On Broadway, musical theater spat strikes sour notes


August 14, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The gloves are off. Variety called it "a cat fight in Shubert Alley." The New York Times dubbed it a "juicy, old-fashioned" feud.

Two Broadway composers are duking it out in print. In one corner is Michael John LaChiusa, whose credits include Marie Christine and The Wild Party. In the other is Marc Shaiman, who composed the score for Hairspray, the hit musical based on John Waters' 1988 movie.

LaChiusa started the spat by writing an article for the August issue of Opera News on the state of the Broadway musical. His opening salvo: "The American Musical is dead." He then went on to label Hairspray and The Producers "faux" musicals.

"There's plenty of theatricality to be found in a faux-musical, but no theater," he wrote. "It looks like a musical. It sounds like a musical. But it's synthetic."

Shaiman replied with a point-by-point rebuttal, which he posted on the chat room of the Web site talkinbroadway.com.

Reached in Amagansett, Long Island, Shaiman said, "Basically, he just insulted me, and, by doing it in print, it's pretty much in your face. He insulted me, my colleagues, my baby, and I don't agree with him."

LaChiusa, who is rehearsing a Los Angeles revival of his 1999 musical, The Wild Party (based on a 1920s narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March), issued a statement through his publicist saying, "I'm pleased the essay served its purpose, which was to generate discussion."

The manner in which he generated that discussion, however, has drawn at least as much debate as the subject matter.

"We are all in the same boat, and it's crazy for someone right in the boat to be so rude," said Shaiman.

"I thought it was very unwise of him to write an article like that in a community that's very small, where it just seems envious," added Hairspray producer Margo Lion.

`Room for everyone'

Waters, the provocative Baltimore filmmaker whose movie inspired the Broadway musical, had a more upbeat reaction. "I'm so thrilled - finally Hairspray is controversial," he said from Provincetown, Mass. While personally he never answers his critics, he added, "I love literary feuds and critical feuds. I read them all. I love celebrity feuds. I love critic feuds. I just feel I never want to be in one."

Commenting on the substance of LaChiusa's article, both Lion and Shaiman made the point that Broadway should be a place where "there's room for everyone," in Lion's words.

Indeed, few composers better exemplify the range of Broadway musicals than the current combatants do. LaChiusa's Marie Christine is adapted from Euripides' tragedy, Medea. His newest projects also have literary antecedents. What I Wanna See, which will premiere at New York's Public Theater in October, is inspired by a collection of early 20th-century stories by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The House of Bernarda Alba, scheduled to make its debut at Lincoln Center this winter, is an adaptation of the Spanish play by Federico Garcia Lorca.

Slyly subversive

Shaiman, on the other hand, tends to choose more populist material. A composer with numerous movie credits, he's currently developing a one-man musical for Martin Short, scheduled to open on Broadway this spring, and a musical version of the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie, Catch Me If You Can.

He took umbrage, however, at LaChiusa's accusation that he and creators of other so-called "faux" musicals "pride themselves on producing `escapist' entertainment." Hairspray, he pointed out, includes such serious themes as civil rights and the acceptance of differences. Clothing these themes in an enticing, entertaining package, he explained, makes the musical "all the more subversive."

Incensed though Shaiman may be, he has kept his sense of humor - a trait he found lacking in LaChiusa's "vicious attack." Shaiman emailed a longer version of his talkinbroadway reply to friends in the theater community. In a postscript, he wrote: "Ah well, whether friend or `faux,' I wish him the best. I really do."

"Marc was hilarious," filmmaker Waters said. "[LaChiusa's article] was a well-written negative review and what Marc wrote was an even better-written rebuttal. Can you ever win answering critics? I guess you win if it's on the front page of the New York Times entertainment section. Then everybody wins."

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