[Title of Show], Tropic Thunder and the Problem with Postmodern Performance
For those of you too uninformed or straight to know what [Title of Show] is it’s a musical currently running on Broadway about the creation of a Broadway musical. In the musical, two guys decide to write a musical for the New York Musical Theater Festival about two guys deciding to write a musical for the New York Musical Theater Festival. As the completed musical moved from the NYMF to the off-Broadway Vineyard Theater to the Broadway theater, the Lyceum, its creators added material to the show to reflect its growth. The Blogging equivalent would be:
Rick: Oh my God, what if we decided to write a blog?
Glenn: What would it be about?
Rick: What if it was about writing a blog?
Glenn: So like the blog would be about writing the blog?
Glenn: So this would be in the blog?
Rick: Exactly, that would be in the blog.
Rick: That too.
Glenn: What about that?
Glenn: What you just said.
Rick: That or what?
Rick: Yeah they both would be.
Rick: I know!
And so on and so on. The end result would be tedious, right? Well, maybe.
[Title of Show] succeeds where most musicals that make fun of the musical theater genre fail; it actually understands enough about its object of derision to deconstruct and criticize it well. Dracula: The Musical, the denouement of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, would have been funny if Elton John didn’t actually try to make that musical and call it Lestat. By grounding [Title of Show] in the lineage of Broadway history, its creators challenge the status quo of the genre it loves. Unfortunately, that’s not a novel concept in an age when post-modern referentialism has become a buzz word for Intro to Theater students on college campuses from Harvard to Concordia. The “Process” of a piece has been a tenet of contemporary art since the late 1970s. Can [Title of Show] be criticized for arriving late to the game or praised for even showing up to play at all?
The problem with so much of post-modern art, theater, literature and film is its reliance on antecedents. The pieces must exist in context in order for their references to reverberate with meaning. This is Spinal Tap would not have worked if the hair band explosion of the 1980s didn’t occur and grow to become recognizeable for its largess. Arrested Development would lose its humor if watched outside of a culture that already understood the prototype of the American sitcom. Tropic Thunder, without the audience’s connections to Platoon, Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now would simply be a cavalcade of fart and dick jokes.
If [Title of Show] cannot be appreciated out of context, does it merit the consideration of art? Fortunately for the audience, [Title of Show] makes that decision for us. It is, unabashedly, a musical about a musical. However, the creators understand the shortcomings of that conceit, and ground their story in the universal themes of friendship, dreams, and, yes, art.
If anything, [Title of Show] could be criticized for its portions that drag and for failing to use the space of the stage, the medium of theater, as cleverly as they played with the “webisode” in their [Title of Show] Show on You Tube. In the end it succeeds, however, for being exactly what it is – a musical about the making of a musical. It lays bare the “process” of contemporary playwriting in a way novel for Broadway, which is why it’s accomplished its goal by playing the Great White Way. [Title of Show] proudly stakes its claim in the history of the Broadway musical with its engagement at the Lyceum and sets the stage for something greater to come. Perhaps that’s all you can ask of something that relies so heavily on the past for its entire reason to matter right now.