23 April 2010: Menken and Ashman, Little Shop of Horrors

Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Alan Menken. UMass Theater, Rand Theater

After writing a musical myself as an undergraduate, and going on liking the classic American musicals for some time, I gradually grew out of sympathy for the entire enterprise. Ever since then, I have tried to refresh my liking for this genre, but have failed miserably. I just do not like the music. I just do not like the dumbed-down characters and plots. And above all, I just do not like the amplification, the body miking, the over-the-top approach.

I made the same attempt again in the case of the UMass Theater Department production of Little Shop of Horrors, and failed once again. I had to leave at intermission. It was a shame, really, because a great deal of well-placed effort went into this production. The students were extremely well rehearsed, they had a buoyancy to their tread and to their voices, the pace was brisk and sure, the music was well played and well sung, and I just hated it. The whole thing seemed like a colossal waste of time. I can hear legions of students, many of whom were at the production and loving every minute of it, saying to me, “Lighten up, for God’s sake!” To no avail, I fear. I am a hopeless case when it comes to the later American musical. By “later,” I mean just that. That began when they started using body mics and electronic amplification. It seems to me it all started going downhill at that point, and it has yet to reverse direction.

There are certain kinds of production daring, so daring that no producer dares to do it. Playing Shakespeare straight is one example. Another is to produce a musical from the golden age of the American musical, such as Carousel, and to do it without mics. No electronic amplification allowed, including instruments of the orchestra. No keyboards. I think we will never see that. There is a certain inevitability in the case of technology. If you can send a man to the moon, you will end up sending a man to the moon. If you can plant a nearly invisible body mic on a half naked chorus girl, you will do that too. Once you have done it you will not be able to refrain from doing it ever again. Hence, the steady degradation of a once pleasurable art form. R.I.P. Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, and all the rest.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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