Thursday, June 17, 2010

The American Theatre in the New Millennium OR Kill Yr. Idols

There exist, generally speaking, three different visions of Broadway in the minds of the American populace at large. First, there are the die-hard red-staters, the NASCAR-loving, Sarah Palin-quoting, gun rack in truck-having, Democrat-hating "patriots" who consider theatre in general--and Broadway specifically--to be the fancy pastime of the effeminate liberals who are responsible for despoiling this once great nation. These people can be dismissed out of hand, both because they are insane and because they do not currently nor will they ever have any effect on shaping America's theatrical traditions.

Having eliminated the irrelevant, we may now turn to two equally dangerous views of the entity known as Broadway. First, there is the old guard, who cling to the anachronistic view of Broadway as the gold standard for cultural excellence. These people think of New York's streets as home to gilt theatres with marble floors that produce works of wondrous majesty and artistic integrity. They think of the world of Rodgers and Hart, David Merrick, men dressing in tuxedos and women in gowns for opening night. They lament the tangible erosion of class that Broadway has undergone in the past thirty or so years and long for the days when going to a Broadway play was a true event.

Opposite these staunch traditionalists is a lazily rebellious group that view Broadway as a sort of cultural artifact, sort of like Colonial Williamsburg or an Amish community, i.e. something to see just for the sake of being able to check it off the list. It's a nice way to spend an afternoon or evening on vacation or if you live in the city and can score a cheap ticket. They see Broadway (and pretty much everything, I'd guess) with a sort of detached neutrality: it's neither good nor bad, it just is.

Obviously, both of these views degrade the American theatre in the importance they place on it. The former group fetishize theatre as an event, negating the content of the piece. They want theatre to exist as some sort of beacon of class and dignity which inspires merely in its formal (as opposed to casual) elegance. As a result, the mere existence of something that could be termed "beautiful" becomes a success, throwing actual metrics for quality out the window. The latter negate any meaning that theatre might have because they see it as just another product to be consumed. With a casual cynicism and basic utilitarianism, they preclude any necessity for meaning since a Broadway show is nothing more than a collector's item.

Viewing theatre only in terms of Broadway, it's hard to see any flaw in this logic. The majority of Broadway houses are run by for-profit organizations. Looking at this in a cost-benefit sense, theatre is just another entertainment choice that one has--and it's also the most expensive. Most Broadway tickets run between 60 and 130 dollars. That's equivalent to one month of cable television, two really good concerts, or six movies on the low end. Thus, a show has to be pretty likely to recoup its expenses to even have a shot at getting produced on the Great White Way. In order to maximize the likelihood of making their money back, producers can (and usually do) take the following steps:

1) Small casts. Fewer people onstage=fewer people to pay.
2) Related to above, small sets/crews.
3) For a musical, smaller orchestras. (Which often greatly handicaps the show).
4) Most disturbingly, name recognition. In order to enjoy a healthy run, a show will have to appeal to the devoted theatre-going crowd in New York as well as tourists. There are two ways to maximize a title's visibility: mounting revivals or converting well-known movies into Broadway shows.
5) Related to above, casting movie stars to draw in more viewers.

This is not to say that a production team is doomed to failure; in fact, one of the hallmarks of a great genius is to work well within the confines of a rigid structure. To wit, the recent remount of South Pacific garnered rave reviews and is embarking on a promising national tour. More often, however, this results in tired retreads starring people who have taken to the stage because of a gap in their filming schedules. Broadway is currently little more than a product designed to capitalize on tourist dollars rather than the artistic pinnacle of the American theatre.

The reasons for this are complex and extensive and I will only briefly address them here. To grossly oversimplify, film precluded the cultural necessity for an American theatre. Just as the country was expanding to its current size and throwing off the chains of British cultural and literary supremacy to develop a unique artistic voice in the theatre, film arrived to develop as a parallel to theatre. Ultimately, though, film would replace theatre since it's possible to mass produce and mass market a film in a way that is more financially lucrative. While theatre--with Broadway leading the way--held on valiantly for half a century, film--and later television--ultimately came to the fore. Musicals and plays, once cultural leaders and bastions of some of the greatest American writers (O'Neill, Williams, Wilder, &c.), became followers. Rather than emphasize the things that make theatre a unique cultural experience, Broadway folded its hand and fell in line behind film, becoming merely a (highly lucrative, if you know the right people) cash cow.

If you need any extra evidence of this, last Sunday's Tony Awards served as a dismal reminder of the state of America's most visible theatrical center. Of the eight acting awards, four went to actors better known for their film careers (including a baffling win for Scarlett Johannson over Jan Maxwell) and one went to a former fashion model whose acting skill is questionable at best (Eddie Redmayne). The award for Best Play went to Red, a mediocre and very talky drama by a screenwriter and the award for Best Musical went to an asinine travesty written by the keyboard player from Bon Jovi. I am always leery of awards as an indicator of excellence, but this is ridiculous. Acting-wise, it looks like a shameless pitch to try to lure more movie stars to New York for a few months. The field for new plays that can succeed on Broadway looks bleak at best. So what are we to do?

1) Disregard Broadway. The most interesting American plays of the next generation will be produced by smaller companies and regional theatres.

2) Disregard film and television. Don't follow, lead! Rediscover what made American theatre great in the last century while creating new modes of artistic expression. Emphasize the uniqueness of theatre.

3) Politicize the theatre. All art is propaganda! Embrace this fully--regardless of your personal politics--and allow that to drive meaning. Think Brecht! (He's kiiiind of an American...)

4) One of the smartest things I was ever told is that the joy is in the work. Too many people become theatre artists because they want to be famous with their name in lights. Anyone who starts a career so that they can be on Glee or serve as Patti LuPone's understudy is a dilettante and a fool. Avoid these people. They will poison your ability to work and destroy your faith in the medium. You become an artist because you believe in the transformative power of art, not because you want people to adore you. The best art--even if it isn't beautiful--betrays some sense of joy from the artist.

5) Embrace change! Theatre must evolve or die, like everything. Move forward--avoid stagnation.

6) Remember the past. Without knowing where theatre is coming from, it's impossible to know where it should go. These two seem contradictory but actually are complementary.

It is possible for theatre to regain a cultural relevance on par with film. It is too powerful a medium not to do just that. But the first step toward that reclamation is a rejection of art-as-product, a decentralization that elevates regional and repertory theatres and smaller, ensemble-based theatre companies above the ersatz prestige and assumed superiority of Broadway, and an altruistic desire to elevate our art form. Once the artists and patrons agree that the emperor has no clothes, we can engage each other in an honest way.

In closing, the commercial theatre of New York is an insult to both artists and the audience. It mistakes money for quality, visibility for acclaim. These producers offer nothing of any merit but demand exorbitant fees to see disinterested movie stars on half-baked sets. We must all reject their collective arrogance and aggressive mediocrity. Artists desire to create better work, the kind that our audiences deserve. Let's make it possible for that to happen.


Haas said...

Right ooooooon.

sarah said...

For the most part I agree with you and echo the Rock On sentiment. However, I think you are over romanticizing theater of the past and current off Broadway Theater. While I agree that interesting and provocative work comes out of smaller theaters it is also possible that unimaginative, poorly acted and emotionally manipulative theater comes out of these venues as well. Broadway has always played to the popular audience, while still (at times) challenging its audience (Cabaret, Showboat, dare I say Spring Awakening…). Theater that is entertaining and catchy is not necessarily less valuable than the avant-garde and oftentimes inaccessible. Theater is interaction between the writers, directors, actors and necessarily, the audience. When we as lovers of the arts demean popular theater we undermine ourselves. That is not to say that we should not be critical but only that we shouldn’t devalue the role and necessity of Big Bad Broadway.

Yes, Hollywood’s Broadway presence is startling but it is really no different from the Broadway Star of yesterday. Stephen Sondheim wrote for Bernadette Peters, Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury. The star was often a necessary part of some Broadway productions. No one would argue that Gypsy is trite or cookie cutter and yet Mama Rose has been played by three of Broadway’s most well known divas.

I propose that the relationship between these theaters is a symbiotic one. Big Broadway shows and concept musicals in Brooklyn can peacefully coexist. They are not competing for the same audiences and there is no reason they should seek to devalue one another. Broadway theaters with big budgets and obscure theaters with small budgets are necessary to one another. There would be no small theaters if there was no Broadway and there would be no Broadway without the innovations of independent artists taking place in the small theater that doesn’t depend on public approval. Every actor in an ensemble heard of Phantom of the Opera before they saw The Skin of Our Teeth.

There have always been and there always will be “Wicked”’s and “Legally Blonde’s” of theater. We don’t all have to like them but it is pretentious and unappreciative to devalue the talent and energy of the artists in these productions. Art should be provocative and transformative but this doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. There wouldn't be big shows if there wasn't an audience to support them. It is important to remember this.