Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009 in Review: Trends in Theatre

Here is a look at some of the trends I've noticed over the past year in theatre, particularly the New York scene. As you will see, some trends started several seasons ago and continue, while others got their start just this year.

Please feel free to add your ideas and argue mine! Jeff


10. Embracing the non-traditional: OK, so by its very nature has a certain "non-traditional-ness" about it. I mean, really, dancing gangs? Cats that tell their life stories while vying for a place in Heaven? Anyway, I think embracing the non-traditional really started taking hold way back when Avenue Q took dirty puppetry and masturbation mainstream... or was it when Hairspray mixed the traditional format with highly non-traditional aspects - a man plays the mother, why? That same season, and for several performances later, audiences flocked to Movin' Out, a show that is sung by one and danced by many. The trend continued with such hits as The Drowsy Chaperone, Xanadu, Cry-Baby, and today with Rock of Ages. These days you often read about the "odd ball Tony nominee," that off-center show that tickles critics and gets nominated with a host of the more traditional. I guess that qualifies it as a trend.

9. The Internet: Again, this is not new news. What makes the Internet a continued trend in 2009 is in the statistics. In 2009, more people bought Broadway show tickets over the Internet than any other way, more people get their theatre news from the Internet than from newspapers or TV. And just look at the websites for shows! They range from the simple to navigate (A Little Night Music) to the complex (Disney Shows all-in-one, Mamma Mia!) and everything in between. And then there is this. I mean, here I am talking to you via a computer blog. Blogs, I don't think even existed 10 years ago.

8. Downsizing: From Broadway to Off-Broadway: It makes perfect economic sense. You've exhausted your mainstream Broadway audience with a medium production value, but huge critical hit. Lower off-Broadway costs means you can lower ticket prices and keep audiences coming. Why is this a trend in 2009? Because two Broadway shows have or are doing just this: Avenue Q and The 39 Steps. For these shows it makes sense; for Wicked, I doubt that day will come. But it also points out something most of us have known for years. The line between Broadway and off-Broadway has less to do with quality and only to do with the number of seats in a theatre. I suspect there are a lot of producers holding their breaths to see how this pans out.

7. Revivals: Balancing Cheap with Concept: Before the economic downturn, downsizing was the conceptual rage in the beginning of the new millennium, thanks in large part to a little show called Chicago. Several high profile shows went the paired down route to much acclaim, and deservedly so - Nine, Company and Sweeney Todd all seemed (to most critics and audiences) like completely fresh takes on classic gems. True, these four are textually rich enough to withstand and even invite re-conceptualization. But as both Finian's Rainbow and A Little Night Music have proven, not all that glitters is Wal-mart cheap. In the case of Rainbow, it looks cheap and is because it tried to stretch a Chicago-eque beginning into a fuller, more lavish evening with zero result. In the case of Night Music, the one universal pan of the critics was on the bare bones approach to its staging. Some shows, it seems require glitz and glamour in addition to a good cast, book and score. As we work our way out of this recession, I suspect producers and designers will continue to struggle with this.

6. Male-centric shows: I suppose this one goes back to Jersey Boys, mans men if there ever were any. But there are increasingly male-centered shows on the Great White Way, and none have approached the success of the Four Seasons show at the Wilson. Still, it is nice to see them try, finally recognizing that men can be emotional, funny subjects. The jury is still out on Memphis and Fela!, but shows like The Story of My Life, and from seasons past like High Fidelity met quick demises. And it can't all be Will Chase's fault! He is, after all, in a male-centric juggernaut, Billy Elliot, as we speak. And just look at A Steady Rain!

5. Backstage drama makes a comeback: Speaking of Jersey Boys, Billy Elliot and Memphis, as well as the incoming Million Dollar Quartet and the recently departed Dreamgirls, it seems Broadway loves a backstage story again. Except for Billy Elliot, we could narrow it down even more - backstage drama in the music business is the trend. I think we owe a bit of debt to the mothers of all backstage drama, Applause, 42nd Street, A Chorus Line and The Phantom of the Opera, for this trend. One hopes that the new kids on the block don't meet the fate of Buddy.

4. Turning a flop into a media event: We can trace this trend back to the never say die attitude of the creators of Chess, which this year made a comeback of sorts with a star-studded concert, PBS airing, DVD and CD release. Not bad for a show that ran 68 performances and 17 previews on Broadway. Still, that show has the clout of Tim Rice and a beloved score by ABBA's Benny and Bjorn. Plus, it is an international hit of sorts. More mystifying is the same lavish treatment being given to A Tale of Two Cities. It had marginal Broadway stars and a book and score by a novice. And yet, after only 33 previews and 60 performances, it got the star-studded concert, PBS airing, DVD and CD release this year as well. But perhaps the grand daddies of them all this year were The Story of My Life (19 previews, 5 performances), plus a book and a cast recording; and Glory Days (17 previews, 1 performance), plus a CD that generated two huge benefit cast signings in VA and NYC. To be fair, and having seen both shows, neither deserved the drubbing they got and both stand a great chance of being regional theatre staples.

3. The Economy: OK, I hate to blame everything on the economy, but, it does have its impact. Shows that might have held on longer - that got good reviews - were the economy more stable. Just look at Oleanna and Brighton Beach Memoirs. Then there are the shows that didn't make it in at all - Broadway Bound and Godspell (although it looks back on track, mostly due, I bet to the success of Hair), and the shows that skipped Broadway and opened off - Vanities. Still, it is hard to entirely blame the economy when Wicked, Jersey Boys and Billy Elliot continue to pack them in. And look at A Steady Rain.

2. Showtunes go mainstream: There was a time when show tunes were the mainstream. People often say, "not since Hair," but actually the last number one pop song that came from a cast recording was 1983-84's "One Night in Bangkok," from Chess. Anyway, with the advent of jukebox musicals, you can't turn on the radio without a "show tune" coming on, be it "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Uptown Girl," or "Danging Queen." But this year it really took off with one Susan Boyle heating up the charts with her "I Dreamed a Dream," Green Day turning two entire albums into a musical (will the new version of "21 Guns" get to number one?), and the top iTunes of the year coming from shows like Dreamgirls, Funny Girl and Cabaret... courtesy of this year's number one trend...

1. Bursting into song in TV: Lots of TV shows lately have tried musical episodes - from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Simpsons. But no show since the notorious Cop Rock have done so in every episode. That is until this year with Fox's mega-hit Glee. You'd have to be under a rock not to know about this show. And its impact on pop culture has been immediate - iTunes, number one albums... let's hope that the media doesn't over-expose this gem. And, I am safe in saying that a great deal of its success lays in the hands of its uber-talented cast, including Broadway's Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele and guests Kristin Chenoweth, Victor Garber, Debra Monk, John Lloyd Young and soon, Idina Menzel and Jonathan Groff.

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