Monday, February 8, 2010

A Thought or Two about a Recent New York Times Article

The January 31 issue of the New York Times featured an article about the paring down of Broadway musicals to save money and its impact on the quality of the shows. The article, by Patrick Healy, starts with "you don't hear many audible gasps these days when the curtain rises." He goes on to talk about that reaction to such extravaganzas as Starlight Express, The King and I, and Miss Saigon. Then he (and the many people he interviewed) discusses the lack of success of such recent extravaganzas as Shrek and The Little Mermaid, and the mixed response to the production values of recent revivals of A Little Night Music, Bye Bye Birdie, Ragtime and Finian's Rainbow.

Later, he sites the success of Billy Elliot, which he says lacks extravagant scenery, but has the feel of spectacle - he is referring to the flying sequence where the stage is bare save for a chair and some fog. Of course, he forgets to mention that the flying apparatus is hugely expensive. He goes on to discuss the austerity of the kitchen set - it is small, I'll admit - but neglects to mention that it is at the bottom of a stories tall spiral staircase that leads to a bedroom that comes out of the floor several times during the show, or the fact that it cost a ton of money to deepen the entire subfloor of the Imperial Theatre stage by several feet just to accommodate it. I don't recall hearing anything of the sort happening over at the Broadway Theatre when they built the helicopter. Granted, they did raise the roof of the Winter Garden for Cats.

Then, one of the producers of Billy Elliot chimes in with, "what makes many musicals successful is the quality and emotional depth of a story, brilliantly conceived characters and the beauty of a show's music." Thank you, Captain Obvious. Can you think of one successful, classic show that doesn't have those qualities? And then brain trust Robert Longbottom (of Bye Bye Birdie revival infamy) admits that the scenery wasn't all that they hoped for with that show, and "you have to be creative." Take your own advice, Bobby. Wait! One of my favorite shows of all time, Side Show, had almost no scenery, and relied only on creative staging (including on again, off again Siamese twins), powerful music and amazing storytelling through magnetic performances. Mr. Longbottom directed that. It had a sadly short Broadway run, but is arguably one of the most popular musicals of the 1990’s. Short run aside, it is an amazing example of how far creativity, not spectacle, can take you.

I think there are a few things that people have missed here. One: a quality script, emotional draw and good casting will always trump scenery. Two: Spare doesn't always mean cheap. Ask the people at Chicago. One costume for each actor, some chairs and one glittery curtain. Arguably, that show is better - and without argument more successful - than its flashy original. Or how about next to normal? Three: Which is better - gasping at scenery or at the live performance you are watching unfold before you? I know people gasped several times at the "pared down" Sweeney Todd revival - I was one of them. The scenery never changed, and there were what? 10 people in it, and there wasn't anything really to watch aside from brilliant acting, singing and astonishing staging. Same thing for the Company revival. And four: there is a huge difference between pared down and cheap. A Little Night Music: spare scenery, brilliant acting and staging = pared down. Finian's Rainbow and Bye Bye Birdie: flimsy set, cheesy costumes and uninspired staging = cheap. To be fair, the best parts of both of the latter shows were the acting and chemistry between the leads.

Yes, big scenery makes you feel like you are seeing something special for your $136 dollars. Sometimes it is helpful - Wicked, for example, is transporting you to a fantastical, imaginary world. It is lavish and exciting to look at, but it is also creatively staged. But I would rather see a large, extraordinarily talented cast and full orchestra for my money than see spectacle that leaves me feeling empty. As one critic stated after seeing the horrific Young Frankenstein, "when the curtain opened, I felt like the show was vomiting money into the audience." I guess for every Spring Awakening there is a Pirate Queen.

Side note: touring companies: There again is a difference between cheap and quality. By very necessity, most shows need to rethink design before hitting the road. Beauty and the Beast , for example, was much less spectacular on the road than on Broadway. But the re-staging of some elements made it no less fun or moving. In fact, the touring production of Starlight Express was much shorter on glitz.  The costumes were in tact, but the set was completely black, with ramps and a bowl.  The race scenes started on the stage then resumed with Wide World of Sports style films of the races.  The result?  You focuesd on the characters and EVERYONE could see every second of the race.  It was exciting and fun.  During a touring stop of Wicked, the hydrolic lift that helps Elphaba defy gravity malfunctioned, and the show was staged with her on the ground surrounded by cowering Ozians. Yes, it would have been cool to see her 20 feet in the air, but I have never heard that song sung with such conviction before or since, and the audience reaction was the same as the curtain came down - thunderous applause and screams of "brava!" Then there is the tour of Legally Blonde

Healy ends his article hypothesizing about The Addams Family. You know, it is funny. Not one review of the pre-Broadway engagement discussed much about the scenery, but all of them offered suggestions on how to improve the show - work on the score, plot and the characters. And I can only speak for myself, but I want to see that show for the cast and the characters, which I love. But if, the day I see it, the fog machine stops or the house set doesn't do what it is supposed to, I'll be happy anyway, as long as the acting is great, the story is engaging, and the score is good.

The bottom line is: the Greeks, who started the whole thing, relied on the sun, a stone slab and a couple of masks. Those plays, centuries later, are still performed. A thousand years from now, will people even remember Ragtime, with (the original) or without (the revival) the scenery?

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