I’m not someone who needs to cover his ears at the screech of the subway brakes. At home, I put on headphones and play my music loud. I’m not exactly old, but I’m getting there, and so it’s probably something like Steely Dan, Rachmaninoff or Stevie Wonder’s “Jungle Fever” album. (Or did I mention Steely Dan?) But I like my music pretty loud. I want to hear it in fat detail.
Yet these days I am finding that too often at Broadway shows the sound is turned up way too loud.
I don’t mean ordinary modern pop loud. I mean that in many numbers the volume is turned up so high you almost wonder whether something is wrong. You feel like your hair is either growing faster or falling out.
The trend toward scarily high volumes on Broadway is at least a decade old. But I’ve sensed an uptick over about the past five years. When I saw “Jagged Little Pill,” the jukebox musical based on Alanis Morissette’s music, more than once the volume was turned up so loud near the end of a song that I worried it might drown out whatever show was playing next door. I heard a report from someone who was way up in the highest balcony for “Some Like It Hot,” now in previews, and had to cover his ears at times, pitying the people down near the orchestra. I could go on.
Of course, most of the audiences seem to love this auditory mauling. Theaters pump the music up to pump the audience up. It’s a cheap trick, like the grand old musical device of taking a dance song up a half-step in key to create close-to-the-end momentum in a number. Except just making it louder is easier, balder.
Yes, rock music is loud, and Broadway has now richly incorporated the modern pop idiom. As it should, incidentally. And that means we can no longer expect the sonic level of the typical modern musical to be like that of, say, “The King and I.” I’m long past expecting the volume levels of midcentury musicals, and sometimes even wish in the older and quieter shows that they’d turn it up a bit.
But old heads tell me that the original production of the ur-rock-musical “Hair” at the end of the 1960s was not gut-wrenchingly loud, and I can personally attest that the 2009 Broadway revival was not either. The music of “Hamilton” is high, bright, strong and in your face — but at no point did it make my ears hurt. Until recently, no rock musical I had attended had been so loud as to make me almost throw up a little.
The first time I remember thinking that a musical was as loud as a rock concert was “Mamma Mia,” 20-plus years ago — but only in the big finale reprising “Dancing Queen,” when the balcony was literally shaking (at least at the tour version I saw in San Francisco). That was fun because it was only one sequence, and at the end of the show. But since then, shows have frequently had several numbers pitched at that level and even higher. I’m hearing complaints about it from assorted theater friends, all of whom are familiar with high volume in the theater in general.
OK, fashions change — in musicals as in all else. I try as hard as I can to go with it, and usually I can. I was a little perplexed as far back as the early 1990s when smart, artistically sensitive people I knew were cherishing musical scores such as “Miss Saigon” and “Jekyll and Hyde” as significant works. I struggled to understand why they liked that music better than what’s in “Nine” or “Merrily We Roll Along.”
But, in contrast to this gut-busting sonics issue, I could not decree that there was anything genuinely amiss with those shows. Largely, at least: “Starlight Express” really was swill. But its composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, also wrote “Evita,” which is as musically sophisticated as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” And when a friend forced me to actually listen to Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love,” I found most of it lovely and now sing its praises to the skeptical.
This volume business, though, is not a mere matter of art forms morphing over time. This is not about tomato and to-mah-to. It’s about artlessly catering to the lowest common denominator in the human ear and spirit.
A musical can grab you in many ways. Lyrical cleverness. Melodiousness. A sophisticated message. Deft and thrilling dance. The sets. The costumes. The lighting. The orchestrations (if you listen to the recording more than once).
Or it can blast you with volume so loud it practically blows off toupees, pops out fillings and changes the color of your clothes. Of all of the appeals of musical theater, this one is the crudest. It’s musical theater’s equivalent of the Flintstones’ Bamm-Bamm.
I know I am taking a risk even airing my feelings about this. I can’t help thinking about the brilliant and now late Michael Feingold at The Village Voice in his withering critique of the kinds of 1990s musicals I just referred to. Thirty years on, who thinks it the end of civilization that today a generation of musical-theater-loving adults would rather sing “Music of the Night” and “On My Own” around the piano than “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “I Feel Pretty”? One doesn’t want to be like the wine snobs who professionally despise the critic Robert Parker’s affection for the fruitier, more intuitively delicious wines, explaining to us that the evolved person prefers the “mineral-y” wines, after a swig of which one is to opine with a suspiciously pensive grin that it “tastes better with food.”
Yet as someone commenting on his era, I cannot resist suggesting that we are seeing one of the less savory symptoms of a larger evolution in popular music. A fair generalization — albeit of course with exceptions — is that in antique pop music (before the 1960s, roughly), the lyrics were artistically less for the ages than the music. There were certainly some great lyricists, and some so-so composers. But a norm was the likes of Duke Ellington’s “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” where the gorgeous melody was saddled with — we can admit it — a trite, Hallmark-esque lyric. Even the good lyrics tended to be limited in thematic scope — way too much about love and dancing, way too little about most of the rest of life. I say this, I might add, as a serious aficionado of the American Songbook.
These days, lyrics are much more artistically sophisticated. They address the whole of living: Think Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Taylor Swift, the geniuses of hip-hop. But musically they tend to be less carefully crafted — considered, as one might put it — than much older pop. You can hear the change right on the break between then and now. The Rolling Stones’ 1968 song “Sympathy for the Devil” is an extraordinary track, but while the lyric is a big part of why, the melody and harmonies aren’t. The arrangement and the danceability of the cut are epic, but they’re not what you’d play on the piano from its sheet music. A neat study found that recent pop is measurably more musically elementary than older pop.
It’s no surprise, then, that a modern Broadway musical often combines richly poetic pop lyrics (such as Alanis Morissette’s) with music whose value and pleasurability is to be measured by the degree to which it makes one want to move one’s body with Dionysian vigor, roll one’s fist in the air, yell along with it or possibly all three.
I know lots of people get a genuine kick out of that kind of sonic assault. It hurts so good, and all power to them. It’s a kind of enjoyment deeply ensconced in the modern sensibility. I am not crusading against the genre of the rock concert, and I would never prescribe that its aesthetic “stay in its lane.” Broadway must come along to stay alive.
But I, for one, will be attending no more Broadway shows that are reputed to be that loud. I don’t need all shows to be “Grey Gardens” or “Caroline, or Change.” But musicals are my church, and church for me requires a certain relatability. And what I relate to most enthusiastically is that which embodies a concentrated effort beyond the usual, a refinement of the inevitable chaos and coarseness of normal existence, something with at least a spark of genius about it. Turning the volume up to 13 to make me clap hard is none of those things.
If that means I’m old, then despite my love of Looney Tunes and dinosaurs — not to mention jammy wines, thank you very much — I’ll just have to own it.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”