Dick and Bill's Philadelphia Museum Adventure

Bill McLaughlin and Dick Hughes, two friends in their 80s, have toured all 203 museums in the Philadelphia area. The two began their museum beat as a distraction when McLaughlin's wife fell ill. They've documented their three years of museum hunting in "Travels with Dick and Bill," a guide published last month.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

For many people, musical theater means splashy Broadway spectacles, "Young Frankenstein" - isn't that Frankenstein - "The Little Mermaid," "Phantom of the Opera."

Jeff Lunden reports on a new crop of smaller, quirky musicals playing Off Broadway that just might redefine what a musical is.

JEFF LUNDEN: New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley reviews almost every show that opens on Broadway, but he frequently covers Off Broadway, as well. He says he's heartened by the spirit and daring of several shows he's seen recently.

Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Drama Critic, New York Times): There's an excitement about Off Broadway musicals that has certainly been lacking from specifically-made-for-Broadway shows in recent years.

(Soundbite of Musical, "The Slug Bearers of Kayroll Island")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): (As character) (Singing) (Unintelligible) New York City, non-stop to Kayroll Island. Excuse me while I say a prayer before we leave, our thanks on Swiss-cheese sandwiches and rye and cold bottled beer.

LUNDEN: Brantley fell in love with cartoonist Ben Katchor's new musical, "The Slug Bearers of Kayroll Island," or "The Friends of Dr. Rushower." Written with indie-rocker Mark Mulcahy, the show plays in the tiny, 120-seat Vineyard Theater. The set uses full-cover animated projections of Katchor's surreal, droll cartoons of urban angst. Brantley says it's almost like walking into a graphic novel.

Mr. BRANTLEY: The way it uses animation, the way it captures this dead-pan vision of a very singular cartoonist and even translates it into a dead-pan score, I was just thrilled by the cohesiveness of it, which you don't find as much in big musicals like "The Little Mermaid," where everything seems to be done by committee, and things don't really come together.

LUNDEN: Author Ben Katchor says he wasn't interested in following any hide-bound rules about what a musical is or isn't, like writing traditional songs with traditional rhymes.

Mr. BEN KATCHOR (Author, "The Slug Bearers of Kayroll Island"): 1930s Broadway musical music is like one tiny, narrow kind of music, rhymes, sentimental lyrics, that's been done, and it's - you know, if it's done really well, it can be great, but that's, you know, one option out of a million option.

LUNDEN: For instance, one of Katchor's characters is in love with the found poetry of instruction manuals for household appliances, so he sings them.

(Soundbite of musical, "The Slug Bearers of Kayroll Island")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2 (Singer): (As character) (Singing) For each cup of coffee being made, place one level measure in tablespoon of ground coffee into the filter. Close the filter basket, making sure it is securely snapped closed.

Mr. KATCHOR: I'm always amazed when people come to the show and say what kind of music is this? How can you do this in the theater? You're sort of sacrilegious. The church of the theater is being defaced.

(Soundbite of musical, "Next to Normal")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1 (Singer): (As character) (Singing) (Unintelligible) rushing at you, day by day by day by day. You don't know. You don't know what it's like to live that way, like a refugee, a fugitive forever on the run. If it gets me, it will kill me, but I don't know what I've done.

LUNDEN: That's from "Next to Normal," a new musical, which charts the devastating effects of a mother's bipolar disorder on her middle-class suburban family, and it tells it with a driving rock score. Critic Ben Brantley says he had mixed feelings about the show.

Mr. BRANTLEY: I was very moved by a lot of it, and a lot of the stuff was very pedestrian. I mean, it really is like "Ordinary People" meets the Who's "Tommy," which sounds like a strange offspring would result. It is a strange offspring, and yet it's doing something that no other musical is doing right now

(Soundbite of musical, "Next to Normal")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3 (Singer): (As character) (Singing) I am the one who hears you, and now you tell me that I won't give a damn. I know you know who I am…

LUNDEN: Tom Kitt composed the songs for this exploration of manic depression. Last season, he had the manic-depressive experience of composing music for "High Fidelity" on Broadway, which was a quick flop. He says in comparison, working Off Broadway is better for his mental health.

Mr. TOM KITT (Composer, "Next to Normal"): Off Broadway, you're left alone a little bit. You're not quite in the press as much. Everyone's eye isn't on your show, and its commercial viability, especially at a not-for-profit like Second Stage. So certainly after the experience of "High Fidelity," it was nice to be a little more under the rug.

LUNDEN: But in the past several years, many Off Broadway shows have made their way to Broadway, among them "Spring Awakening," "Avenue Q" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," all Tony Award winners and all commercial hits. Ben Brantley.

Mr. BRANTLEY: Broadway producers are a notoriously skittish lot, and they're looking for a sure thing, so they want something that's already proved its legs Off Broadway, so they're looking more and more.

(Soundbite of musical, "Adding Machine")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1 (Singer): (As character) (Singing) (Unintelligible).

LUNDEN: Down in Greenwich Village, "Adding Machine," a new chamber musical based on a play by Elmer Rice, has just opened to some very good reviews, but its bleak, uncompromising view of humanity and its symbolism - the main character is called Mister Zero - makes it anything but a slam dunk. Composer Josh Schmidt.

Mr. JOSH SCHMIDT (Composer, "Adding Machine"): When you go on a mission of adapting Elmer Rice's "Adding Machine" into a piece of music theater, you can't lie to yourself and say I'm going to write it like it's "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." You just don't.

(Soundbite of musical, "Adding Machine")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4 (Singer): (As character) (Singing) I killed him, and I want you to get it right. All of you, all of you, all you lawyers, what the hell are they talking about?

LUNDEN: Schmidt is aware that "Adding Machine" is not to everyone's taste, and indeed, Internet theater chat rooms are filled with heated posts debating the pros and cons of all three shows, but he says that's why their music-theater piece is off-Broadway.

Mr. SCHMIDT: Off-Broadway is a venue where people should be allowed to see things without having to pay huge Broadway prices, that they should be challenged. They should be able to sit and debate the likes or what they don't like about something.

LUNDEN: And New York Times critic Ben Brantley says that's the beauty of off-Broadway. The smaller size of the theaters and the budgets encourages artists to experiment and find their own voice.

Mr. BRANTLEY: When things are on a smaller scale, and when there is that handmade quality, you're aware of the individual signature. When something is blown up to Broadway proportions, the graininess that makes something individual sometimes gets lost, I think.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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