In the second act of “Mean Girls” on Broadway, something oddly familiar happens. Damian, the “almost too gay to function” drama nerd, sings a song called “Stop,” advising other high school students against impulsive choices like trolling and tattoos. Then he sells his message with a big tap number, the only one in the show.
What’s familiar about this has nothing to do with the 2004 movie from which the musical is adapted. It is oddly familiar only if you notice its similarity to numbers in otherwise dissimilar shows. How dissimilar? How about “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical,” based on the popular cartoon, and “Escape to Margaritaville,” the laid-back musical made out of Jimmy Buffett songs?
All these shows, believe it or not, have tap numbers that resemble one another, above all in tone. The fact, for example, that Damian is tapping and inspiring others to tap is treated as at once absurd and worthy of an ovation. “What could be more ridiculous?” the number seems to say, while at the same time insisting, “Isn’t it fabulous?!” This is “a big tap number,” in quotation marks, and a symptom of what tap has come to mean on Broadway.
At first, the trend might seem to be just another case of everybody imitating the popular kid. As Ben Brantley noted in his review of “Mean Girls” in The New York Times, Casey Nicholaw, who choreographed and directed the show, borrows in “Stop” from the 2011 megahit “The Book of Mormon.” So, it seems, do the choreographers of “SpongeBob” (Christopher Gattelli) and “Margaritaville” (Kelly Devine).
Anyone who remembers “Turn It Off” in “Mormon” can catch the resemblance. In that number, Elder McKinley, a missionary in Africa, teaches the “nifty little Mormon trick” of repressing unwanted feelings by turning them off “like a light switch.” His lesson escalates into a campy tap routine, with funny title-punning blackouts during the traditional breaks in the music.
Even putting aside the similarities of song structure and the fact that Grey Henson, the actor who plays Damian, has also played Elder McKinley, “Stop” is a remarkably close copy, down to its use of musical breaks to pun on its own title refrain. The numbers in “SpongeBob” and “Margaritaville” steal a different signature element from “Turn It Off”: a midroutine costume change into sparkly outfits. But they all have the implied quotation marks, the ridiculous-fabulous tone.
Since Mr. Nicholaw also choreographed and directed “Mormon,” you might argue it’s his prerogative to repeat his own choreographic ideas. But what is it about “Turn It Off” that particularly appeals to him and the other choreographers?
It isn’t the expressive range of tap. All three of the new numbers share a severely limited tap vocabulary, the same few steps fixed in the same rhythms and accentuations, like guidebook phrases memorized by a tourist. As a tap aficionado, I find this irritating and consider the kicklines in “SpongeBob” and “Margaritaville” to be cop-outs.
But to complain about insufficient originality is almost to miss the point. Tap isn’t being used as a dance language here, much less as music. It’s being used as a sparkly outfit, and as a symbol of Broadway’s past.
These numbers are fantasies. Two of the new ones are hallucinations. In “Margaritaville,” Brick, a sweet and doofy sidekick plagued by acid flashbacks, learns that he can control his visions. Announcing that he always wanted to be in a tap number, he makes the dead insurance salesmen in his mind join him, tapping on tiny suitcases. The ridiculousness of the premise underlines the joke of putting a tap number in a Jimmy Buffett musical, a joke that depends on common assumptions about Broadway and tap.
Tap, in this view, is a dance that people used to do on Broadway and that only nostalgists or drama nerds do any more. In the TV series “SpongeBob,” Squidward, the hero’s misanthropic neighbor, does stretchy “interpretive dance” (he’s an octopus), which in pop-culture shorthand means he’s pretentious, just as the clarinet he plays means he’s a dork. On Broadway, he taps.
Throughout the show, Squidward keeps getting interrupted in his attempts to display his talents. Eventually, he daydreams a tap number for himself, backed by a chorus line of sea anemones. Gavin Lee, the actor who portrays him, wears an extra set of legs and shoes, but this results more in comic tangling than doubling of rhythm. He still plays clarinet, and the combination of that and tap seems intended to make the assertion of his song, “I’m Not a Loser,” sound comic-pathetic.
How did we get here? On the stage of the Palace Theater, where “SpongeBob” is playing, tap acts were once the norm. Back then, in the first half of the 20th century, it was ballet that required fantasy sequences to seem plausible in a musical. But dream ballets (like the one in the current revival of “Carousel”) crowded out tap in the 1940s.
By the 1970s, tap seemed passé and out of place in musicals, unless someone like Bob Fosse used it as a symbol of razzle-dazzle, insincere and corrupt. Since then, except for incursions by Gregory Hines and Savion Glover, who temporarily reconnected tap on Broadway both with its African-American roots and with contemporary coolness, tap in musicals has been almost exclusively a period dance.
Somewhere along the line, too, hackneyed tap got tangled in the popular imagination with stereotypes of homosexuality. (Maybe with “A Chorus Line,” and its sparkly-outfit fantasy. Also see Mr. Gattelli’s franker, funnier “No Dames” tap number in the 2016 Coen Brothers film “Hail, Caesar!”) For all these reasons, “Mormon” could use tap with a winking sense of irony. Elder McKinley confesses to the homosexual feelings that he’s explaining how to suppress, and when he taps in sequins, we’re meant to see that suppression as futile.
Like many things about “Mormon,” the number manages to spoof Broadway conventions while indulging in them lovingly. This nifty little trick is what the new numbers are trying to copy, I think. All three of the musicals in which they appear — each an adaptation from a different pop-culture sphere — are at least a little ambivalent about being musicals. Even after “Hamilton” and “Glee,” musicals have to worry, like high school students, about being uncool.
By having a supporting character, some sort of misfit (perhaps gay — the sexual orientation of Squidward has long been a subject of internet debate) do a boilerplate tap number, a choreographer can give the audience a little old-time Broadway without risking ridicule by straightforwardly expressing devotion to show tunes and time steps. Especially if the number is presented in quotation marks or as fantasy, or both.
In one sense, it works. At the performances I attended, audiences roared in approval, seemingly happy to show some love to an underdog and maybe to an idea of what Broadway used to be. (Mr. Nicholaw and Mr. Gatelli have been nominated for Tony Awards, as have Mr. Henson and Mr. Lee.)
But the creativity in these shows isn’t in the tap numbers, which aren’t good enough to be good or bad enough to be enjoyed as camp. The ambivalent satire of “Turn It Off” has weakened into a gimmick, a crutch, a dodge. This don’t-take-it-seriously attitude certainly isn’t good for tap in Broadway musicals, but it’s probably not great for Broadway musicals period. Maybe this trend should stop.
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