Thursday, August 24, 2023

40 Years of Broadway: The Things I've Picked Up Along the Way

40 Years of Broadway:
5 Things I've Learned

Slave Play and Be More Chill

Learn some history.
Sorry, young readers out there, but musical theater did not start with Be More Chill, and there were centuries of plays written before Jeremy O. Harris was even born. I've learned so much not only about the artform, the culture, and its writers, but even more so about what it is to be human. And you aren't going to like this, but you'll even learn a lot from so-called "problematic" plays and musicals. Instead of blindly "canceling" a work and/or artist, find out why these works exist, how they reflect their times, and why they are "problematic." Nothing exists in a vacuum. Knowledge is power, they say, and this surely is true about theater. The more you learn, the deeper your understanding will be. 

(L to R) August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, 
Paula Vogel's Indecent, Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina

Expand your horizons.
Every year, I look back at what I've seen and what I've missed. And every year, I realize why I have so much to get to. I love musicals, old, new, any musical. But over the years, I've come to love plays, too. The more challenging the better. And so, I've come to seek out everything from Neil Simon to William Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw (granted, their musicals were a gateway to seeing more of what they have to offer). Then, I started to seek works by people out of my comfortable white guy writers cocoon - female, LGBTQ, African American, Asian American - which opened my eyes to Vogel, Wasserstein, Fierstein, Hwang, Wilson, Hansberry. Then there are other genres: puppetry, children's theater, solo, opera. And venues: off-Broadway, touring companies, regional theater, community theater. My point is, if you love theater, try everything. No matter what, you'll learn something.

Les Miserables and Cats

You don't have to like/to hate what everyone else does.
One of the most important points in my theater-going life was when I finally felt strong enough to admit that I really don't like Les Miserables. Everyone seems to adore it; its fandom is nearly cult-like in its devotion. So it's almost as nerve-wracking as coming out, when someone I meet says they love musicals, too, and that's the show they want to talk about. Now, I've seen it probably more than a dozen times over the years, as a plus one most of the time. And, while it never will be a favorite, I've actually come to appreciate it. On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of hate for Cats, a show I love, no matter how many times I've seen it (also more than a dozen times). And you know what, that's okay, too. Most recently, I've loved Bad Cinderella and Almost Famous and hated A Beautiful Noise and Once Upon a One More Time. I've learned first hand how "controversial" those feelings are from people who read my blog and follow me on social media, not to mention critics. But I'm fine with most of that. Isn't it great that art makes us feel passionately?

Sutton Foster in Anything Goes and Violet

Theater artists can surprise and disappoint.
Whether you've seen a few shows or have hundreds under your belt, you probably already have lists of favorite actors, writers, composers, designers and directors. I know I do. One of the bitterest pills to swallow is when someone you have strong feelings about disappoints you. I'll give you an example. I am a huge fan of Sutton Foster. She is talented and has a presence that defines "it." But, when I saw her in Anything Goes, I was so disappointed. Despite winning a Tony for it, I found her performance to be a miscast mess. It was hard to sit through. Then, she surprised me with her brilliant turn in Violet, a fiercely brave performance, completely against type. It also works the other way. Christopher Fitzgerald is an actor that I just don't care for. I find him to be a consistently overwrought performer. I remember squeezing my eyes shut every time he came on stage in Waitress. Then came Company, where, surprise,  he was utterly charming and appropriately silly. The bigger picture is that even the greatest artists will have their ups and downs, their hits and flops.

Bad Cinderella

Every production has something to appreciate.
After over 300 distinct Broadway productions, plus countless other productions worldwide, probably the biggest, most essential lesson I've learned is that every production has something to appreciate about it. Sure, it may be something profound, life-changing, in fact. Or maybe it's a new favorite show tune, a new designer, or a particularly magnificent performance. With a great show, it is easy. A not-so-great experience is not so easy to appreciate. But there's always something: a new composer to discover, a new performer, one song that makes the whole two hours worth it. Or maybe, and just as importantly, it is discovering that you know for sure what it is you don't like. Every time you take a seat and lights dim and the show starts, you are taking a chance that you may not like it. But you will take something away from the experience, and that will make you an even better theater lover.

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