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Days of the great dark way

A season's musicals, including tonight's contenders, have eschewed an upbeat mood to handle heavier topics.

June 06, 2004|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — On the face of it, the new Broadway musical "Avenue Q" is a delicious bit of fluff with its bright bouncy tunes and eccentric cast of slackers, a mix of humans and puppets, including the whimsically named Christmas Tree, Trekkie Monster, Lucy T. Slut and Gary Coleman. Yes, that Gary Coleman. But the central character, Princeton, just out of school and newly arrived in New York, faces a quandary out of Samuel Beckett: What am I doing on this earth?

His existential conundrum, as well as the story's dabbles in racism, homophobia and Internet porn, are the darker shades that temper the comedy in this musical comedy -- shades that colored several other Broadway shows, which, like "Avenue Q," opened during the 2003-04 season.

"The Boy From Oz," based on the glitzy showbiz life of the late entertainer Peter Allen, included deaths from AIDS complications, a topic as well in the short-lived "Taboo," which detailed the drug-soaked club years of pop star Boy George. The spectacularly lavish "Wicked" looked at the "Wizard of Oz" legend from a perspective of genetic tampering and segregation, the latter also being addressed in "Bombay Dreams," about an Indian slum dweller's rise to film fame, and "Caroline, or Change," which revolves around a black maid's fury in 1963 Louisiana. Perhaps only "Never Gonna Dance," the flop adaptation of the 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie "Swing Time," was a return to the frothy mindlessness long associated with musical comedy.

Weighty themes in musical theater of course are nothing new, dating to 1927, when "Show Boat" dared to treat the serious subjects of betrayal, abandonment and miscegenation, and carried on in any number of musicals from "Oklahoma!" to "Assassins," which finally made its bow on Broadway this season. But at least from a commercial point of view, the recent trend seemed to be toward a return to the traditional sense of musical comedy. In 2001, "The Producers" became a phenomenon and swept up a record 12 Tony Awards. And the successes of "Mamma Mia!" and multiple Tony winner "Hairspray" seemed to underline that audiences, rattled by the bleak and despairing headlines after Sept. 11, were seeking a refuge in lighter fare.

But that premise has been tested to varying degrees this season, especially by the four nominees for this year's best musical Tony Award: "Avenue Q," "Wicked," "The Boy From Oz" and "Caroline, or Change." The awards will be doled out tonight at Radio City Music Hall and televised on CBS.

"I don't think of qualities of darkness and light in the musicals I choose to do," says Jeffrey Seller, who with his partner Kevin McCollum has been lead producer on "Rent," "La Boheme" and now "Avenue Q." "But I think what's appealing is provocative material that takes you to a darker place but still manages to thrill with qualities we traditionally associate with musicals, like great songs and great dancing."

Of all the shows with which he's been involved, Seller adds, the one that most tested the audience's tolerance for ugly or unattractive characters was "The Wild Party" at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000, composer Andrew Lippa's adaptation of a 1920s epic poem involving pederasty, alcoholism, jealousy and sexual and physical abuse. The show opened to some good reviews, but Seller's planned Broadway transfer was quashed by a damaging pan from the New York Times. The producer said he felt that otherwise, the "extraordinary showmanship" of the piece would overcome any distaste for the subject matter, especially among younger audiences. (In fact, an arguably darker and more depressing musical adaptation of "Wild Party," directed by George C. Wolfe, did reach Broadway that same season -- and failed.)

"Avenue Q", which uses the conventions of "Sesame Street" to make its points lightheartedly, is arguably an easier sell. (And, in fact, it has become the first commercial hit of the season, having recently paid back its investment.) But even so, Seller says he and McCollum lobbied the creators -- book writer Jeff Whitty and songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx -- to end the musical with the entire company happily on stage rather than with just Princeton standing alone in the doorway, still caught in his existential quandary. "My instinct is to go with what is most pleasing to the audience," Seller says, "but they argued -- quite rightly -- that this is not what the show was about. Life is always a struggle in finding your purpose."

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