in an audience so much that I rarely bother to buy tickets for anything. Are Broadway shows more "belty" than they used to be? I think maybe it's subjective. It may be that for Brantley, after seeing "American Idol," Broadway singing seems worse because you're now able to think that it seems like "American Idol." More specifically, Brantley's subjective experience includes his response to those inferior people he's forced to sit amongst:
Like the Olympics telecasts, "American Idol" celebrates stamina, will power and gymnastic agility. The most successful contestants take an athletic approach to a melody. They hoist, hold and balance notes like barbells in a weight-lifting exhibition. And the audience claps and hoots instinctively every time such muscle-flexing occurs.

That same Pavlovian reaction is now being elicited on Broadway as well. Eruptions of note-bending have joined the hallowed list of performance tricks guaranteed to inspire applause: precision tap dancing, Rockette-style line kicks, handsprings, successive pirouettes and indignant one-liners that are followed by the slamming of doors.

At the performance I attended of the new musical "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," , the audience greeted each number with subdued warmth, though the show's stars, John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz, were working hard to put over the songs with style and character. Finally, in a self-addressed valentine that is the show's last number, Mr. Butz claimed his "American Idol" moment with one musically stretched-out phrase: "I think we still deserve a ha-a-a-a-nd ..." I suspect that the composer David Yazbek intended the moment to be comic. All the same, the audience roared with approval. It was what they had been waiting for.
I actually sympathize with Brantley here. How can you enjoy a show (or a movie) sitting with an audience that is responding inappropriately, revealing that they don't understand the meaning?

But crowd-pleasing has been part of shows and concerts for a long time. Why do they give Oscars for hammy emoting -- crying and dying -- and not for subtlety? Why do people at rock concerts cheer for show-offy guitar solos? Brantley's article is titled "How Broadway Lost Its Voice to 'American Idol'" -- and I just don't believe in the cause and effect. The human taste for big, loud, and spectacular goes back a long way.

By the way, that article title reminds me of all the books that are around these days that have titles saying one thing changed everything. It's a big trend in titles: the single causative factor.

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