Birdman, this year’s best picture Oscar winner, takes place largely backstage at a theatre. This season, backstage drama is taking center stage on Broadway as well.
Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play follows the action at a Broadway production’s opening night party. Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher currently star in a revival of the 1978 Comden and Green (music by Cy Coleman) musical, On the Twentieth Century, which takes place on a train as a theater producer tries to convince a Hollywood star to play the lead in his Broadway show. And starting previews this month are Finding Neverland, the story of how J.M. Barrie wrote the play Peter Pan, and Something Rotten!, a completely original musical about the very first musical.
Most of these shows fall into the category of what is known as “backstage musicals.” Jennifer Tepper, author of The Untold Stories of Broadway: Volumes 1 and 2, defines a backstage musical as one that revolves around putting on a show. For example, in the megahit 2001 musical The Producers, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom raise money to put on what they believe is the worst show ever written, Springtime for Hitler, on Broadway. There are scenes of the show-within-a-show, another common trait of the form.
The backstage musical originated in the 1930s. Aspects of backstage musicals were seen in Ziegfeld revues and vaudeville, Tepper says, but as full-length musicals, it began with the 1933 Busby Berkeley film 42nd Street and the 1937 Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical Babes in Arms (also made into a Berkeley film starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in 1939). In Babes in Arms, a group of teenagers is left without adult supervision when their vaudeville performer parents go on the road. The kids stage a show to avoid being sent to a work farm. In 42nd Street (music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin), the leading star of a musical is injured and chorus girl Peggy Sawyer gets her big break.
“I think it had to do with that transition from revues to cohesive book musicals. Backstage musicals could be a little bit of both,” Tepper says. Full-book musicals were just coming into play. Revues like the Ziegfeld Follies would have numbers about show business, but suddenly musicals could be about anything. “Babes in Arms and 42nd Street balanced that out and gave people a version of what they would have seen in vaudeville of someone performing a song. It was almost a way to continue the tradition of not having a plot because someone could just come on and perform the number from the show-within-the-show and it would be a big showstopper,” she says.
Though book musicals are no longer avant-garde, backstage musicals have continued to be popular throughout history. One of the most groundbreaking and successful at its time was A Chorus Line, originally seen on Broadway in 1975. Conceived, choreographed, and directed by Michael Bennett, it put the spotlight on chorus dancers at an audition. It’s probably not a coincidence that a few years later, there was an influx of shows about entertainers. The year On the Twentieth Century opened, the winner of the Tony for best musical was Ain’t Misbehavin’, a revue that pays tribute to the musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. Other musicals that year included Kander and Ebb’s The Act, in which Liza Minnelli portrayed a fading film star staging a comeback as a Las Vegas singer, and Dancin’, Bob Fosse’s dance revue.
Tepper thinks that reality television factors into why we are seeing a lot of theater about theater this year. “If something is popular in pop culture, it takes a little while for those musicals . . . that are partially inspired by something in pop culture to [make it to] Broadway, just because it takes so long,” she says. “I think reality TV has made people more interested in entertainment that they feel is behind-the-scenes and about real people and what’s actually going on. I think that reality TV is partially responsible for the interest in even doing something like Smash.”
“I think we as a culture are fascinated by behind-the-scenes, pulling back the curtain, and seeing what’s going on to put on a production or put on a movie or create a song or whatever it is,” echoes Wayne Kirkpatrick, who wrote the music and lyrics of Something Rotten! with his brother Karey. “And those worlds tend to be populated with larger-than-life people who easily get themselves into neurotic and desperate situations, which lends itself well to comedy.”
The Kirkpatrick brothers conceived Something Rotten! imagining what would happen if somebody predicted that the future of theater would be musicals. When Nick Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James), a rival of William Shakespeare (Christian Borle), hears that prophecy, he sets out to write the world’s first musical with his brother Nigel (John Cariani). Karey also says that part of the appeal of a musical about a musical is that it helps answer the question of why characters break into song. “It probably also stems from writers writing what they know,” he adds. This is the first musical for the Kirkpatrick brothers and John O’Farrell, who is cowriting the book with Karey, but they are all writers in different media (Wayne in music, Karey in film, and O’Farrell in books and film).
Writing about writers is also partly what drew British playwright James Graham to pen the book for Finding Neverland (music and lyrics are by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy). “I really connected with the central character — a playwright who feels like there are certain expectations on him about what he should write, what the play should be,” Graham says. “I spent five to 10 years in London writing big, political, grown-up plays and had the opportunity to do something completely different. In a way, like Barrie, you find your inner child, your inner playfulness, and rediscover the power of theater to delight and entertain and transform.”
Based on the film, Finding Neverland depicts how J.M. Barrie’s (Matthew Morrison) relationship with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her sons inspired him to write a play about a boy who never grew up, which was unlike anything stuffy Edwardian society theatergoers had seen in 1904. Although Finding Neverland isn’t a typical backstage musical, Graham still sees it falling in that tradition. “It’s not really a play about the mechanics and the process of putting on a show, but it is about a writer going on a process trying to rediscover his imagination and, very specifically, it is about the transformative power of storytelling and theater,” he says.
Though audiences clearly delight in watching stories about theater people (It’s Only a Play broke box office records at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in the fall), there’s a danger, Graham says, of navel-gazing. These types of shows may come across as too self-obsessed with one’s own industry at the expense of the larger problems in the world, but that’s why there are usually universal problems and emotions at the center. “With the story of Finding Neverland, it’s not just about this play or about theater, it’s about a family and it’s about a man in crisis,” Graham says. “It just happens to be taking a beautiful look at how storytelling — how theater — can matter.”