Thursday, July 6, 2023

Opinion: Is Fun Enough For a Good Broadway Musical?

Is Fun Enough For a 
Good Broadway Musical?


The reviews I post are, I think, well-considered and honest. And I really enjoy getting your feedback. My favorite type of feedback might surprise you: when readers don't agree with me. Well, I'll be more specific. Even when readers don't agree with me, they are respectful and try to understand my views. Those are the kind I love, a dialog between true fans of the theater where differences of opinion are opportunities to learn, grow, and see things in a new way.

Then there are the ones where people are, well, mean. Accusatory. Insulting. It usually happens when I don't like a show. "You just didn't get it." "You like everything, so why are you dumping on this?" It's just as true when I like something where the court of social media has collectively turned up its nose at a show. You should have seen some of the emails I got when I liked Bad Cinderella.

But this time around, I really didn't like Once Upon a One More Time. Hell hath no fury like a Britney fan. Oh I heard it all. "You have no taste." "It was perfect. You must be old." (For the record, I've enjoyed Ms. Spears since her earliest hits when they actually came out, which does make me old, I guess.) But the most grating response, that I heard from multiple people, including a "legit critic" from a popular Broadway website, is that I don't like "fun" musicals. What??!!

Let me respond by saying when I see a new show, I assume I'll have fun. Maybe I need to explain this. For me, all musicals have the potential to be fun. Fun means that I was entertained. Maybe I laughed a lot. Maybe I cried. Maybe I was dazzled by big, splashy dance numbers, stunning sets and costumes. Or maybe I was awed by a sparse, but packed with theatricality, staging. My point is that Sondheim can be fun. Rogers and Hammerstein can be fun. An ABBA musical can be fun. So can a Britney Spears musical.


But is "fun" alone enough to make me love a show? Sure. Let's be honest, Mamma Mia and Moulin Rouge! are really meant to be fun diversions, and they are wildly successful musicals. Head Over Heels, the same thing, but not as successful. I loved all three, all for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they are simply fun. But they are all also very well staged. All are clever and even thought provoking. Their stories are simple but compelling, and their characters have depth, even in their silliest moments. None of these criteria are (in my opinion) in One More Time.

Although all of these examples are jukebox musicals - which seem to bring out the best and worst in theater fans - there are plenty of shows that are meant to be fun that are more traditional. The same year that Mamma Mia came to town, so too, did Urinetown and Thoroughly Modern Millie. The former was hilarious and irreverent, but it was also smart and clever, winning Best Book and Best Score. The latter was also meant only to be a fun extravaganza. It won Best Musical. I enjoyed all three - Urinetown checked all my musical theater boxes; Millie was a fun throwback (and the one I liked the least of the three). And yet it was Mamma Mia! that I saw an embarrassing number of times. I loved the music, the staging, and the characters. I was guaranteed to be swept away for two and a half hours.

Musical theater history is full of "fun" shows that want nothing more that to give audiences a good time: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Damn Yankees and Bye, Bye Birdie are great Golden Age examples. There is a reason that these shows are still produced and popular more than half a century after they were first produced. Every show doesn't even need to be a comedy to be fun. Look at Parade, The Band's Visit, Titanic. I loved them all and had a fun time at each. 


You see, fun for me is a show that makes me feel alive and better off than when I arrived at the theater. That means my mind, heart and appreciation for the effort have all been sated. I guess that the answer to the question posed in the title of this piece is no. Fun alone is not enough for a good Broadway musical.

For me it isn't. Maybe it is for you. I'm glad Once Upon a One More Time is there for you. And I won't call you names or call your taste into question.

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