Weatherlight Contributor Josh Krebs discusses the stage.
When American television and films don’t reflect complex ideas, and the theater scene is dying, where are the new ideas going to come from? I did a play by Eugene O’Neill called A Touch of the Poet on Broadway a few years ago. I remember looking out into the audience at one point, and the theater was packed with wealthy, white-haired people. After the curtain call I turned to one of the other actors and said ‘Theater is dead.’ He laughed and said “That’s a good one.” I said ‘No, seriously, theater as we’re doing it now is dead. There’s not audience. There’s no one under 60 out there. They’re all white. And they can all afford $300 for a night.-Gabriel Bryne -- Venice magazine on April 5th of 2009.
Once reading this statement and doing an immense amount of cogitating I felt like I had to agree with this hard truth of the future of theater. Based on a good amount of observation of the Broadway community and general interest in the evolution of social commentary and visceral effects that theater tends to have on contemporary society, I feel that this has made a great and thoughtful statement that propelled a lot of questions and theories as far as whether theater is dying or if has been dead for several years, have we been so blind as to not notice it and whether or not there is a possible second life for theater.
Now given the track record of Broadway in recent years it has been known to profit from millions of dollars with productions and as any producer knows, these can be extremely risky. Recouping all of their funds as well as profiting back a little something extra is always the main objective to a lot of producers, whether it be in film, television or in theater, and why the hell shouldn't it be? We have to spend money to make money, most would say and the production values of a lot of shows range from six million to fourteen million to produce. This proposed a problem for me, how can a simple thing as a show need so much money in order to perform? And then of course the producers are always worrying that they will make their money back.
Now why should I be upset about this and how does this correlate into the quote that generally got the ball rolling on this theory? Well first let’s take a look at the shows on Broadway at the moment.
This list is generally made up of the highest grossing Broadway shows at the moment. (Be advised that one of these shows "Guys and Dolls" has since closed since the beginning of this article.)
2. Jersey Boys
3. Lion King
4. Billy Elliot
5. West Side Story
6. Shrek: The Musical
7. Little Mermaid
8. Phantom of the Opera
9. Mama Mia
10. Guys and Dolls
13. 9 to 5: The Musical
Now these are only a handful of the shows that are presented on Broadway at the moment, generally performing six days a week with some performing eight or nine shows out of those days. Now with these shows there is a general recognition of these names, mainly Lion King, Billy Elliot and Shrek being the titles that have been adapted from films that people are generally aware of, can recognize and be something that they already know and enjoy.
And some like West Side Story, Phantom of the Opera, Guys and Dolls and Chicago, are all revivals or have been on Broadway for so long that the general public knows of these productions to be "classics" or as sometimes as I like to call "shows straight from the mama birds’ mouth to her kids". The shows generally on Broadway either consist of a familiar name or a theme of regurgitation that producers can find safety behind financially knowing that the people visiting New York will shell out a hundred and ten to three hundred dollar tickets in order to see them. It’s what I have been labeling the "financial safety net".
And who can really blame them? While living in the days where restaurants have meals that are referred to by a number and game shows consist of people pointing at briefcases hoping that there is money in it, it doesn't really surprise me that the spectacle element will always prevail over substance. It’s off putting and places me in a general malaise as far as where we are at the moment with not being viscerally stimulated by theater and instead just being numbed with wanting to see the Michael Bay type of theater, general big bang for our bucks.
Where in the hell did we go wrong in just finding great intellectual theater? If it were up to me, I would blame Cats. Or just Andrew Lloyd Webber in general, but I am not one to point fingers so lets just not force anyone to walk the plank just yet. A few years ago I went to go and see a production of Marquis De Sade in Harlem and I was incredibly blown away with it. It was generally an unforgiving, vile, disgusting piece of theater, but it was so engaging. Once the show was over I was talking to a confidant who accompanied me to the show and they weren't as enthusiastic as I am about how fantastic the show was but we both agreed that a lot of times during the show we felt scared.
And a thought had occurred to me that theater should not be safe.
In order to create a visceral reaction from the audience and begin to allow the discussions of the themes of the show come to life there must be this rule that all of the actors in the show are following, saying to themselves that "in order to understand what is happening in this play, we have to be unrelenting with our emotions, unforgiving with our actions and unapologetic for what we are doing". Of course a lot of this isn't marketable for the general public. No one wants to see Blasted or Marisol, instead they long to see something that gives them a sunny disposition, like Lion King. Its disheartening that we have come to this point.
Can this be changed? Is there some sort of light at the end of the tunnel is there any redemption that is possible in these trying times of seeing a witch "defy gravity" or Ariel learn to be herself? The only thing I can initially suggest is that Broadway itself is in desperate need of rejuvenation. With a few simple modifications, at least simple in my eyes.
First of all, producers of all Broadway shows must join a sort of union that allows them fully to adhere the certain rules laid out in the plan for rejuvenation. Within this union shows that are produced are given a certain budget, this covers all aspects of the production including, lights, sound, wardrobe and makeup, this also includes the salaries for actors and crews for the show, who are paid the same amount throughout the course of the run. This negates all aspect of some sort of favoritism for certain duties of a Broadway show, as actors are often the top billed and receive the most notoriety for shows, especially big names such as Mathew Broderick who is now performing The Philanthropist and James Gandolfini who is currently on Broadway with God of Carnage, there would be no definite sense of general monetary favoritism among the ones who are involved in a show. Within this said budget no shows are allowed to go over said budget and could face possible backlash and fines from the Broadway union.
Secondly ability to get tickets would change incredibly. There would be no longer convenience of web purchases. The only way to possibly do that would be through the box office of a certain show. Within this change there would be a price change for all shows. All seats for every show would be at least twenty to twenty five dollars, on a first come first serve basis patrons are able to choose the seats that are available. Also instated would be a limit of six tickets per person for a purchase. With this it will hopefully eliminate the elitist persona that is a famous with Broadway shows that those with money are able to enjoy a show more than those who come from a blue collar background.
Of course this does stand the argument of scalpers and how they would affect this new deal. If a scalper walks into this new box office environment and buys as many tickets for twenty dollars as they can for let’s say, "Phantom of the Opera" and tries to sell them for less than what they are worth. Is that really a profit they are making?
But of course there is an argument of this implemented deal would actually work. Mainly the main thing that constitutes a valid argument is the rental of the theater space. The spaces are immensely expensive to maintain since the buildings themselves are so old. Of course this argument I am incredibly shrugging my shoulders at. Of course there is no way out of that seeing as I don't know the logistics of a lot of ownerships of Broadway houses and what the basic rental agreement is and how much is it in general. So I for one am not going to touch that topic.
But still it bothers me, of that financial safety net. But again, who can blame anyone who wants to put money into a Broadway show. Perhaps the general populous has such a fascination with seeing John Goodman or Susan Sarandon on stage performing with some of the necessary gusto that makes you satisfied that you shelled out a hundred and twenty dollars to watch them perform.
There is also a rumor that Ashton Kutcher will come to Broadway performing Neil Labute's Fat Pig....frak me