Judging from the quotes posted outside the theater while this show was still running, one critic apparently called this “The best musical of the 2016-2017 season”, or something to that effect. Leaving aside the ridiculousness of that statement given what else came out during that theater year (this wasn’t even the sixth-best show of that season, for the record), it’s worth noting that despite that high praise, the show was still a fairly quick failure.
Granted, that’s been happening to a lot of good shows lately, the competition on Broadway being what it is right now—indeed, it happened to several other deserving shows that same season, including the Tony-nominated Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Groundhog Day. However, unlike those shows, the reason for Bandstand’s failure is fairly obvious: in spite of its many impressive qualities, it was essentially designed so that commercial success was impossible. While the somewhat misleading marketing emphasized the lively Swing music and admittedly superb choreography, the show itself is a bleak and brutally depressing piece about emotionally scarred World War II veterans.
This show is a clear example of the more extreme brand of post-Sondheim Avant-Garde, something that has been largely relegated to off-Broadway for the past few years: while Fun Home, representing the more accessible branch of the movement, was a genre-vindicating hit, it’s been quite a while since anything in the proverbial “Lachiusa vein” has actually made it to Broadway.
In fact, the score to this show is exactly what Michael John Lachiusa’s The Wild Party would have sounded like if Lachiusa had been able to write authentic Jazz. Based on a tense, edgy variant on the sounds of Forties Swing, it climaxed with one of the most disturbing numbers in recent Broadway history, “Welcome Home”, a bitterly sardonic litany of tragedies set to an enraged war cry.
Even the more accessible numbers, like the ballad “Love Will Come and Find Me Again”, tend to be emotionally downbeat and oddly dissonant for the period the show is set in. The definitive example of the show’s depressive spirit is “Everything Happens”, a song that offers the most despairing ‘philosophy of life’ message that I’ve heard expressed in a musical since Zorba.
This is in many ways a very impressive show, with excellent if slightly inaccessible music and absolutely superb dancing, but what it reminds me most of is Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. Granted, Bandstand has a significantly more satisfying ending than Parade, but like that show, it has gruesomely unpleasant subject matter and a depressing and discouraging story, and all the good music in the world can’t make an audience truly enjoy it. True, you could argue that it deals with an important issue in this era (the suffering of war veterans), but Parade believed it was calling attention to an important issue too: that didn’t mean anyone wanted to go see a musical about a lynching, and I doubt anyone particularly wants to see a musical about former soldiers dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder either.
This may just be a case of an artistically meritorious show whose only problem is that nobody wants to see it (that kind of thing has certainly happened before), and while the show’s excellent cast album will undoubtedly draw a cult following of theater fanatics who will bemoan its failure, that failure was not especially surprising, or, really, entirely undeserved.