Sunday, August 28, 2011

Midtown Manhattan

You may call me a fence-sitter, a middleman (woman), or even a musical mugwump, but the truth is I'm just a Manhattan midtowner.

Although I became a midtowner in a physical sense only recently, I've always been one ideologically. As a conservatively-liberal, realistically-idealistic, extroverted-introvert, I'm used to living in the middle. In midtown Manhattan, I'm nestled midway between the two musical arenas that I love the most: the classical world of "high art" and The Great White Way.

Both the Met and Broadway hold an irresistible charm for me; I'm entranced in equal parts by glitz and by glamour. Lucky me! Walk fifteen minutes uptown, and I'm at the Lincoln Center for opera, ballet, or an evening with the NY Phil. Walk fifteen minutes downtown, and I'm in the heart of the music theater district. Uptown for a taste of so-called "higher" culture; downtown for "popular" culture.

Ever since arriving in New York, I've been sampling--even devouring!--events from the north and the south alike. I just can't decide which I prefer. Both Broadway and the Lincoln Center are leading ladies (a showbiz diva and a prima donna?) in America's cultural scene. Frankly, I'd rather not choose between the two. I'm happy being a fence-hopper--a classical composer who doesn't look down my nose at Broadway and a Broadway melodist who doesn't see classical music as too uppity.

Classical music isn't the only cultural attraction in the upper west side; Shakespeare is there too. It's interesting to think that, were we living four, three, or even just two centuries ago, the man might've been stationed further south. Shakespeare used to be wildly "popular" (a damning word in the 20th-century world of art!), and he's actually becoming more so again. . .at least in New York during the summer. Now that The Public Theater offers Shakespeare in the Park free of charge and brings in big-name movie actors, the crowds come in droves. What worked for Broadway with rush lines and lotteries is now working uptown.

The Metropolitan Opera is also exposing itself to wider audiences by offering its Live in HD movie theater broadcasts (popcorn and an opera, anyone?), and the NY Philharmonic is trying to create a more visually-stimulating experience for its listeners. (The Cunning Little Vixen this summer was really something!) But what about new music? Are contemporary composers also interested in bridging divides and appealing to a larger audience base?

Music critic Alex Ross classifies certain contemporary classical composers as "midtown" musicians. Such composers are "still working in traditional orchestral, operatic, and chamber-music genres. The most successful members of this group--John Corigliano, Mark Adamo, Christopher Rouse, Joan Tower, and John Harbison, among others--have gained the confidence of mainstream classical listeners who never quite got around to accepting Schoenberg. The challenge, as ever, is to honor expectations of an audience weaned on Mozart without pandering or committing pastiche. A degree of wit often saves the day" (The Rest is Noise 569).

A degree of wit often saves the day. And where better to go for examples of wit than to music theater--a genre that generally knows how to avoid taking itself too seriously? Still, it only seems fair that acceptance and change should come from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

So have there been any recent attempts on music theater's side to bridge the gap between the lower west end and the upper? Looking back on the 70's, 80's, and 90's, I can name a few (think Les Mis, Secret Garden, anything Sondheim). Unfortunately, 21st-century Broadway these days seems pretty content to go with the flow and cater to the pop-based tastes of the masses (think Mama Mia, Jersey Boys, Baby, It's You!). Maybe that's because music theater is a newer and more adaptable form of entertainment. Above all, it seeks to be current, relevant, and appealing in the popular sense.

Ten years ago, critics were predicting that New York's music theater scene was on a steep decline and would become extinct within a few short decades. They spoke nostalgically of the good old days--the Jazz Age--when over 200 theaters graced The Great White Way. Such success could never be matched again. (Sound anything like recent predictions about the future of classical music?) Well, here we are ten years later, and the verdict is in:

Broadway is thriving.

The 2010-11 season, in fact, has officially become the highest grossing year in Broadway history ( Take that, naysayers! Broadway will continue not only to survive, but to thrive, and so will classical music if we give it the chance. Such a comeback may require a lot of passion, creativity, and old-fashioned hard work from all of us (composers, performers, and the informed public), but it is possible. And maybe, along the way, uptowners and downtowners can join hands somewhere in the middle.

At least, that's what the midtowner in me likes to hope.


Sharlee said...


What do you think of the so-called cross-over artists--Andrea Bocelli, Romina Arena, Hayley Westenra, etc.? Are they helping to bridge this gap or are they, as some argue, just watering down classical music?

Carolina Nightingale said...

I had the blessing to see my cousin dance in "Secret Garden" on Broadway, and it was SO breathtakingly beautiful. I'm so glad there are other who love the music from this play, all the swirling, chromatically charged melodies of it! It was so wonderful to be exposed to at a tender and impressionable age... -Heather Berg.