Paul Oakley Stovall on 'Animal House' and the state of the American musical

May 7, 2012

Download Story

In March, it was announced that Animal House, that time-weathered classic of American cinema, would be adapted for the stage. An odd choice, some said. Others, like Paul Oakley Stovall, whose new play Immediate Family, directed by Phylicia Rashad, will be at the Goodman Theatre in June, thought it more than odd; in this The Paper Machete essay from March, Stovall argues that the New American Musical is ruining a purely American art form. Read it below or listen above.

"EXTRA EXTRA HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEWS(IES)? BULLETS OVER BROADWAY will take a LEAP OF FAITH with SPIDERMAN over the ANIMAL HOUSE on Broadway...but only ONCE

Yes, it’s true. Another crop of wonderful movies are ready to bore (or are already boring) you to death as Broadway musicals. Or piss you off. Or drive you to pills and booze. Or maybe just maybe encourage someone to (gasp) come up with an original idea and write an original musical -- with original music even!!  

But don’t hold your breath. 

Over the past few years we’ve been, I'd say, assaulted with Legally Blonde, The Wedding Singer, The Little Mermaid, Jekyll and Hyde (which is possibly coming back with Constantine Maroulis from American Idol fame--more on that later), The Color Purple (oh the colored people), How the Grinch Stole Broadway, er, Christmas, Wonderland (wonder why land), Big, Mary Poppins, Hairspray and The Lion King, to name, sadly, just a few. 

We could throw in Wicked, Seussical and Spamalot, as they are based on source material....exquisite source material I might add.

To be fair, now and then, this rejiggering of a hit film or even a not so much of a hit film can work. Beauty and the Beast is faithful to the story and wonderful for kids. But it was kind of a musical already. Victor/Victoria is another example that comes to mind.  However it was set in a musical milieu. The stuff was already there.

Now the jukebox musical--Good Vibrations anyone? All Shook Up? The film “adaptation”, or rather reduction, is becoming the norm, while the BROADWAY MUSICAL (could you feel the all caps in the way that was said?), that's an American art form. An original american art form, one of the few that we can really claim as purely american. So why is it being tossed away? Why are we more interested in developing Sleepless in Seattle the musical?  Yes, it is happening. The two leads don’t see each other until the end, and yet there is confusion amongst the producers like why the workshops are fizzling and not working...oy oy oy.

Whose bright idea was it to make Catch Me If You Can into a Broadway musical?!?!  

Leave me alone! I’m not interested in catching you. Stay in hiding. Or better yet, stay on celluloid, where a film like that had a least modest success in what it was aiming for.

So whose idea was it? Who let that happen?

It was the idea of someone who wanted to make money. It was the idea of someone who was falling right in line with those who now see dollar signs rather than rallying cries of social change when they think of this pure American art form called the Broadway musical.

The new American musical, created lately by artists like Stew, a Tony-award-winner for his book of Passing Strange, or the revered Tony Kushner, who, with Jeanine Tesori (who we'll forgive for Shrek) created Caroline, or Change. They're sadly few and far between these days.  nd when we do get something original, the best of them usually don’t make it to the big time, to make room for things like 13....about a bunch of 13 year olds.....singing about....things that 13 year olds care about....but not written by 13 year olds....which could have made it interesting.  

However, artists  like Stew and Kushner and Tesori and the wonderful artists at Dog and Pony Theater Company who made an original musical called God's Ear -- they're pushing the form forward. Now admittedly, none of those aforementioned projects turned a profit. Caroline, or Change has had an extremely healthy regional life and Stew is prolifically creating new projects. But that’s neither here nor there. The argument that is thrown out is that, “Hey, we gotta make money! And we gotta give the people what they want!” Pfft. The people don’t know what they want. They know that they want to be extertained!  Let me say that again. They want to be extertained! And not by the latest American Idol runner up. See Maroulis. Or Diana DeGarmo, or Ace what’s hisname, or....yeah.

Shrek The Musical, sorry Jeanine, ain’t it. It might illicit some silly giggles, but true entertainment includes an enriching of the soul, a lifting of the spirit, a challenge to the brain, a massaging of the heart. 9 to 5? Young FrankensteinXanadu? High Fidelity? Urban Cowboy? Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?  Those films were just fine the way they were. Entertaining classics that spoke to their genre in a very specific way, whether you liked the film or not. But Gone With the Wind, the musical?  That ain’t it kid. Give me A Chorus Line. Carousel, Gypsy, Porgy and Bess, South Pacific, Avenue Q, Ragtime, Anything Goes and Rent. But Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown almost made me have one!

This lack of effort really  -- that's what it is, a lack of effort on the part of producers to seek out original material. A lack of effort on the part of artists to insist on bringing original and current and politically relevant material to the table, and on the part of the general public (that's us), the consumer, to demand better quality material -- and frankly, to say, “Hey, I already love Animal House, it’s a classic; Hey, I can recite every line in Bullets Over Broadway; Desperately Seeking Susan ain’t Shakespeare but it’s quirky and perfect just the way I remember it -- this, my friends, this signals a malaise that frankly goes deeper than the rash that accompanies the news that Footloose is being developed for Broadway.

FIlm is not a literary medium. It doesn’t want lots of words, and rarely does it want songs, and even rarer does it need a dance number.

Fixing this will take a digging in of the heels from all of us So the great work begins. The American Musical represents something purely American and it should be protected and nurtured and brought back to life. Like the White House garden.

The Paper Machete is a weekly live magazine at the Horseshoe in North Center. It's always at 3 p.m., it's always on Saturday, and it's always free. Get all your The Paper Machete Radio Magazine needs filled here, or download the podcast from iTunes here.