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Musical Dissonance

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Musical Dissonance
The LaChiusa-Shaiman brawl

Recently there has been a battle of words between two fellow Tony-winning Broadway composers, Michael John LaChiusa and Marc Shaiman. The hostilities were flamed in musical theater forums, and became so intense that it even reached the New York Times and Variety.

It started off as an article entitled “The Great Gray Way” written by LaChiusa and published in Opera Now. Normally this is a relatively obscure journal read by the hoity-toity. However, I suspect LaChiusa thought it would be perfectly safe to express his frank opinions, no holds barred, in a magazine that few people read. How wrong he was.

In the article LaChiusa bemoaned the fact that the American musical is dead. He laid some of the blame on a rash of musicals which include Mamma Mia!, Movin’ Out, The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, and Hairspray. According to LaChiusa, these musicals, which he dubs “faux” musicals, are formulaic, pander to the lowest common denominator of artistic taste (i.e. its absence), and is lacking in invention and craft. Worse still, these musicals are only a “copy of a copy”, as they are a rip off, either of original films or music originally written as pop music.

Probably nothing would have happened if LaChiusa did not mention Hairspray. Unfortunately for him, the composer for Hairspray, Marc Shaiman, did chance upon his article, and gave a spirited and humorous defense in All That Chat, a chatroom of the TalkingBroadway website.

To be fair, LaChiusa has stayed out of the fracas. However, views have been polarized, and an intellectual slanging match has ensued.

The argument reminds me of the same argument I used to have. “Is Stephen Sondheim a better musical theater writer than Andrew Lloyd Webber?” I would try to steer a neutral middle course, but my colleagues would generally support Stephen Sondheim. Adjectives to describe his musicals include “intelligent, insightful, innovative, brilliant.” These same Sondheim acolytes would spurn Lloyd Webber’s musicals, and hurl such insults as “vacuous, braindead, exploitative, and banal”.

In essence it is the argument that has raged since the existence of an intelligentsia. Namely it is the clash between high art and low art, between the highbrow and the lowbrow, between the arty farty and the philistines. Indeed the battle lines may be drawn along the socioeconomic divide, between the high class and the low class.

Should art exist for its own sake, or should it have commercial value? Pure art versus commerce? This debate seems never-ending, and unresolvable.

As I’ve stated, I try to keep a middle course. I want my art and eat it too! Yes, I wish my musicals would make as much money as Cats and Les Miserables. To me, musical theater is neither high nor lowbrow. It is middle-brow. But if I were forced to choose between writing a musical that was an “art” musical, or a commercial one, I would err on the side of art. To hell with commerce!

(Oh, Mr. Producer, you want me to delete that scene because it would reduce box office sales… no problemo… sir, I would cut off whatever you want…)

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