You, me, the music, and me.

Friday, November 04, 2005


MCA-6129 (1983)

I started reading Doonesbury when I was about 13 or 14 (shortly before this album came out); it wasn't carried in any of the newspapers I had access to at the time, so I relied on the paperback collections that came out once or twice a year. I've read it on and off for more than twenty years since and continue to marvel at how creator Garry Trudeau manages to combine a sophisticated, up-to-the-minute commentary on politics and world events with the development of characters as well-rounded and sympathetic as those to be found in most novels. Oh, yeah, and it's funny, too.

In January of 1983, Trudeau began a hiatus from the strip that would last until October of the following year. During this time, he wrote Doonesbury: A New Musical (with music by Elizabeth Swados). The story concerned the changes that took place in the lives of the characters after graduating college. These changes would be picked up in the strip when it resumed after Trudeau's hiatus, so the musical functioned as a link in the storyline.

Now, there are two biases to which I will admit having before I go any further; 1) I love Doonesbury, the comic strip, and 2) I hate musicals. Maybe "hate" is too strong a word, but they just don't do it for me. I love opera, I love "standards", I have nothing against the American song form, but the musical as art and/or entertainment does not speak to me. These two biases should be kept in mind by you, the reader, when I tell you that this album, despite its relation to one of the greatest comic strips of all time, is not very good. In fact, it's pretty awful. I bought it a few years ago at Loyalist City Coin and Collectibles in Saint John, N.B. for two or three dollars, took it home, played the first side, then filed it away. I have not listened to it again until tonight. In fact, I still haven't listened to the second side.

I think the problem is that Doonesbury is just not the kind of material that lends itself well to the Broadway musical treatment. The tone of the comic strip is usually sardonic (though rarely mean-spirited) and hip (though never condescending). When it comes to punch lines, Doonesbury goes for the knowing chuckle over the belly laugh. I just cannot picture any of the characters in the strip singing these upbeat, exuberant songs (or singing at all, for that matter). In fact, this musical is exactly the kind of thing that the strip delights in skewering through parody (if the whole thing was intended as an ironic joke, it's way too subtle).

It also doesn't help that the whole thing has the unmistakeable stench of the eighties; the synthesized chords at the beginning of the album sound like an outtake from the soundtrack of Revenge of the Nerds, and there's a rap song that sounds exactly like what your boss sounded like when he tried to rap at the office Christmas party last year. And I don't know which of the cast members listed is playing Duke (a character based on famed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson), but I guarantee you that if the real Duke heard him, he'd hunt the bastard down for misrepresentation.

As I recall, Doonesbury: A New Musical got pretty good reviews and wide acclaim when it came out, so I guess I don't know anything. Maybe my love for the strip could not overcome my issues with musicals. Or maybe it's just a fact that just because something works well in one medium doesn't necessarily mean it will translate to others.

(After I wrote all this, I finally broke down and listened to side two. Yep, it sucks too.)


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