Looney tuners crack up B'way

It’s a party out there now that the Broadway musical has recovered its sense of humor.

“All people really want to do is laugh,” says William Finn, composer-lyricist of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” on the stylistic diversity of the new shows. “As long as we keep them laughing, they’re willing to go anywhere with us.”

While giving auds a sense of adventure, the range of styles represented by the new musical comedies demonstrates how flexible the form can be. The zany sketch comedy of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” is a throwback to the low-comedy antics of vaudeville and burlesque. So are the outrageously caricatured villains in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Satire is the name of the game in “All Shook Up,” with its irreverent sendup of tiny-town American moral values.

The plaintive losers who show their winning stuff in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” are adolescent pinups for character comedy. And while the rascally con artists in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” are slicker portrait studies from the same gallery, some of the dirty tricks they play are as deliciously lowdown and tasteless as any burlesque routine.

“Taste always seems to defeat comedy,” says Chip Zien, who plays a bumbling spy from the kingdom of Vulgaria in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” The villains of this totalitarian regime (ruled by an infantile monarch who won’t make a move without his teddy bear) are so broadly drawn they wouldn’t frighten a baby. But they are well rooted in comic tradition, and like Chaplin’s Little Dictator, are not to be taken lightly.

“Ian Fleming had serious intentions when he wrote the original book of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’ ” Zien says. “He viewed it as Germany against the world. But he wrote about it in a childlike way, reducing these scary characters to comedic buffoons.”

That anarchic side of comedy is what drew Mike Nichols to “Spamalot,” with its cruel jokes about legendary heroes and revered institutions. “The most subversive thing about the Pythons,” says the director, “is that they laugh at feeling. Think about it — they never do feeling. They never, ever say anything sentimental.”

In this regard, even a family-rated musical like “Spelling Bee” scores a few zingers: Tuner features an irreverent guest appearance by Christ, who listens kindly when one of the young contestants prays to him for guidance. He then crushes the kid’s ego by saying, “This isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.”

Later, one of the final-round losers gets in a swift jab at our competitive nation’s preoccupation with success: “If you still don’t love me, America, I understand why — you hate losers.”

None of these new shows, however, plunges very deeply into the dark heart of comedy in the way that Brecht and Weill routinely did with bleak musicals like “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” (With the exception of his “Sweeney Todd,” Sondheim’s “Assassins” is the darkest tuner since Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” and “Cabaret.”)

The satire of “All Shook Up” is more along the genial lines of “The Music Man,” gently spoofing small-town America by sending a charismatic Elvis clone and offering culture-starved natives a taste of forbidden thrills. In a play by Tennessee Williams, they would eat this alien alive.

Book writer Joe DiPietro has taken his cue from an earlier scribe legend. “As in Shakespeare’s comedies, love and romance and sex and passion win out over prudishness and conservativeness,” he says. “It’s about unleashing the human spirit.”

Then again, the hicks are joshed for their Mamie Eisenhower code of morality, but go on to teach the rebel a lesson about true love.

The most sophisticated (not to mention gross) of the season’s tuners, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” comes straight out of the tradition of “Pal Joey” and “Guys and Dolls.” The sexy rogue relieves his victims of their wealth and virtue — and makes them love it. “People are always fascinated by con games and con artists,” says the show’s composer-lyricist, David Yazbek. “There’s something delicious about inhabiting that world.”

But if the elegant con man played by John Lithgow travels with the classy baggage of Frank Loesser and Rodgers and Hart, the crass chiseler played by Norbert Leo Butz has an entirely different comic pedigree. This brash vulgarian, who butts in on the confidence man’s game with his own prank as a lovelorn vet in a wheelchair, comes straight from the trickster mold of Commedia dell’arte — via Plautus, Moliere and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

“It was that rub between the vulgarity and the elegance that attracted me to the piece,” says Yazbek. “I figured, wow, I could do Noel Coward and the Jerky Boys at the same time.”

Laughter couldn’t have returned to Broadway at a better time, according to Yazbek, who says that when he was writing “The Full Monty,” musical theater was defined by “sung-through, dark, earnest kind of stuff that I was tired of.” It took the success of shows like “The Producers” and “Hairspray” for producers to get the message that auds yearned for lightness.

William Finn has his own theory of why comedy is back in musicals. “I think this is all happening because we really need to laugh right now,” he says. “Bush is president and nobody can believe the world is as bad as it is — so we have to laugh at something.”

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