Musical theatre versus theatrical music
Dave saw Joe Jackson's Night and Day last night. No fair sitting in the front row, by the way (though that wasn't nearly as distracting as Tim Kaine striking up a conversation with me ten seconds before my entrance last Sunday. Turns out Tim and Anne are huge Joe Jackson fans. Who knew?). Dave's take on the show was published on his blog this afternoon. As is so often the case with his writing, it got my mind whirling with deep thoughts and counter-arguments. And that's what this blog is for, friends.
"Concert musical" is the term I've been using to describe JJND for the past few months, and I've never been entirely happy with it. Dave's reaction to the show's lack of narrative brought my dissatisfaction home, and hard. Celia Wren eloquently described the piece in the Times-Dispatch a couple weeks ago thus: "Built around an onstage band, Hamm's production wasn't a play per se. Rather, he drew out, expanded and interlinked narrative elements in Jackson's albums, turning the songs into musical scenes and sketches featuring recurring characters. A principal storyline, concerning a New York-based songwriter striving to capture the city's energy in a catchy tune, added unity."
Finally this week, words that resonate came to mind: Joe Jackson's Night and Day isn't musical theatre. It's theatrical music.
The reason this terminology is so important is evident in Dave's completely reasonable response to the show's lack of through-lines. In coming from a theatrical standpoint, he walked into the theatre with storytelling, character-fulfilling expectations that the material not only doesn't meet, but doesn't even care about. The comparison with Tommy is telling and, in my humble opinion, quite mistaken; Tommy is in absolutely no way a "concert musical;" it's an entirely traditional book musical that just happens to have rock music at its core. It's full of dialogue songs, storyline, and characters with beginnings, middles, and ends. Joe Jackson's Night and Day makes no attempt at any of these things.
Expecting JJND to have the same aesthetic resonance as a play is like reading a collection of Chekhov short stories and expecting them to result in a novel, or like seeing David Mamet's New York Stories and expecting them to result in Glengarry Glen Ross. The best theatrical analogue to JJND that I can think of is Neil Simon's The Good Doctor, a collection of short plays based on Chekhov stories and linked together by a Writer character who has several monologues and acts as a narrator. But even that isn't quite right, because the scenes in The Good Doctor are all little plays in and of themselves, with traditional storytelling narrative. A better example would be Randall Kenan's short story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, which I'm fairly certain no one I know has ever read, making it a moot instance. But trust me, it's good.
Songs are like short fiction or poetry in that they don't have any requirement to tell story, only to create imagery. I hate hate hate jukebox musicals, and the thing that distinguishes JJND from jukebox musicals is that it very specifically refuses to shoehorn story and character development into the material in order to spoon-feed connective tissue to the audience. JJND is still in development, and has changed a lot in the past 12 years, but it will never ever ever have an over-arching story, nor will the characters go from point A to point Z. Instead, we see sketches of lives, point D through J, L through M, R through V.
We are creating something unique with Joe Jackson's Night and Day, and it is as much a challenge to the audience as it has been to the artists. We welcome the challenge, even if it means that the show occasionally hits audience members bonk on the brain a bit. I'm glad that the show's critics have had questions and disagreements with our choices, because they will help us grow the show for October's New York showcase, as well as future iterations. And I love talking about the craft of theatre!
For now, we have two shows left and limited seats. I invite you to let the show wash over you like songs, not like scenes. Come out to Joe Jackson's Night and Day and see what all the fuss is about.