This weekend, the Broadway musical “Memphis” won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It was a triumph I was glad to see, because as I mentioned in this post from January, my brother Charlie is part of the ensemble. He was with the show while it was in La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, and then at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in Seattle, and was able to stay with it when it graduated to Broadway.
So congratulations to Charlie and the rest of the Memphis cast! Even setting aside the fact that my brother is in it, it was a great musical, and from what I’ve seen and heard, the cast and crew seem like a really great group of people.
Because I have a keen appreciation of schadenfreude, I poked around various news sites to see what the reaction was. I was pleased to note that overall Memphis garnered a lot of praise, even from the media. But I did find a few critics whose tears I could savor, most notably Michael Reidel of the New York Post, who complained about musicals being created for “hick audiences around the country” by “cynical producers who want to make pots of money.” I found this particularly amusing, because hey, news flash Mike: you work for freaking RUPERT MURDOCH. I think you’d best get off that high horse there.
Seriously, though, I was intrigued by the articles which complained that the Tony voters went the safe choice in “Memphis”, instead of choosing the edgier “Fela!” or “American Idiot.” I realize it’s a debate that goes on in the media all the time (mainly after awards shows), but this time I had a stronger connection to it: first in my brother, and second, now that I’m actively working toward the goal of being a creative professional myself, this debate has a direct impact on my own work as well.
I didn’t see the other nominated shows, but if Memphis is more accessible to mass audiences, isn’t that a good thing? As an aspiring writer, my goal is tell a really good story that touches people’s emotions. Isn’t that the very definition of accessibility? What’s the point of producing something edgy if no one wants to see it? Art for art’s sake, I guess. To that I say bah humbug.
I don’t write this post because I take the criticisms of Memphis personally– after all, Memphis won the Tony no matter what certain critics think, and I don’t think a Broadway production the size of Memphis needs to be defended by me. No, I’m more interested in the larger debate on what makes good art (be it theater, writing, movies, painting, music, etc.)– is it edginess? Originality? Accessibility?
For me, this is what art is, and always will be, regardless of what either critics or the dictionaries say: it’s a creative work designed to evoke an emotional response in the viewer/reader/watcher/listener, and to hopefully make them think. Successful art, then, is art which evokes the response it was aiming for (which doesn’t have to be a specific emotion). All other things that we strive for in art, such as originality, are in service of that higher goal. Accessibility, then, is another factor in service of the art: if more people see it and are touched by it, the art, whatever medium it’s in, is stronger as a result.
Anyway, those were just a few thoughts that came to me as I celebrated Memphis’ win. And as I expressed in my earlier blog post about Memphis, I think it’s a great story, even from a writing perspective. Anyone who thinks it was solely about racism was not paying close enough attention: what made it good was that it wasn’t just an outdated morality play, it was a drama involving very real, very believable, and very flawed characters. The 1950’s were just the backdrop against which their personal stories played out.
Anyway, I hope no one interprets this post as sour grapes against the critics who blasted Memphis’ win (well, except Michael Reidel, at whose expense I will continue to enjoy a hearty laugh). Rather, this debate, on what makes creative works like musicals “good”, has a very real and very direct impact on me as a writer, and it’s interesting to contemplate. I don’t think there really is a right answer… I have my opinion of course, and some people will disagree with me, which is fine. But if I ever get a novel published, I just want to spin a good yarn that’s fun to read; to hell with what the critics say. Memphis was the Broadway equivalent of my favorite kind of novel.
Congrats again, Memphis!