Shows eschew already-proven formulas

Only a handful of shows have affected the course of the American musical theater during its roughly 150-year existence. Whether “Spring Awakening,” the downtown musical that found an unexpected welcome on Broadway last season and then swept the Tonys, is set to join “Show Boat,” “Oklahoma!” and “Hair” is not yet clear, but the presence of some equally unconventional fare on the Great White Way this season suggests that “Spring” may indeed have sprung.

Two shows in particular, “In the Heights” and “Passing Strange,” encourage such speculation, because both are, in their own ways, just as unlikely tenants on the Rialto as “Spring Awakening” remains.

“Musicals develop slowly,” offers Jeremy McCarter, theater critic of New York magazine, “so it’s hard to draw a straight line between cause and effect. But the huge success of ‘Spring Awakening’ has changed perceptions of how a Broadway musical is allowed to sound.”

Sound is especially significant here because though “Passing Strange” and “In the Heights” break from Broadway’s standard mold in various respects, their greatest divergence from tradition is arguably musical. In “Passing Strange,” that’s accomplished by incorporating gospel, punk, blues, jazz and rock, the musical elements that shaped Stew, the show’s creator and star.

By contrast, “In the Heights” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars in his show, has fused reggaeton, salsa, merengue and hip-hop in novel fashion.

Yet even more important than what differentiates these musicals may be what they share. “What links these shows is that they’re not being drawn from an already-proved formula,” says New York Times legit critic Charles Isherwood. “They’re original visions. And what’s important is that they all began Off Broadway, where there’s less tinkering from producers in the artistic process.”

Certainly “Spring Awakening’s” influence remains potent Off Broadway, where it first triumphed. In its wake, “Adding Machine,” a musical based on Elmer Rice’s darkly prescient play of that name, has done well this season.

“‘Spring Awakening’ proved that audiences — and producers — are being less conventional and taking more chances,” says Scott Morfee, one of “Adding Machine’s” producers. “This season is possibly a sea-change type of season because of all these musicals that have emerged this year. It seems most of the material, and even the approach musically and artistically, is more daring. For a commercial producer, the success of a show like ‘Spring Awakening’ gives hope.”

The producers of “In the Heights” and “Passing Strange” are less generous in acknowledging a debt to “Spring Awakening,” with which they now are in direct competition.

Jeffrey Seller, a producer of “In the Heights,” maintains that his show bears a stronger resemblance to classic tuners than to any of the rule-breaking musicals of the last decade. “I would argue that ‘In the Heights’ is a traditional musical with a nontraditional score,” he says, adding somewhat improbably that “‘In the Heights’ has more in common with ‘Oklahoma!’ than with ‘Spring Awakening.'”

Oskar Eustis, one of “Passing Strange’s” producers as well as the artistic director of the Public Theater, which shepherded the show from nonprofit status to Broadway, takes a broader view.  “You could also say that ‘Rent’ prepared the ground and even ‘Hair‘ and ‘Tommy,'” he suggests. “There have been a series of fits and starts of rock showing up on Broadway.”

Be that as it may, “Spring Awakening’s” success has clearly emboldened the Great White Way’s gatekeepers to venture into something new, whether in terms of a show’s music, structure or subject matter.

“I think it’s exciting when musicals sound more like the culture that produced them and less like other musicals,” says McCarter. “Theater is a magpie art: It steals from what’s going on around it. For Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening’s” composer) to steal from indie rock and Lin-Manuel to steal from hip-hop and salsa, and to see young audiences respond to that, can only be good for Broadway’s health.”

Yet not everyone is popping the Champagne cork quite yet. “I think that’s harder to predict,” contends Isherwood regarding the durability of Broadway’s newfound hipness. “All you need is a few experimental shows to flop, and people will get cold feet again.”

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