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.
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…
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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