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Broadway Shows Get the Point! Again!


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“Hello, Dolly.”



Those titles don’t look quite right, do they? They’re missing a certain…something. They’re talking when they should be shouting or exclaiming or…

That’s it!

For decades, Broadway musicals used exclamation points in their titles liberally and unironically. Everyone from Irving Berlin to George Gershwin had them, sometimes multiple times in the same show. (Jerome Kern wrote the 1918 show “Oh, Lady! Lady!!”, a title that raises a whole other question about the use of commas.) The exclamation points promised fizz, excitement, laughs. The difference between “Drat! The Cat!” and “Drat. The Cat.” is enormous. Enormous! (See?)

Even before “Oklahoma!” acquired a title song — and a new name to go with it — it was called “Away We Go!” But then Broadway got serious. And away the exclamation points went, at least for a while.

The musical theater historian Laurence Maslon charts the waning of the exclamation point to the style of serious musical theater exemplified by the director Harold Prince and the composer Stephen Sondheim.

“By the late 1960s,” Mr. Maslon said, such effusive punctuation “became shorthand for a title promising a sort of excitement that the material itself didn’t provide.”

As weightier works took over the Broadway landscape in the 1970s and 1980s, pop culture rushed in to fill the void in the form of fake titles, usually with a healthy dose of snark. New musicals ending with the once obligatory punctuation mark could be found not in Playbills but in “The Simpsons” (“Oh, Streetcar!”) and “Friends” (“Freud!”). F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous admonition — “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke”— rang more and more true.

“At this point, I can’t imagine any straight-faced musical using one,” said Mr. Maslon. “Either it’s intentionally self-referential and not meant to be seriously, or it’s coming from a more jejune sensibility and doesn’t care.” In the first four years of the 2010s, only a single musical out of more than three dozen — “Baby, It’s You!” — had one. And that played less than six months.

But wait!

In just the last year, that number has tripled, with “On Your Feet!” and “Disaster!” joining “Something Rotten!” on Broadway. Not to be outdone, NBC has taken old titles and added exclamation points on its broadcasts of “The Sound of Music Live!” and “Peter Pan Live!”

For some creators who grew up during those exclamatory lean years, the shift has come with some trepidation.

“We felt using it was, as they would say in England, ‘a bit naff,’” said Karey Kirkpatrick, who helped kick off this resurgence in March 2015 with “Something Rotten!,” about two Elizabethan playwrights trying to do William Shakespeare one better and stage a musical. “But Kevin was absolutely adamant that it had to be there.”

He was referring to the “Something Rotten!” producer Kevin McCollum, who consistently lobbied for the exclamation point even when the show had the more innocuous title “The Bottom Brothers.”

“‘Something Rotten’ with a period could be an editorial statement, and not a positive one,” said Mr. McCollum, who implored audiences to “embrace the exclamation point” in print advertisements last spring. “With an exclamation mark, it becomes fun. And what better way to treat a show about making the world’s first musical comedy?”

(He had some corroboration from the medieval scribes who were copying away a few centuries before the Elizabethan shenanigans in “Something Rotten!” It is believed that these copyists put the Latin word “io,” or “hurray,” at the end of some sentences to convey delight. Eventually, the theory goes, the “o” ended up underneath the “I” and in shrunken form.)

Seth Rudetsky, the co-creator as well as co-star of the campy 1970s spoof “Disaster!,” has taken a similarly enthusiastic approach to the title. A recent show brochure had nearly a dozen exclamation points, including after the names of each principal cast member. (“Roger Bart! Kerry Butler!”)

“I don’t think ‘Disaster!’ works without it,” Mr. Rudetsky said. “It has to be heightened.”

However, he takes pains to distance himself from the elbow-to-the-ribs mentality that the exclamation point has come to symbolize. “‘Disaster!’ is a very silly show, but not in that way which says ‘Broadway’ in quotes, which I can’t stand,” he said. “Roger Bart has sharks living on his arms by the end of the show, but he plays it like it’s real. Sort of.”

Even with their barrage of insider musical theater gags in “Something Rotten!,” the creative team stresses that their goals are not to mock but to praise.

“Ours is not winking,” Mr. McCollum said. “This is not part of the Letterman-ization of entertainment.”

Of these three shows, by far the least ironic is “On Your Feet!,” which follows the joint careers of the singer-songwriters Gloria and Emilio Estefan. The title, while based on one of Ms. Estefan’s hit singles, takes liberties on both ends: The song was actually called “Get on Your Feet,” with no exclamation point.

And when the Estefans began to develop a musical for Las Vegas about a decade ago, the planned title was an unadorned “On Your Feet.” Finally, though, they opted to turn it into less of a suggestion and more of a command.

“These are our marching orders,” Ms. Estefan said with a laugh. “Hey, I grew up in a military family.”

In this era of emoji-laden texts and tweets, of course, exclamation points are the coin of the realm. Both Mr. Rudetsky and Ms. Estefan said they struggle to keep their usage under control in their day-to-day life.

And as Mr. Kirkpatrick pointed out, “Something Rotten!” may have set a trend well beyond Times Square: “The first time I saw Jeb Bush’s campaign logo, we said, ‘Hey, they stole our exclamation point!’”

Source: New York Times

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