New York -- As anyone listening to the musical numbers in tonight's Tony Awards telecast (9 p.m., Channel 11) will probably realize, this season two intrinsic American forms linked up to become a major force on Broadway.
The forms are jazz and musical comedy, and they came together in three of the year's top musical nominees:
* "Jelly's Last Jam," based on the life and music of Jelly Roll Morton, the man who bragged he "invented jazz";
* "Five Guys Named Moe," a salute to one of Morton's successors, band leader Louis Jordan; and
* "Crazy for You," a reworking of George and Ira Gershwin's 1930 musical, "Girl Crazy."
This also means there's a decided retro trend to this year's musicals -- a trend whose strength is perhaps best reflected in the runaway hit status of the glitzy revival of "Guys and Dolls," which looks like a shoo-in for best revival.
This doesn't mean, however, that there was nothing new in the musical theater firmament. The fourth contender for best musical, William Finn and James Lapine's "Falsettos," is the first Broadway musical to tackle the subject of AIDS.
Nor is it the only nominee displaying atypical subject matter. "Jelly's Last Jam" may have a retro score, but it breaks ground by refusing to sugarcoat its protagonist. To the contrary, the harsh pen of playwright George C. Wolfe depicts Jelly as arguably the most unsympathetic black character ever honored with his own Broadway musical.
If any future direction can be ascertained from all of this -- a risky practice, at best -- it would appear to be twofold. First, after a spate of European productions, the use of inherently American music suggests that musical theater is being reclaimed on its native shores. And, second, there appears to be a minor trend of musicals moving in new textual directions.
Though it doesn't forge new territory, "Crazy for You" is a good old-fashioned American standard, and in an attempt to keep it that way, playwright Ken Ludwig deliberately mimicked the style of the period. But at the same time, he set out to improve on that style. And he succeeded.
Jazz and romance, to start
In the early days of American musicals, the plot served primarily as an excuse to string together the songs, and the songs, in turn, served primarily as vehicles for stars. (In the case of "Girl Crazy," those stars included such diverse talents as Ethel Merman, comic Willie Howard, and Ginger Rogers.)
But nowadays audiences crave a little more story and character development, and that's what Ludwig provides. His crackerjack farce starts off with the original show's idea of a wealthy young man shipped West by his family. After that, Ludwig jacks up the theatrical element and tosses in a mistaken-identity subplot -- all the while, of course, maintaining the essential romantic angle.
The jazz component is evident not only in a Gershwin number such as "I Got Rhythm," but also in the rousing Broadway debut of the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, whose on-stage repertory includes several non-"Girl Crazy" Gershwin tunes interpolated into the show, the jazziest being "Slap That Bass." All this is choreographed by Susan Stroman, whose sense of comedy and innovation will make her contribution tough competition for the season's most dance-heavy musical, "Jelly's Last Jam."
Jointly choreographed by Hope Clarke, Ted L. Levy and the show's star, Gregory Hines, "Jelly's Last Jam" takes the liberty of transforming jazz pioneer Morton into a tap dancer. However,the most startling aspect of the script is that it dares to depict its protagonist in a realistic but unfavorable light.
This willingness to topple icons is hardly surprising, considering that "Jelly's" book and direction are by the author of "The Colored Museum," a sendup of black stereotypes, which local audiences may remember from its production at Center Stage four seasons ago.
The plot is based on the notion that it is the eve of Morton's death, and he has been summoned to defend his soul in "a lowdown club somewhere's 'tween Heaven 'n' Hell," as the setting is described in the program. And, Morton's got plenty of explaining to do. Hines' dancing may be heaven, but he portrays Morton as a bragging devil who mistreated anyone who tried to get close to him and was a racist who spurned his black roots.
Breaking from the pack
"Jelly's Last Jam" breaks with the tradition of good-time revues celebrating black musicians, such as "Sophisticated Ladies" (Duke Ellington), "Ain't Misbehavin' " (Fats Waller) and "Eubie!" (Eubie Blake). However, "Five Guys Named Moe" exalts in it. A celebration of the originator of "jump blues," as Louis Jordan dubbed his style, "Five Guys" has a plot line even thinner than those in the days of "Girl Crazy."
Down on his luck and disappointed in love, a fellow called No Max is listening to Jordan's music on the radio when five singers pop into his living room and identify themselves as Big Moe, Four-Eyed Moe, No Moe, Eat Moe and Little Moe. They then proceed to perform two hours of such typical Jordan novelty numbers as "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens," "Is You Is or Is You Ain't Ma' Baby" and "Push Ka Pi Shi Pie."
A hit in London, where anything remotely associated with American jazz seems attract a crowd, "Five Guys" has a premise so tenuous even author Clarke Peters calls the show a "revusical." Its sole innovation is the inclusion of what is undoubtedly the first audience-participation conga line in Broadway history. Compared to its more substantial com
petitors, the show's nomination probably represents little more than an excuse to fill out the category.
The same can hardly be said of "Falsettos," the lone best musical nominee to break away from the jazz pack, and the only one with an entirely original score. There is a slight retro element, however, since the show consists of the merger of two one-act William Finn musicals -- "March of the Falsettos" and "Falsettoland" -- that were performed off-Broadway in 1981 and 1990, respectively.
What's new about "Falsettos," however, is not only that it takes a serious look at homosexuality -- shunning the syrupy sitcom approach of a show like "La Cage aux Folles" -- but also that it deals forthrightly with AIDS. And it does this in the universal context of a family drama.
Like "Five Guys Named Moe," "Falsettos" is a chamber-sized musical, and like "Jelly's Last Jam," its ending strains to give the audience a sign of hope -- in this case, reinforcing the power of love. A few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a Broadway musical in which a character with AIDS sings "You Gotta Die Sometime."
Still, it is impossible to overlook the element of deja vu in this year's musicals nominees. And for purists, let's not forget the two popular musicals nominated for best revival -- the aforementioned "Guys and Dolls" and "The Most Happy Fella," both, interestingly enough, with scores by Frank Loesser.
Maybe this suggests there aren't enough new composers, or maybe they're all in the midst of preparing shows for future seasons. If so, they'd do well to put some bite in their material, because judging from "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Falsettos," the Broadway musical is no longer afraid to boldly go where no musical has ever gone before.