Saturday, October 25, 2014

Going...going...Why isn't it gone?

I love Wicked. In fact, Wicked was the very first Broadway soundtrack I ever owned, and it’s what got me hooked on musical theater.  Over a decade ago it flew in, stunned audiences, won all kinds of awards, and propelled many of its actors into stardom.  Since then, Wicked has been seen by over 8 Million people in New York and, thanks to the touring productions, I expect at least five times that have seen it world-wide.  And, in my opinion, that’s why it might be time for Wicked to close on Broadway.  For while Wicked has been selling out 9 simultaneous productions on 5 different continents, a musical adaptation of Tuck Everlasting announced that it would not be able to continue with its announced Broadway production because a theater was not available.

I fully understand that, seeing as it’s been almost 2 years since Wicked has allowed the Gershwin Theater to drop to under 85% capacitance, no producer in his right mind will close Wicked anytime soon.  However, there are plenty of long running shows out there that I think need to step down off the marquee to allow some of the new talent to shine.  Shows such as Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys, and Mamma Mia (each of which dipped below 85% just last week) have had some very good runs, but in my opinion have outstayed their welcome.  Each of these shows have international and touring productions in place and will by no means die if they’re taken off of Broadway, and when I think about the life a Broadway run could give a young production like Tuck Everlasting, I can’t think of a reason not to wish for their closing.

Now, this trend has started to take root a little bit.  Within the past several months, shows that have lived in that 2-4 year sweet spot such as Cinderella, Once, and Newsies have announced their closings.  Of course I'm a fan of all of theses shows and hope they find immeasurable success in their touring productions (which are either already in progress or in rehearsals for all three), but I think they're choosing the perfect time to take a step off of Broadway and I'm excited for the shows that will be taking their place (especially Jason Robert Brown's Honeymoon in Vegas).

Again, I understand that financially successful shows will continue to run and there is nothing I can do to stop that.  Additionally, length of run is really the only true way to measure a success of a Broadway show, without it, we’d have no quantifiable data to prove that The Phantom of the Opera was better than Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark.  And I’m not saying that ALL Broadway shows ought to have a 5-year cap on their runs or anything like that.  I just think that Broadway ought to be a place where people can go see new and groundbreaking works of theater instead of shows that were new and groundbreaking 5 years ago.  These shows have had their chance at Defying Gravity and now they’re plenty Popular, so would you listen to A Sentimental Man and allow a new show to have One Short Day on Broadway?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Ain't no power like Star Power!

While musicals will probably always be king on Broadway, two of the hottest tickets for the 2014-2015 season are “It’s Only A Play” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” two plays that are taking New York by storm.  While there are plenty of reasons these plays are expected to be such theatrical treasures (not the least of which being the brilliant writing and clever direction), both of them are depending on their casting choices to draw in audiences by the busload.  However, while both of these casts seem to be patron magnets, they couldn’t be more different.

“It’s Only A Play,” a brilliantly dark comedy written by Terrance McNally back in 1982, took the “Ocean’s Eleven” approach and congregated as many big names as they could fit on one stage.  From movie stars (Matthew Broderick and Rupert Grint) to television stars (Megan Mullally and F. Murry Abrams) to stars of the stage (Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing), “It’s Only A Play” is bursting with positively blinding star power.  It’s no wonder tickets are already selling out to a show that permeates such stardom.  Not only do audiences flock to the opportunity to sit right in front of the personalities that have filled their televisions, magazines, and YouTube channels for so long, but they also get the promise of some utterly fantastic performances – after all, these performers didn’t get to be famous by being mediocre.  Not only that, but when so many respected artists agree to work on a project such as this, there is an overwhelming feeling that the work itself must have some great artistic value and you would be a fool not to be the first in line to see it.  

On the flip side, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” an inventive and visually stunning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s book written in 2003, stars a company made-up mostly of unknowns including Alexander Sharpp, the Julliard graduate who is making his professional theater debut with the leading role in a play that tied the all-time record of most Olivier awards won in its London production.  While “Curious Incident” can’t light up a city with the stars on its marquee, it does promise something tantalizingly exciting by presenting a show of such promise with relatively unknown actors.  Audiences are drawn to these types of performances because there’s always that hope that instead of seeing the stars of yesterday revive an old classic, they’ll be able to see a star born in an exciting new work.

From Denzel Washington, to Whoopie Goldberg, to Carli Rae Jepson, shows have been using star power for years to draw audiences into the theater.  Similarly, we’ve seen unknowns such as Sutton Foster, Idina Menzel, and Julie Andrews rocket to stardom because of their fantastic theatrical performances.  Thus it’s a nearly impossible to choose between a star-studded “It’s Only A Play” or a wistfully promising “The Curious Incident…”.  For whether you’re seeing the first gleam of a stars light, or its final blaze of glory before it fades into the darkness, there is nothing more entertaining than theatrical stargazing.

Techies Vs. Actors

If you hang around with the theater technicians (or “Techies”, as they’re affectionately referred to) long enough, you’re bound to hear the following quote by Mark Leslie:  "An actor without techies is a naked person standing in the dark trying to emote. A techie without actors is a person with marketable skills."  While this statement is dripping with sardonicism, there certainly is some truth to its premise.  While they usually stay behind the spotlight instead of in it, techies are accomplished artists and craftsmen, and they play a huge role in making sure any given show is a success.

As Mr. Leslie’s quote suggests, there is often some friction between the actors and the techies in most shows.  As someone who has lived on both sides of the duvetine curtain, I can tell you that there is nothing more frustrating than a lighting designer who keeps fluctuating the lights while you’re trying to rehearse, or an actor who’s so busy warming up for his performance that he can’t sit still for a mic check.  While such minor irritations may seem petty, they can build and cause a stressful working environment for everyone which is unhealthy not just for the cast and crew, but for the show as well.
However, despite the animosity that does exist, most shows I’ve been a part of have always been full of mutual respect.  While one will occasionally hear playful sparring between the “board geeks” and “bio props” passing in the wings, the archetype of the diva performer and the unsympathetic techie is rarely actually encountered.  Regardless of what side of the stage you sit on, if you work at the theater, you’re an artist and this knowledge obliges and compels every thespian, actor and techie alike, to grant their fellow artist the respect they deserve.

As is the way in all things, it’s hard to give somebody the respect they deserve if you don’t realize just how difficult their work is.  That's one of the things I really like about the theater program at my school (University of Alabama).  All theater majors, performance and technical alike, are required to take both acting classes and technical classes.  While such classes are not strangers to bitter grumbles of “why do I have to be here?” and “This has nothing to do with my future career.”  In short, they couldn’t be more wrong.

For one thing, just learning the terminology alone is extremely useful for creating a healthy flow of communication.  This is critical because theater, its core, is all about communication.  However, you have no hope of communicating your story to the audience if you can’t even communicate with the people you’re working with to bring that story to life.

This theatrical cross-training also serves to introduce students to a side of theater, yet undiscovered, that they thoroughly enjoy.  I know that I stepped onto campus fully intending to act my way through school, but have since answered the call of technical theater.  The adrenaline rush of a performance, the challenge of out-of-the-box thinking, the feeling of familial love that engulfs a cast, all of these things that I thought I could experience solely through acting, I’ve found to be just as present, if not more so, by being a techie.

What’s more, knowing “how the other half thinks” can do nothing but make you more proficient in your own craft.  An actor who knows the intricacies of costume design may unlock new aspects of his character by studying the costume he’s given, a prop designer may better know where to sacrifice realism for ease of use if she’s had to wield them herself, and lord knows we could all learn something from a course in directing.

But most of all, understanding breeds respect, and that is what every theatrical artist deserves.  In fact, I think Mr. Leslie’s quote could use some editing.  For while it is true that techie’s are able to create some beautiful pieces of art without the need of human actors, there are also some incredible masterpieces that have no sets, no costumes, no tech of any kind, but soar on talented acting and raw, sincere material.  However, my experience has shown that nothing can rival the magic created when of their synergy.  So in fact, I think the correct version of Mr. Leslie’s statement is “An actor without techies is the same as a techie without actors: an artist who is not reaching his full potential.