‘Parade,’ ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Camelot’ offer a history lesson on the American musical
The traditional narrative of the Broadway musical is that it had a Golden Age in the 1940s and ’50s with the reign of Rodgers and Hammerstein, then a sort of decadent afterglow with the work of Sondheim, as well as Kander and Ebb, in the 1960s and ’70s. This is certainly the animating premise of the delicious TV musical parody series “Schmigadoon!” and its current second season, set in a place called Schmicago.
But those 1970s musicals and their Bob Fosse jazz hands are now old enough to seem like they constituted their own Silver Age. And as one of their most popular successors, “The Phantom of the Opera,” is finally hanging up its mask after 35 years on Broadway, while such later juggernauts as “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” “Hamilton” and “Six” have picked up where they left off before the Covid lockdown, the larger story of the Broadway musical looks more like an unbroken line from “Show Boat” to today, with more continuity than ruptures among its distinct eras.
Three strong new revivals offer an instructive comparative lens through which to view the form’s development over the decades.
Three strong new revivals offer an instructive comparative lens through which to view the form’s development over the decades. Indeed, they are each roughly 20 years apart: From 1998 is “Parade,” Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s riveting musical about the infamous antisemitic lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915, now starring Ben Platt. From 1979 is “Sweeney Todd,” Stephen Sondheim’s bloody thriller, now in a lavish revival starring Josh Groban. And from 1960 is “Camelot,” the Lerner and Loewe chestnut, with a new book by Aaron Sorkin that both clarifies and somewhat reduces the original.
“Parade” bears the marks of the post-1970s musical era in two specific and interrelated ways: first, in the sense that a musical can be about anything, even the darkest subject matter, a creative license for which I would mostly credit Sondheim; and in the sense that musicals can deconstruct their own form, pointing up the ways it manipulates our feelings, an innovation for which we can largely thank Kander and Ebb.
Indeed, in retelling the thorny story of the trumped-up murder charges against Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank, which plays out against the backdrop of a racially and religiously stratified South, songwriter Brown has a field day with musical Americana, tapping deep veins of patriotism and piety that curdle into authoritarian violence before our very ears. And he leavens the righteous outrage of the true-life story with daringly catchy tunes that speculate and even joke about Frank’s possible guilt, in a way that recalls the gleeful cynicism of such Kander and Ebb classics as “Chicago” and “Cabaret.” (Their later minstrel-show take on a true-life racial injustice, “The Scottsboro Boys,” is in a similar vein.)
The musical also lands home in a less ironic mode, with a series of moving ballads between Frank and his long-suffering wife, Lucille, played with tender passion by Platt and Micaela Diamond. Director Michael Arden stages the whole thing presentationally, as a sort of political rally, subtly italicizing the material’s uncomfortable relevance.
This is a “Sweeney” with a heartbeat as well as a blood count.
Another unexpectedly passionate couple is at the center of Thomas Kail’s new staging of “Sweeney Todd,” Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s masterpiece. While this gorgeously appointed revival returns the orchestra and cast size to its original full scale, it sings most convincingly in intimate moments between Groban, as the murderous barber of the title, and Annaleigh Ashford as his Cockney helpmate, Mrs. Lovett. It’s undoubtedly true that the genial, honey-voiced Groban is not as terrifying a psychopath as most previous Sweeneys. But Kail’s gamble—that a less monstrous Sweeney allows us to feel our way through each point on his trajectory from wronged man to mass murderer—pays off, not only thanks to Groban’s sensitive performance but because of Ashford. Her relentless and lusty comic shtick fits the character like a tattered glove, but watch for the few breathtaking, beautifully calibrated moments when she’s brought up short by the horror she’s helped to unleash. This is a “Sweeney” with a heartbeat as well as a blood count.
Where does Sondheim’s masterpiece sit on the timeline of the Broadway musical? Its Victorian-era setting and quasi-operatic score, not to mention its singular greatness, increasingly make it seem timeless. Oddly enough, that is not so much the case with “Camelot,” an alternately frothy and earnest take on Arthurian legend, which very much feels like a work of its time, for better and worse. On the plus side there is Lerner and Loewe’s score, chock full of gems that match and even surpass the pair’s previous hit, “My Fair Lady.”
But whereas that show has one of the all-time great books, Alan Jay Lerner’s original “Camelot” script was a misbegotten hash of halfhearted clichés arranged around the tentpoles of the love triangle among Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot. Sorkin’s new script, which follows the original’s rough outline, has more conviction and concision; his jokes are slightly better, and his sense of structure much tighter, than Lerner’s. Like Sorkin’s recent adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” for Broadway, it is not hard to imagine this new version becoming the new default.
Also on the plus side: The new revival, directed by Bartlett Sher, gives Phillipa Soo (of “Hamilton” fame) the chance to rule the stage as Guenevere, in a performance of wide comic and tragic range. And it gives Jordan Donica, as a strapping Lancelot, the runway to land a perfectly crafted vehicle like “If Ever I Would Leave You.” But the show’s central fulcrum, Andrew Burnap’s Arthur, is a vanilla blank whom Sorkin has filled in with vague communitarian ideals.
Much has been made of Sorkin’s decision to excise the supernatural from this Camelot; he even provides a plausible if deflating explanation for Arthur’s miraculous extraction of Excalibur. He need not have bothered. The alchemy of song, story and movement that is the American musical has its own irresistible, and apparently durable, enchantments. As that quintessential ’70s musical “Pippin” put it: We’ve got magic to do.