Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Trends of the Decade: The Down-Sizing of Broadway

Broadway (and theatre in general) has a long history of the “Pendulum Swing”: first, one extreme, then the other, with a few constants thrown into the mix. The first decade of the 21st Century was no different with regards to this one trend: everything seems to be getting smaller.

Whether it is the size of the cast, the size of the orchestra, the size (or lack of) the scenery, the length of the run or even the length of the show, Broadway, like corporate America, has down-sized.

Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in
A Steady Rain

I suppose it was inevitable economically, as we toil through another bone-wearying national recession. Previously, there were just fewer shows during the lean times, but these days the number of shows remains a constant. It is the size of the show that has shrunken like a souvenir head on Bloody Mary’s cart. Fewer cast members and smaller sets which require fewer stage hands can drastically cut a producer’s budget. And when those fewer cast members are beloved film stars, producers can have their cake and eat it, too. It seems no matter how tight the theatre-goer purse is, there’s always room in it to shell out Premium prices to see Nathan and Matthew, Hugh and Daniel, or Denzel and Julia. And the extra bonus here is that 99% of the time, to get your star to play Broadway, you can make all of your money before the buzz dies down because you are forced into an urgent sounding “Limited Engagement! 16 weeks only!” run.

Artistically, this trend has its roots in the mid-90’s, when the pendulum was swinging rapidly away from the mega-musical 80’s, and people wanted to connect more with the people on the stage and not so much with the scenery. All it took was the mega-hit status of one Chicago to stimulate the less-is-more trend. That show, which continues to be a phenomenon, is the gold standard for down-sizing. Smaller company than the original, no scenery save for a glitter curtain and some black chairs, and a rotating cast of celebs who can come and go, come back again, and even tour the country. It is everything a producer dreams of: even at 70% capacity, the show is a money machine with low overhead, constant buzz and a name everyone in the country recognizes. Of course, there is a reason that this show continues to flourish and other imitators have failed, by and large: Chicago is timely and timeless; it has a fantastic book, even better songs and superb dancing and staging. Tourists looking for a big-Broadway show don’t even notice the lack of costumes (sexy!) or scenery. Razzle-dazzle, indeed.

So just how many ways has Broadway gotten smaller? Here are a few lists to ponder:

Sunday in the Park with George:
Art Isn't Easy - The scenery was projected!

  • Artistic Success makes it continue to be attractive if not lucrative: Sweeney Todd, Company, La Cage aux Folles (2010), Finian’s Rainbow, A Little Night Music, Spring Awakening. Smaller to medium casts, unit sets and unique staging.
  • Small Casts: From 1 person: I Am My Own Wife; 2 people: The Story of My Life, A Steady Rain, RED; 4 people: God of Carnage, Glory Days, [title of show], 6 people: next to normal, less than a dozen: Avenue Q, The 39 Steps, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Xanadu. All but two of these were critically acclaimed and more than half returned their investment.

Spelling Bee: S-M-A-L-L

  • Limited Runs with the Stars: Not a new reality show, but still a great source of fast, almost guaranteed profit: Fences, Three Days of Rain, A Steady Rain, A Behanding in Spokane, and many others. Of those 4, three made a significant profit.
  • Down-size your theatre: Avenue Q and The 39 Steps continue to thrive going in the opposite direction: from Broadway to Off-Broadway.
  • Shorten Your Show: Both The Lion King and Les Miserables shortened the length of their performances. Les Miz did it twice! Towards the end of its original run, the show trimmed several minutes so that it could reduce the cost of paying over time. Somewhere between the original, the continued London run, and the Broadway revival, the time was shortened again slightly, and the cast got a bit smaller, too.

Two Actors + 90 minutes + 16 weeks = RED in the Red

Xanadu: 9 muses played by 7 actors
(and 2 unsuspecting musicians in a 5-piece band)

  • Have a Short Show to Start With: Xanadu, Glory Days, The Story of My Life, A Steady Rain, Spelling Bee, God of Carnage, RED, Art, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?... all 2 hours or less, no intermission.
  • Make Your Actors Do Double-Duty: It was an artistic choice, born out of necessity. John Doyle wanted to do bigger shows in his native England, but the cost of an orchestra was prohibitive. His resolution to the problem? Make the actors play the instruments, too! And so we have had two excellently re-envisioned masterpieces where the orchestrations took their place right up there with the casts of Sweeney Todd and Company.

The Actor-Musicians of Sweeney Todd

Les Cagelles in the Menier Chocolate Factory
production of La Cage aux Folles

  • Have a Producing Company Whose Mission is to Do It Small No Matter What: 3 words: Menier Chocolate Factory. 3 shows: Sunday in the Park with George, La Cage aux Folles and A Little Night Music. Say what you want about each show individually, but there is no mistaking that their less-is-more approach begs creatives to be just that: creative.

From the 2003 Broadway Strike

  • And one particularly troubling trend-within-a-trend: Smaller Orchestras. While the notion of shows like Sweeney Todd and Company are interesting and artistically sound, I think we can say that these are exceptions to the rule. (As it is, the casts were required to join the musician’s union.) A strike by Broadway musicians in 2003 had the effect of guaranteeing minimum sized orchestras per theatre, which was a definite victory for the union, but also, I think, for the theatre going public. The increased popularity of such computerized machines as the Receptor and others like it which create a virtual orchestra sound good, but they are not even close to the real thing. Current shows like American Idiot and next to normal are more rock oriented and are orchestrated purposely for fewer instruments. But older shows - the current La Cage aux Folles, in my opinion - suffer at the hands of a smaller orchestra. And the recent pink-slipping of 5 violinists at West Side Story have stirred this volatile subject up yet again. Just think how a smaller orchestra would have hurt the recent South Pacific revival.

The bottom line is that there will always be an audience for truly quality shows no matter who is in them or how big it is. Quality is the key. And while the “big Broadway musical” will probably never fall out of favor - it is still what most of the world expects, especially at “these outrageous ticket prices.” But you know down-sizing has left its mark when the press materials for the upcoming Roundabout Theatre Company production of Anything Goes make a point to let everyone know that it will be a full-scale, large cast production. Take that, Chocolate Factory!

This is the final blog in my series about the Trends in Theatre: The First Decade of the 21st Century.  Click on the tab at the top of the page to see the full list of blogs and links to them.

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