Tuners turning back to reality

'Amour,' 'Man of No Importance' rep shift toward serious themes

The kitchen sink is poised to make a comeback on Gotham stages — and musicals, strangely enough, may be leading the way.

“Either it will be revolutionary or it will be a throw-back,” says Charles Strouse, somewhat confusingly, referring to the musical version of Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” on which he’s working with his longtime lyricist Lee Adams.

Their Broadway-bound tuner, with book by Rupert Holmes, begins performances in October at Boston’s Huntington Theater.

The show is a departure for the song-writing duo, as well as the Broadway musical in its present, most popular form.

Strouse and Adams, after all, invented the currently red-hot genre of the cartoon tuner with “Bye Bye Birdie,” back in 1960.

The formula currently is riding high on Broadway. Most of the new hit musicals to open on Broadway in the wake of “The Producers” — “Urinetown,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Hairspray” — have followed the “Birdie” prototype: a pastiche score and a tongue-in-cheek book melded together with liberal dollops of political incorrectness. (Remember the Latina wisecracks in “Birdie”?) And while “Mamma Mia!,” the Abba musical, doesn’t exactly fit the mold, few would dispute that it qualifies as a cartoon of its own kind.

Now, however, the tide may be turning. “Marty,” with its love story between a middle-aged butcher and a schoolteacher, won’t be alone in bringing a recognizable human dimension back to the musical form. Several new shows heading to Gotham this season or in the near future take a more down-to-earth approach.

A lowly civil servant finds celebrity in Michel Legrand’s “Amour” (Broadway premiere, Oct. 20) and a bus conductor comes to terms with his homosexuality in “A Man of No Importance” (Lincoln Center premiere, Oct. 10) from the “Ragtime” team of Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

Also in the immediate pipeline: “Moonstruck,” which finds an accountant falling in love with a baker, in Jon Patrick Shanley’s musical retooling of his movie script, with a score by Henry Krieger and Susan Birkenhead.

OK, so “Hairspray” could be described as the story of a fat girl from a blue-collar family. The key here is tone: The new shows eschew the kind of over-the-top, winking comic tone that characterizes most of the current crop of musical hits.

“There is a tendency to be grotesque all the time,” Michel Legrand says of the current crop of toonish tuners. With “Amour,” based on a short story by Marcel Ayme, Legrand has attempted something closer to the opera comique of Jacques Offenbach. “It is not only French, it is worse,” he jokes. “It is Parisian.”

After the bigness of “Seussical” and “Ragtime,” Ahrens and Flaherty looked for “an intimate chamber-sized piece,” says the composer.

“This is the most play-like piece we’ve ever worked on,” lyricist Ahrens says of “A Man of No Importance.” The characters here, she adds, “are not drawn in primary colors.”

According to Strouse, when John C. Reilly signed on to play Marty, the actor wanted to eschew the traditional “cellophane cover” trappings, as he put it, of the big Broadway musical.

“He wanted small-letter acting which was not at a distance,” says Strouse, “a musical that would have this verisimilitude so that he could put himself deeply into the character.”

“Yes, ‘Moonstruck’ is about real honest-to-God people,” adds Susan Birkenhead, the show’s lyricist, “ones who live their lives on an operatic scale.”

Some of these more intimate shows have an element of the fantastic that lends itself to the musical form.

The protagonist of “Amour” achieves his fame by walking through walls, and unlike the film version of “A Man of No Importance,” Oscar Wilde materializes in its musical version to sing along side the hero, Alfie Byrne.

“The musical has more to do with his internal life with Oscar Wilde, which lifts the story into the world of music and makes it more theatrical,” says Flaherty.

But the most daring element of these new musicals may be the oldest concept of all: They are populated with ordinary people who break into song at regular intervals without the crutch of being either buffoons or show people or both.

That was once the norm on Broadway, of course, but audiences weaned exclusively on movies and TV may have a harder time accepting the convention. Movie adaptations of musicals in recent years avoid the issue by working around it: Bob Fosse set all the songs in his movie of “Cabaret” in a nightclub, and the upcoming film of “Chicago” casts all the songs as dream sequences.

Cartoon characters may be Broadway’s current answer to having actors sing without forcing the audience to suspend too much disbelief.

“Every young writer has to get over that hump of justifying the form that is getting more and more irrelevant,” says Robert Lopez, a composer-lyricist whose new musical “Avenue Q,” a sendup of “Sesame Street” complete with singing life-size puppets, opens this winter at the Vineyard Theater. “You know (people) don’t sing. But puppets by their very nature sing,” he says.

But Strouse and others are once again giving real people another crack at the genre.

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