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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Theatre Thursday: They Say the Neon Lights Are Bright

Amid the latest controversy of the Spider-Man musical (another injury) and some of the exasperation among some theatre fans (myself included) with this not-necessarily-new-but-certainly-recently-prevalent trend of turning movies and rock albums into Broadway musicals ad nauseum, I have been giving some thought to what it means to be a theatre fan who lives outside of New York - way outside of New York. We get to watch the Tony Awards on television knowing that we won't likely get to see the original performers when (and if) the touring version comes to town. Some of us may make an occasional pilgrimage to the Big Apple and might be lucky enough to see the original cast of a show. In my lifetime, I've only been fortunate enough to see the original Broadway casts of Les Miserables, Starlight Express, Little Shop of Horrors, and Wicked. That's not bad, I know, but I can't really afford to make that trip as often as I'd like. So, I've seen Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, RENT, and other musicals only in the touring versions. They were good, but anyone who's seen the original cast will be quick to tell you it doesn't compare. Having seen the tour of Wicked, I'm inclined to say that it really is kind of a flimsy musical without Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, and Joel Grey to bolster it. None of the subsequent Jean Valjeans and Javerts I've seen in Les Mis tours have been able to compare to having seen Colm Wilkinson and Terrence Mann play the roles originally. So, when someone tells me a tour I'm seeing was better on Broadway, I tend to believe them.
Yes, there is a constant feeling in the theatre world that, if you aren't in New York, you're missing out.
However, something about that just doesn't ring true for me. Percentage-wise, I've seen just as many bad professional-level shows in New York City as I've seen anywhere else.
Most Broadway shows try out in other cities first because it's less expensive to mount a show outside of New York. Then the show moves to a more expensive venue on Broadway if it's determined that it can make back its investment. If Spider-Man ever opens, I've heard that it has to sell out for four years straight to make back its investment at this point. That's crazy, if you ask me.
Don't get me wrong, I like the Tonys and I love New York City, but is it possible that we're putting too much of our theatrical weight on one city? There are some really strong regional theatres in this country - Denver is one of them. However, a theatre buff in Albuquerque, New Mexico is likely to know more about a show across the country in Manhattan than a new play premiering at the Denver Center Theatre Company - just seven hours away. Is it because DCTC has a lousy website or inept marketing department? Not at all. It's simply that we've got this idea ingrained that all of the worthwhile theatre is located in about a ten-block radius on the northeast coast.
I have a prediction and a hope for the future of theatre in America, and it goes a little something like this:
Someday in the near future, a theatre producer is going to open a great musical in a city that isn't New York - maybe Chicago, maybe Los Angeles, maybe St. Louis. It's going to be written about in that city's papers and then USA Today is going to feature it in an article, and people are going to start saying, "When are you going to take it to New York?"
This producer is going to say, "What for?"
And people are going to say "So it can be seen."
The producer will say, "They can see it here. Plus, there's lots of other neat stuff to see here in Chicago/L.A./St. Louis."
Then people will say, "But you can't get a Tony unless it's on Broadway. A Tony nomination will guarantee you a long run."
The producer will say, "Tony-shmony. Our promotional YouTube video has gone viral. We're trending on Twitter. People can stay here for a whole weekend on what it will cost them for one night in New York. People know about us. They're interested. They'll come."
And they will.
Call it a pipe dream if you want, but I've never been one for believing that "because it's always been this way," is a very good reason to keep doing anything.


Prof. Jenn said...

I'd risk saying that it's already happening. And I hope it goes farther.

When I graduated in 1995 with degrees in Acting and English, I had folks from national graduate programs not only declare that the actors from our program were as good or better than their MFA candidates, but then also asked whether I'd be moving to New York or LA after graduation. I said, "Thank you," and "Neither," respectively.

Didn't the DCPA win a Tony? Why did their MFA program go bust?

Brady Darnell said...

I think there were a lot of factors in the Denver Center's MFA program closing, and - while I don't know if this was one of them - it is interesting that so much Denver money was put into performers who took their MFAs and Equity cards upon graduation and grabbed the first bus to the Big Apple.