Pop culture and Broadway. They have a long history together; Broadway tunes became radio hits over a hundred years ago, and stories that originated on the stage were turned into some of the earliest "Moving Pictures". More recently, box-office hits at the movies have been transformed into Broadway musicals (and sometimes – see Hairspray) right back again. Stars of the screen have become marquee names at Broadway houses, and many of the most accomplished film actors got their starts on the New York stage.
However, there remains a divide – brought into the spotlight in recent days after Randy Jackson, for the umpteenth time, dismissed a contestant on American Idol as "too Broadway" for the competition. He spouted the critique "show tunes turn me off" and continued, "you know what I hate about all musicals? It brings out that vibrato-o-o-o-o-o" (a mockery of what he considers to be a "Broadway" voice).
Broadway's stalwarts weren't taking it lying down. My twitter newsfeed (which consists entirely of people & entities related to the theatre world) exploded with indignation. "How dare he?" was a common sentiment, as was "That dawg is crazy"! But the loudest objection came from Betty Buckley, the Tony-winning actress known for Cats, Pippin, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
In 140-character bursts, Betty went on a rant aimed specifically at Randy Jackson and the producer of Idol, Nigel Lithgow, whom Betty apparently held somewhat responsible for the frequent use of "Broadway" as an insult on Idol. Included in her lengthy commentary were the statements "I am sick & tired of Randy Jackson bashing what they think is Bway singing!", "By these constant disses he is tellin' Amer. kids that Bway is some kind of inferior art form," and "'Dog', your opinion is whack & uninformed!"
Again, my twitter feed blew up – but this time with retweets and "Amens" to Ms. Buckley. And the support didn't stop there. The New York Post picked up the story, and the New York Times referenced it as well.
Suddenly, Randy was on blast in a very public way, leading to a public statement ("I love [Betty Buckley], I also love broadway, I am a huge broadway fan,") via his own twitter feed.
It was Howard Sherman, theatre pundit and former Executive Director of the American Theatre Wing, who tweeted "The irony is that while American Idol disses Bway, so many of their final contestants aspire to work there...and do." I was reminded of a column I wrote during last year's American Idol competition, titled aptly "American Idol and Broadway".
In it, I pointed out that the first nine seasons of Idol all introduced talent that would come to Broadway or had already been there, from Tamyra Gray (RENT) to Adam Lambert (Wicked). Not to mention Jennifer Hudson, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of a classic theatre role, Effie White, in the movie version of Dreamgirls – and Katherine McPhee, currently starring as a Broadway actress on the new hit TV show, Smash.
Which brings me to my point.
It's time for shows like American Idol and its NBC counterpart, The Voice, to fully embrace what the TV-viewing (and contest-voting) public already has: that musical theatre has exploded out of its niche and become, unquestionably, a mainstream form of pop entertainment.
Broadway had a toe in the water of popular culture when MTV aired the full Broadway production of Legally Blonde: The Musical. Reality shows choosing stars for Blonde as well as the 2007 revival of Grease were to follow. But it wasn't till 2010, when Fox took the risk of premiering Glee, that the message was driven home: musical theatre as a theme and an art form, was becoming popular beyond just the "college theatre dorks" and stagedooring fangirls like me. And it was only headed from there: The first season of Glee boasted up to 13 million viewers per episode, and the highest finale rating for any new show in the 2009–10 television season. (In October 2010, the GLEE Cast won its 75th appearance on the Billboard top 100 singles chart, surpassing the Beatles for the group with the largest number of charting songs in history.)
Now, in 2012, Smash has premiered to similar acclaim – and it is bringing audiences even closer to what Broadway is all about. Not just employing theatre music, but actually telling the story of a Broadway musical (even providing a launching pad for new songs by Hairspray composer & lyricist Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman), Smash is one step closer to satiating the new American appetite for the Broadway sensibility and sound.
That said, I must echo Ms. Buckley's statement that Broadway no longer means any one particular style. Consider Memphis, Rock of Ages, American Idiot, In the Heights. In fact, every one of these shows has featured (if not starred) someone who first became famous on American Idol! So, it follows that if Idol wants to see itself as a star-making machine, it should in fact be seeking out, not rejecting, voices that could work on Broadway… because Broadway is now a destination for musical talent of all genres.
I have a hunch that when Randy Jackson uses the term "too Broadway" as a reason for excusing a potential finalist, what he really means is "unmarketable," "unrelatable," "too niche," or "old fashioned". Ten or twenty years ago, he might have been able to make a case that theatre didn't mesh well with pop music. Today, it just makes him seem ignorant and totally out of touch. And if he really means that a singer is bad (as opposed to just "not right for this competition,") then it doesn't let the contestant off the hook to say "too Broadway;" it completely misrepresents that person's abilities and also the heavily-trained and controlled vocal instrument that theatre-singing requires.
In the coming weeks, as American Idol moves beyond the audition phase, the chosen finalists will face a theme every week, wherein each will choose a song originated in a certain style or by a certain artist. They are encouraged to make the songs "their own" – leading, in the past, to country-crooned Beatles tunes, jazzed-up R&B, acoustic Kanye West, and metal versions of (previously) bubblegum pop songs.
If the idea is to modernize and reinvent classic music, a "Broadway Week" seems the perfect opportunity for Idol to show not only a lack of prejudice against theatre, but also to proudly join the movement of "new" Broadway instead of dismissing it as a far-from-celebrated form of music. Imagine letting the contestants choose a Broadway showtune and then remake it as a pop, metal, country, rock, jazz, bluegrass, or rap song. It would prove that Broadway is a genre on the cutting edge, and also allow Idol to be seen as progressive instead of fading, losing the bite that made the show popular a decade ago.
I must give credit to The Voice, NBC's singing competition show, as the episodes I have watched have not resorted to using "too Broadway" as a reason to dismiss a potential contestant. On the contrary, this season Tony Vincent, who originated the role of St. Jimmy in American Idiot both regionally at Berkeley Rep and then on Broadway the next year, has been invited to perform for the judges in hopes of a major music contract.
That said, I encourage The Voice to go one step further by considering the employ of a judge/ team leader with specific ties to Broadway. Currently the judges are Adam Levine, a rock frontman; Blake Shelton, a country singer; Cee-Lo, a pop & urban pioneer; and Christina Aguilera, a spectacular diva in the pop/top-40 style. Each of these judges heads up a team of singers who they coach and nurture as they compete to stay in the game. The teams are made up not just of singers that resemble their mentor's style, but artists of all genres. I propose the next season of The Voice expand to five judges – the fifth being a Broadway/pop-culture crossover like Kristin Chenoweth, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, or Lea Michele.
In a movement some of us consider long overdue, the theatre world is getting exposure beyond 42nd Street. And surprise: they like us, they really like us! As Glee continues to top the charts, and Smash smashes audience records, and Adam Lambert (arguably the most theatrical reality-competition singer ever) tours with Queen, and Jennifer Hudson continues her run as covergirl/actress/singer extraordinare… the people who have been named "judges" and pride themselves on being tastemakers had better expand their horizons. If they don't, they'll be left in the dust, having nothing to judge but their own outdated opinions.