Saturday, November 6, 2010

RANT: Great Expectations, Great Disappointments

Before I launch into this opinion blog, let me say from the start that I don't deny anyone's right to say what they think or to hold an opinion different from mine.  In fact, some of the best discussions on any topic I've had has been the result of differing ideas.

Back in the early 80's, when I was in high school, things were kinda tough for my family.  Dad was just getting back to work after over a year of unemployment, and it was rough making ends meet.  Needless to say, going to see a Broadway show was very far down this list of what to do with money.  Of course, that did not deter my desire to go.

Great Expectations.  Massive disappointement.

Anyway, it was around this time that all of the kids in my high school drama department were going down to the big city to see this huge media phenomenon that was a Broadway show...Cats.  It seemed like every Monday afternoon rehearsal started with a discussion of the show: it was spectacular, the people looked like cats, the set was amazing, the cats came out in the audience, the garbage was people sized, the tire floated up to the ceiling, Terrence Mann was hot, Betty Buckley was the best singer ever, blah blah blah.  Each week, more and more kids had on their Cats t-shirts, dancer-cat eyes staring back at me like, "why haven't YOU been to see the show yet?"  At 16, and already unsure about myself, this was just one more thing that made me feel like an outcast in a room full of them.

Well, finally, for Christmas, I got to see the show everyone else had raved about.  I had memorized BOTH record albums of the Original Broadway Cast Recording.  I had clipped out every news article I could find, and I even had the Newsweek issue that had the cast on the cover.  I was fully prepared to be initiated and consumed like all of my friends were.  We got to the theatre, and took our seats - front row center mezzanine!  And I looked down at the set that I had seen so many times in pictures.  It was a lot smaller than I thought it would be.  And right in front of me was a can of some brand of tomato paste, huge, but so dirty that someone who had been there before me wrote in the dust, "clean me, please!"  Hmmm...

The show started and I leaned forward in anticipation.  The overture sounded exactly like the record, so I was happy.  And the cats came out and crawled all over us, pretty cool!  Terrence Mann was all a-swagger as Rum Tum Tugger, and the cats dressed as dogs was fun... but man, that opera number was way longer than on the record.  And, wow, this is repetitive, one cat tells his or her story over and over.  And Betty Buckley's voice cracked during the act one version of "Memory."  Act two was more of the same, except that this time Betty's voice didn't crack, but she still sounded better on the record.

Terrence Mann and Betty Buckley:
Original Cats Members

"Well?" my mother asked when I got home.  "Was it like everything all the kids said it was?"  In fact, it was.  Down to the tiniest detail they described every moment perfectly.  And yet, I was so disappointed, I could barely keep from crying.  In retrospect, and after seeing that show probably 10 more times and loving it more than the first time, I realized that I was disappointed because I had such high expectations that there was no way I would have been happy.  The big difference was that as my friends were telling of their adventure at the Winter Garden; their excitement was from brand new discovery.  By the time I got to it, all I saw was everyone else's experiences.

If nothing else, Cats taught me one of the most valuable lessons I've learned from theatre-going: the more you expect, the greater chance you will be disappointed.  And that has been true, over and over and over.  I have written on here many times about going into a show trying hard not to know too much about it.  And a great percentage of the time, I have found that the less I know, the better I like a show.  Because I am seeing it as fresh for me as possible, it becomes MY experience.  And isn't that the great thing about live theatre?  It is happening now and just for me?

Back in the Cats days, you knew a show was huge because the whole country was talking about it.  Now, with the Internet, 24-hour news, and chat rooms and blogs, etc. it is almost impossible not to get caught up in the "of the moment" blizzard of opinion and very little fact.  No matter where a show opens now, people have already made their feelings known well before a final version is being presented. (Leap of Faith, anyone?) Hell, people pass judgement before a single performance has been held these days. (Spider-Man, anyone?) And that is sad.

Enjoyed it!

And so, this week, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown opened to the expected negative reviews.  Now, before I go on, let me say that I saw the second preview, and a lot has been changed.  But even that early on, I found that there was so much to enjoy.  Sure, it still needed work.  But I bought a ticket to a preview knowing just that.  I bought a full price ticket knowing that.  I knew that the show could be an un-Godly mess or it could be the second coming of Gypsy.  But I CHOSE to do just that.  Granted, I thought I'd be seeing a later preview, but a preview nonetheless.  And so it beyond irks me to hear people grousing over the fact that they paid full-price for an unfinished production.  Yes, I think it ballsy to charge that much for a preview.  But like me, every single person who bitched about that very thing made the same choices I did.  They did not HAVE to pay full-price, nor did they HAVE to see a preview.  OK, maybe a few out-of-towners who could only go then did.  And even they HAD to see Patti, Sherie Rene and Laura.  Well, they did.  And even if they saw the second preview like I did, they got to see three amazing actresses working at their craft - they knew their lines and blocking, they had characters.  So to say they didn't get what they paid for is ludicrous.

No, what happened was they (and everyone else in the world, it seems) had great expectations for the show.  Make that unrealistic expectations.  Sure the show is full of Tony winners and nominees, written and directed by professionals of the same caliber.  And it seems like a natural, if misguided, assumption that with all of that talent, you'd think the show would be better.  Maybe so.  But maybe the combination itself didn't work.  Or maybe, and very likely, the pre-show press (including chat rooms, blogs, etc.) clouded the judgement of the critics.  If you think they don't read all of this stuff, you are in need of a reality check.  See the DVD Show Business and marvel at the MAJOR critics who sat around a table to Joe Allen's or some eatery and went down the list of shows opening in 2003-2004, TALKING "BUZZ" and DECIDING WHICH SHOWS THEY WERE GOING LIKE AND NOT LIKE before attending a single performance of any of them!

If you go into a show "knowing" that Sheri Rene Scott's character is a dull, sad woman, with all the crazy happening around her, and that she comes across as boring, that is what you are going to see.  If you go in "knowing" that Laura Benanti is a hot ball of fun, with the best song in the show, then you'll see that she is the funniest one on stage with the funniest song.  (Or conversely, if you are a fan of the message boards at Broadway, you "know" that she is mugging and over-acting, then that's what you will see.)  As a patron of the second preview, I saw that Sherie Rene's character was the serious one, but that she was clearly in command of the role and offered a nice counterpoint to the rest.  I said as I was leaving the theatre that Laura Benanti will be Tony nominated and might even win.  She was zany, crazy and very much in control.  I stand by my feelings on this.  I also told my companions that it was a real thrill to see Patti LuPone working on a role that was not totally complete yet.  Her act two "Invisible" was an exercise in watching an actor's process.  Yes, there were a lot of things that needed work (see my blog on that HERE).  And I look forward to seeing what they did with it.

My point is that I saw a very different Verge than most people did.  And mainly because I went in virtually clutter-free, able to make up my own mind.  The discoveries were all mine, and I loved it.  Even knowing what I know now about what has actually transpired, I wouldn't have changed the experience for all the tea in China.  Now, when I go back, and I will, I know that what is in front of me is what the entire company thought was the very best they could do with the material they had to work with.  And I will feel free to express my continued joy or my disappointment that they didn't do everything they could have.

Loved, TarzanLes Miz, not so much.

And so, let me close with these two thoughts.  First, any experience with live theatre is a worthwhile one.  If a show is great, you'll have wonderful memories to last a lifetime.  If it isn't, you can pick out what you did like, revel in that, and appreciate the great ones even more.  And second, even if every other person in the world loved it or hated it, you may feel just the opposite.  Everyone loved Phantom and Les Miserables, and the current revival of La Cage aux Folles which for me range from "I really don't care for at all" to "it was decent but not as great as everyone says."  And everyone I know hated Tarzan, but I loved every minute of it. 

Some, heck, most, of my really favorite shows are those that I had ZERO expectations of - Beauty and the Beast, Blood Brothers, Grind, Smile, The Story of My Life, Spring Awakening, RENT, In the Heights, next to normal.  Of them, there were many more flops than hits in 25 plus years of going to shows.  This season, I have no or low expectations for Sister Act, Wonderland and The Book of Mormon.  I bet you I'll end up loving at least one of them WAY more than I ever thought possible.


By the way, I'm going to see Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, in what (as of today) will be its 8th preview.  If it doesn't delay again, I am still OK with that.  I knew what I was getting into when I bought a preview ticket.  And try as I might not to have any expectations, I have many.  I expect to be thrilled by the flying, flabbergasted at the staging, and love the story of my favorite comic book hero.  No matter what, love it or hate it, I already know I'll get my money's worth because watching art happen live in front of you is a winner every single time.

Let me have it by leaving your comments here, by emailing me at, or by Tweeting me.


  1. I couldn't have said it better. The problem is that these "experts" we read on the chat boards go in expecting a show to be the next Showboat, Oklahoma or Gypsy. People don't know how to just go in to be entertained anymore, it seems.

    When I saw Women On the Verge, I thought it was a lot of fun. Sure some things needed to be fixed but, that's part of the fun of previews. If you want to see a finished product, wait until about a month after opening night.

  2. I'm definitely an information junkie so it's hard to stay away from twitter and the message boards, especially since I don't get to New York that often. I need to get my Broadway fix somehow! ;-)

    But I will admit that it makes a difference when you know less about a show. I saw a play yesterday, Mauritius, that had a short Broadway run a few years ago but I'd forgotten the reviews and only knew the basic outline of the story. And it was so suspenseful!

    I think my expectations were definitely too high for Ragtime. I felt unmoved by it compared with everyone else. I don't know, maybe it's because I'd heard so much about the original production that I expected to be blown away. I saw an early preview, which may have been part of it, too.

    When I go to New York, I'm on vacation, away from the responsibilities of daily life. I love going to Broadway. I always have a good time, even if I don't always love the show.

  3. Funny you should mention Ragtime. I am probably the only person who did not like the original production. I found it over done and tedious. It was like getting on The Carousel of Progress and The Hall of Presidents at Disney World and not being allowed to get off the ride. Definitely a case of exprctations not being met. I think it says a lot about a show when the cast recording and a copy of the souvenir program are the best things about the production!

    And while I hate it myself, I, too am a bit of a media junkie...



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