Friday, November 8, 2013

Great Expectations... Greater Disappointment (Usually)

Does The Book of Mormon live up to the hype for most
audience members?
These days, with the advent of chat rooms, message boards and tell-all blogs, it is almost impossible to avoid Broadway show hype - good or bad, positive or negative, existent or (horribly for some shows) not.  Back in the day, as they say, the whole hype machine/word-of-mouth thing took longer.  But the result was the same: the shows that people talked about, or that got screen time on TV, were more than likely going to be hits, if not critically, than popularly. And so it is nearly impossible to go into a show completely cold, with just your personal reasons for wanting to see a particular show getting you there, like a favorite performer, a favorite subject, a favorite writer/composer, etc.

What brings me to this rambling discussion?  Well, ironically enough, a message board (from my nemesis Broadway website, no less) concerning a show I'll be seeing next week and that will be opening soon. Why look, if I know the messages will infuriate me, spoil the show for me, and so on?  Well, this particular show has almost no buzz beyond a few clever advertisements, and a comparatively lacking PR machine (at least so far).  Curiosity was killing this cat.  As I read about people's impressions of a first preview, followed eventually by people who have seen it before its main stem bow, and then those who have seen later previews, I was getting a real idea of early consensus .  Interspersed are what I call the "voices of reason," posters who remind us that we shouldn't judge a new show before it is completely ready, or that we should completely dismiss a show without having seen it for ourselves, blah blah blah.

What sets this particular thread apart, though, is the pervasive theme of disappointment in the show not living up to preconceived expectations, most based upon the slim description of the show by its press corps than by anything else.  "I thought it would be more like XYZ or ABC."  "It wasn't nearly as funny as LMN, or a fast-paced as EFG."  "It is too much like a cross between HIJ and PQR, but not as good as either."  And that reminded me  that in more than 30 years of going to Broadway shows, it is generally true that shows that I was really really excited about ended up disappointing me, while shows I didn't know much about, or better yet, I wasn't really interested in, more often than not, ended up being the shows I loved the most.  Only rarely has the hype matched my reaction to it.  (Oddly enough, it has happened twice in 2013: I loved both Pippin and The Glass Menagerie as much, if not more, than I thought I would after hearing so much about both.  Generally, it is much rarer.)

You can't get much more hype than the
cover of a national magazine!
I think about three major musicals, all three major hype machines in the 1980's, and all three  big disappointments to me. First, there was Cats, which opened when I was a junior in high school, and getting to Broadway was a once a year treat.  Well, by the time I got to see the show for myself, there was no way it could ever live up to my expectations.  Almost all of my theater friends in school got to see it before I did, all saw it with the original cast.  Their excitement was infectious.  To their credit, their descriptions of the cats, the sets, the incredible finale were entirely accurate.  But it's funny what the mind will do with facts and no visuals to go with them - no Google image searches then - and it is true.  The imagination can create far more interesting images than reality ever could.  And so it was when I finally saw the show, sans Betty Buckley, Terrence Mann or most of the original cast.  I enjoyed it, alright, but I remember distinctly thinking, "That's it?"

Well, I was determined that the next big show was not going to suffer the same fate.  I was going to see it early and bask in the glow of enraptured friends who would hang on my every word about it.  That show was Les Miserables, and I read everything I could find about it, and memorized the London Cast Recording.  In short, I was fully prepared to love it.  I didn't.  I really didn't like it.  When the show didn't start with the rousing "At the End of the Day," like the tape did, it threw me off, and I sat there for a good 20 minutes wondering if they cut it altogether.  Then, worst of all, the boredom set in.  It was monotonous, monotone and only occasionally interesting (mostly when they sang loud), and even, I felt, insulting.  Those Thenardiers sure pandered to the lowest common denominator, right?  I actually nodded off during both acts, original Broadway cast or not.  I was two for two: high expectations with low returns.

The third show, The Phantom of the Opera, I'm afraid suffered the same fate as Cats, only this time it was simply because you had to wait months - just short of a year in my case - to even get a ticket\.  Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman were looonnnggg gone.  And the cast recording did nothing to gain my interest - every long, boring opera aria sounded the same, each love ballad so sappy I feared diabetes from all the sugar.  Only two numbers kept my interest, the title song and "Masquerade."  Seeing the show, at last, didn't change my opinion, either.  The chandelier falling was literally a laugh out loud moment for me - not scary, but lumbering and awkward instead.  And despite some lovely costumes, the rest of the show was as dull to me as listening to the CD.  And even my two favorite songs were disappointing - one was clearly done to a pre-recorded soundtrack, the other, eye-popping until you realize half the "cast" was mannequins!

Can you pick out which of these are living human beings?

Maybe Phantom was about more than disappointing.  I simply do not like it.  Cats and Les Miz both grew on me, though.  Once I made peace with what they actually were versus what I imagined them to be, I learned to enjoy them for the shows they are.

That message board that started all of this now includes a posting from someone who hit the nail on the head when she asked: "Well, now that you know what the show is, do you think you might enjoy it more now on its own merits?"  I wish I could go into EVERY show with that in mind: enjoy it on its own merits.  I'll let you know what I think about the show in question in about two weeks.

But what about those shows I went into with no expectations, or even better, going into with dread?  That I'll leave until next week!  In the mean time, are there any shows that you saw with great expectations, but ended up being disappointed in?  Write in with your story!



  1. I'm sure you've seen how some shows get early snark on the Boards, some of it quite nasty, and then there's a sea change once a plethora of positive reviews come in, and all of a sudden a lot of that criticism is miraculously forgotten and people start singing the show's praises. Of course, a brave few stick to their original criticism. There's also on the boards a strong preference for old fashioned feel-good shows (unless it is written by Sondheim who himself is not immune to snark) with a happy ending. Which would make it hard for a really worthwhile but indeed challenging show like "Fun Home" to find an audience should it make a move uptown. (What high school or college girl is going to get her preppy boyfriend to take her to see a show about a lesbian and a gay father? They only want happy endings that fulfill their wicked fantasies!) Your show in question should be left to be evaluated on its own, in that while it may stylistically resemble a recent show, there's enough originality in terms of performance, music and scenic experience to warrant its own evaluation. And it is that rare animal--a genuine musical comedy, with a lot of comedy.

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  2. My three most disappointing shos are 1) Book Of Mormom--- so much hype for a smart-ass musical with a nothing score, 2) Pippin, the original Broadwy production was one of the slickest, ugliest and soulless shows ever and 3) Avenue Q, which was an extended SNL sketch.

  3. David,
    Interesting that you listed 3 shows I ranged from loving (Avenue Q) to really enjoying (Book of Mormon). I can't tell from your comments whether its the original Pippin or the revival that you were disappointed in... I saw BOM very early in previews, and knew NOTHING of South Park, etc. and I had a great time. I went into it with no expectations and was bowled over. I wonder, however, if I'll feel the same when I get around to seeing it again, post awards, hype, etc.

    Thanks for writing! Jeff

  4. Andrew,

    Thanks for reading and taking time to write in! You are 100% right with what you said. LOL I assume you figured out what show I was referring to... I look forward to hearing your thoughts on my follow up blog.



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