In the last few days I have encountered two diametrically opposite theatrical experiences. The first was a new opera, and the second a classic musical, but the greatest difference seemed to be located in their respective ostensible attitudes toward the audience.
The opera, clearly intended by its composer as an avant guarde work, was not merely musically impenetrable, it was fiercely, aggressively impenetrable. For the most part, the audience was denied any recognizable aria, any melody that could be held onto and remembered. The intent seemed to be to wear us down, to break any preconceived notions of musicality, to deliberately leave the audience stranded, thereby forcing each listener to engage entirely on the composer’s terms. In a sense, it was the musical equivalent of Dada.
And then, this evening, the exact opposite — a limited run revival of Where’s Charley, the 1948 musical adaptation of Charley’s Aunt, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. This is a musical that not only invites you in, it makes you a pot of hot tea, fluffs up the pillows, offers you supper, and promises to be your best friend for life. It’s sweet and funny and delightful and goofy, and if there was an audience member not grinning from ear to ear, he or she was most likely dead.
On top of this, those songs. When the title character, near the start of Act II, launches into Once in Love with Amy, the audience swoons. Then he invites us to take a turn at it (as Ray Bolger did in the original, in his classic rendition). The entire audience sings together, loud and clear, and you can feel — in that moment — that everyone is filled with pure childlike happiness.
So here we have a musical that dates from long before most people in the audience were born, that was originally written for a different era entirely, and yet has lost none of its charm, and none of its grip on an audience.
I respect the daring that goes into the deliberately avant guarde. We need artists to experiment, to push the envelope, to try new things, to risk failure. But it is also so refreshing to experience the utter magic of a Frank Loesser song, and to realize that his kind of offhand genius — and its power to transport — will likely outlive us all.