The Playgoer: December 2006

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

New Musicals follow-up

A while ago I predicted that three shows would serve as a bellweather for how inhabitable today's Broadway really is to adult musicals: Spring Awakening, Grey Gardens, and the Company revival. I also predicted--super pessimistically, perhaps--that none of them would last past Valentine's Day.

Well based on Box Office receipts for the past week, I may be wrong about Spring Awakening. But not necessarily about the other two. According to the stats at Playbill, here's the capacity figures (i.e. average percentage of seats sold per performance) and change since the previous week.

Spring Awakening: playing to 81% houses, up from 60% (an impressive 20% increase)
Grey Gardens: 63% down from 70.5% (a 7.5% decrease)
Company: 59.7% down from 84.8% (Yes, a falling off of 25%!)

Keep in mind this is among the busiest times of the season, traditionally. If you can't fill 3/4 of your house with a big musical at Christmas time, you're in trouble.

For Spring Awakening, though, the buzz is definitely paying off. My hunch is the holidays are helping since parents don't know what to take their kids to, especially their more jaded older kids. The show's prospects just may depend, though, on whether those parents are liking it, too.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Much Idomoneo About Nothing

Political columnist Anne Applebaum--a right-leaning writer known most for her book on Soviet gulags and her hawkish views against radical Islam--follows up the whole Deutsche Oper "Idomoneo" controversy by writing up the opening night for Slate. Yes, the show went on. And after all the rumors of bomb threats and "Muhammed-cartoon" level riots, all it stirred up were some boos and razzies.

Applebaum captures well the anticlimax inevitably felt at most "controversial" productions.

[A]s the entire audience knew, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed were indeed due to be beheaded, along with Poseidon, at the end of the production. For that, after all, was how the whole controversy started: The head of Mohammed, sitting on a pedestal, presumably offending millions, was what led to the cancelation in the first place. Indeed, as the third act went on, the audience grew increasingly restless, waiting for this moment, even enduring the bit when, unexpectedly, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and Poseidon stripped down to their underwear and walked offstage. The program notes hinted that this removal of clothing symbolized the loss of power—men were taking over from the gods, or some such thing. But—we're in Germany here—it also reminded me of other occasions in history when people have been told to strip before being executed.

Besides, it was hard not to want to laugh. When was the last time you saw Jesus and Mohammed in boxer shorts?

But finally—finally—after the chorus' clothes went from multicolored fluorescent to black, after five or six seizures had played themselves out, after Princess Ilia had tried to sacrifice herself in place of her lover, the audience finally got what it had been waiting for. In the last moments of the opera, when everyone else had left the stage, Idomeneo plunked each of the four gods' severed, bloody heads on a pedestal, before expiring himself, with a dramatic, blood-curdling roar.

Someone in the audience booed. More shouted "bravo." Then there was a standing ovation, the journalists ran out to file their copy, and a TV talk show started filming,
live, in the opera buffet.

We in the audience went home feeling pleased with ourselves. Some might have been disappointed that "nothing happened," and others might have wished for some intellectual significance on such an important night. Still, we had attended this dangerous production, braved the wrath of radical Islam, stood firm through the bomb threats, and supported integration and artistic freedom. What more can one ask from a night at the opera?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

"Lennon" Envy?

Lennon: The Musical.
never forget...

As if McCartney and Lennon didn't compete viciously enough in real life, now Sir Paul won't rest until he too has a terrible musical about his life.

Sir Paul McCartney is planning a stage show based on his life, according to the Telegraph.

The UK paper quotes the former Beatle's cousin, the actress Kate Robbins, as saying that McCartney will approve the music and serve as musical director. The music is based on The Liverpool Oratorio — McCartney's first classical work, which he composed with Carl Davis in 1991 to commemorate his home city's 150th anniversary.

The story will follow a character named Shanty (a fictionalized McCartney) from his childhood in Liverpool up through his first marriage to Mary Dee (standing in for McCartney's first wife, Linda) and the birth of a child. The couple attempts to balance their family life and their careers.

Some never learn.


Toronto Star's lead critic Richard Ouzounian, in his year-end wrap up of Ontario theatre, takes to task the Can Stage company and its Artistic Director Martin Bragg. Turns out their weaseling out of "Rachel Corrie" is just part of a bigger pattern artistic timidity and lameness.

Ouzounian contrasts the "respectable" CanStage with the more adventurous upstart Soulpepper (who I've written about before, here).

It's not coincidental that three of the shows on this year's Top 10 list came from Soulpepper. And even when this company fails, they do so with ambition and distinction. Schultz and his company are building for the future and their Conservatory, established this year as well, only goes to prove that.

In the other corner, however, sporting a black hat and twirling a metaphorical moustache, is CanStage's Martin Bragg.

In 2006, his company produced 10 shows and not one of them could be called a true success, either critically or popularly.

CanStage's productions are usually presented with enough surface polish so that they avoid being really awful (although Hair was an exception), but what they've been lacking recently is any sense of the reason why they're being done. If ever an organization needed a mission statement, it's this one.

Bragg's recent decision to cancel My Name Is Rachel Corrie, supposedly in the face of board pressure, is just one more indication of the muddied artistic thinking that is plaguing this theatre and needs to be remedied as soon as possible.

Sound familiar?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Brantley's Top Ten

First a couple of jabs at Top 10 Lists:

1) I don't intend to do one. But I do hope to use my downtime this week to "reflect" in some fashion, probably by finally writing up major shows I did see but never reviewed ("DruidSynge", "Company", "Stuff Happens", e.g.) So stay tuned.

2) I think everyone in "The Theatre Community" needs to get together and decide when we do our "Best Of's". Come on, is it December or June? End of Year or End of Season? New Year's Eve or the Tonys? Notice how many shows on people's lists have already been validated by Tonys. How many time do we have to celebrate History Boys! And yet notice how Well got forgotten, again.... At least the Oscars have this straight. The "movie year" is the calendar year, simple. Yet another reason the Tonys are irrelevant?

Ok, now that that's out of the way, I want to draw our attention to something very revealing in Ben Brantley's Top Ten list for the Times, Sunday.

As he explains up front, this is circumscribed as a "Broadway Only" list. (That Isherwood mixes both on and off B'way, just continues to skewer the whole thing even more. But at least he includes a couple of regional productions.) Brantley's enthusiasm that there even were ten shows on Broadway he could recommend is telling. But notice what a backhanded compliment it in fact is:

[T]his is the first year in my decade as chief theater critic of The New York Times in which Broadway, all by its big, bloated self, provided enough laurel-worthy shows that even a list of 10 can’t include them all. Never mind that the majority of them came from overseas or Off Broadway. No one is saying that Broadway’s own ideas extend beyond the strictly commercial. But as an importer of talent (sort of like a Brooklyn Academy of Music for mainstreamers), it has shown unusual taste in 2006.

The BAM line is a good one. But it's worse than that. Broadway is now purely a rental hall, without any guiding artistic programming.

Take a look at his top 10, and when you realize that they all (not just the "majority") in some way originated in a nonprofit environment--whether domestic or abroad, Broadway or Off--you'll see the extent of the situation.
  • Coast of Utopia--originally commissioned and produced by London's Royal National Theatre, and produced here with a new cast & director, by a nonprofit (Lincoln Center)
  • Company--originated at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (albeit with an eye to Broadway) and directed by John Doyle, a creature of the English subsidized theatre model if there ever was one.
  • Grey Gardens--transferred from Playwrights Horizons
  • The History Boys--Royal National Theatre (imported in its full mint condition, w/ original cast)
  • Kiki and Herb--Uh, ok, he may have me there. For all I know Kiki and Herb may never have received a grant. But they surely never made any money all those years downtown. (And while they may have on Broadway, the show was a disappointing commercial underperformer.)
  • Lieutenant of Inishmore--transferred from Atlantic Theatre Company (after originating in London at the Royal Shakespeare Company)
  • The Little Dog Laughed--transferred from Second Stage
  • The Pajama Game--Roundabout Theatre Company (a juggernaut, yet, like Lincoln Center, nonprofit)
  • Shining City--Manhattan Theatre Club (new production, but Irish/London play)
  • Spring Awakening--transferred from Atlantic Theatre Company (after years of workshops at Roundabout, Lincoln Center, and other nonprofits)
Also note that the four shows Brantley singles out as the worst of the Broadway season--Lestat, Tarzan, High Fidelity, Times They Are A-Changin'--all have one thing in common. They were all shows developed and produced directly for Broadway.

What shall we conclude about the old paradigms now, eh?

I say this neither as a positive or a negative, just a reality. Broadway is no longer a generator of viable new work and therefore can no longer be considered the chief venue of The American Theatre. I think people in the theatre have known this for a while. But that message hasn't gotten out to the mainstream media and the public at large, and certainly not to the Tonys!

(And it's the job of these folks to make sure it never does get out!)

I say let's not mourn the passing of the old Broadway system. Let's just acknowledge and move on. In other words, let's start recognizing where the new American theatre is really coming from--before it gets pilfered for Broadway.

"Warning: Homosexual Nudity" & other advisories

Blogger Rocco has a very funny scoop on some wacky things being said by the "Play-by-Play" ticket discount club, as way of insulating themselves, I guess, from homophobic and otherwise squeamish subscribers.

Top complement their invention of the category of "homosexual nudity" (for "The Little Dog Laughed") Rocco offers some choice suggestions of his own...

Monday, December 25, 2006

The War on Saturnalia

A Playgoer Holiday Special

There's a war being waged against our sacred winter holiday, people. Centuries ago, our people at this time of year began exchanging gifts, decorating trees, and welcoming the winter solstice with the return of light and end of darkness. All in the name of our beloved God. Yes, you know who I mean. Even in these heathen times, I'm not ashamed to speak his name. I mean, of course: Saturn. There, I said it. Let's stop denying who this holiday is really about.

What has become of our holy Saturnalia, fellow pagans? I go into my local Walmart, greeted by all the familiar holly and ivy of yore, and am welcomed not with the rousing "Io, Saturnalia!" of simpler times, but with some made-up newfangled, supposedly "non-offensive" substitute: this "Christ-Mass" thing.

Now about these "Christians." (is that ok? "People of Jesus"? what's the acceptable term now?) I know they have come a long way since we used to feed them to the lions in (let's face it) the good old days. And I've personally apologized and atoned for that. Many times.

And I don't begrudge them one bit their hard work, cleverness, and control of all media. Not to mention Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House.

But do we all have to bow down to their holidays now? I mean, it was bad enough when Yom Kippur and Rosh Hoshana got on my desk calendar somehow! And who is this "MLK" guy anyway?

I'm sorry, but when your faithful still don't make up a majority of the world's population, and you've only been around less than 2,000 years, you gotta take a back seat to tradition. We don't want to offend you and, hey, you're welcome to come share in a finely roasted boar's head at our table and sing tuneful Saturn-Carols any time. You see, you don't have to be pagan to enjoy Saturnalia! In fact you're not, and yet you still use many of our rituals. Why don't you just call them by their right names?

And who knows when this guy Jesus was born anyway, right? I mean, isn't it just a little coincidental your story says he was born on "Christmas Day"? Duh!

I know I'm going to get emails now saying I'm "intolerant" and all, but you have to stand up for the values that have made world civilization great. You can't just give into these arrivistes. Next thing you know, they'll be appropriating our regeneration-of-spring festivities for the "resurrection" of their "lord." How are they going to fit the fertility bunnies into that, huh?

So to my Jesus-loving friends, I say this in the yuletide (oy, another appropriation!) spirit of forgiveness and peace on earth. No one minds what you celebrate in private. Just remember: it's Saturn's world and you just live in it.

So to all and to one, Saturn bless us all. Everyone.

Friday, December 22, 2006

"Corrie" Kerfuffle in Canada!

Yes, just when we thought "My Name is Rachel Corrie" had come and gone without incident, and proved New York Theatre Workshop wrong for canceling it, the CanStage company in Toronto has now nixed it off their season.

No ambiguity here, though about "cancel" vs postponed, or over whether they were ever really going to do it.

Martin Bragg, artistic producer of Canstage, said in a phone interview yesterday that he has changed his mind and decided not to make the controversial play the centrepiece of the theatre's 2007/2008 subscription series as he was publicly suggesting only a month ago.....

And just as there is more than one version of just who Rachel Corrie was and why she died, there also appears to be more than one version of why her story will not be coming soon to a stage near you.

Bragg's version: When he read the script (based on Corrie's journals) he had an emotional reaction and was "absolutely reduced to tears" as he told the Star's Richard Ouzounian five weeks ago. But later when he went to see it on stage at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York's Greenwich Village (where it recently closed) it fell flat. The theatre was half-empty, and there was no standing ovation at the end. "The truth is it just didn't seem as powerful on stage as it did on the page – and the audience wasn't buying it."
See? Now that's smart. If only NYTW's Jim Nicola had come out and said, "I'm not doing it 'cause it sucks," there would have been nothing more to talk about.

Ah, but wait:
The alternate version being told among CanStage insiders: Members of Bragg's board were alarmed by negative response from influential supporters of the theatre, especially in Toronto's Jewish community, who were canvassed for their opinion. Many were dismayed and openly critical when confronted with the prospect of the city's flagship not-for-profit theatre producing a play that could be construed as anti-Semitic propaganda, especially during a frightening period when Israel's existence is threatened by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Sound familiar?
"I was asked what I thought, and I told them I would react very badly to a
play that was offensive to Jews," says veteran cultural activist Bluma Appel, whose name is affixed to the theatre where CanStage presents its mainstage productions. "I would react just as badly to a play that was offensive to blacks or Muslims or white Christians," Appel said from her winter home in Florida.
There's a bit of a sneer in the Florida remark, but I love it all the same. (The article is Martin Knelman's, for the Toronto Star.)

And more...

A complicating factor: CanStage posted a loss of almost $700,000 this year and has seen its audience dwindle. This is no time to alienate subscribers and risk controversy.

Developer Jack Rose, a member of the CanStage board who, like Appel, has not read or seen the play, says: "I had one phone conversation about this. There was a question whether it would be a mistake to proceed with it, and my view was it would provoke a negative reaction in the Jewish community."

What's that Marx said about history the first time as tragedy, the second as farce?

While on the subject, I also want to finally reference the hatchet job The New Republic did on the play toward the end of its run. No Brustein review, but instead two "think pieces" from writers with a pro-Israel agenda. One by a young right-wing political writer, James Kirchick, the other by novelist Cynthia Ozick. (Too bad the complete articles are firewalled.) I especially appreciate this swipe from Ozick:
when the play was turned away by the New York Theater Workshop apparently because of objections from donors offended by its agitprop banalities, there sprang up, amid the foolish cries of "censorship" (as if the Constitution were being subverted), a newborn legend.
I guess Ozick's something of a strict constructionist now? If the founders didn't write it, it don't count!

I'm all for non-theatre people writing more about theatre, and I'm all for printing multiple contrasting reviews of a play. But anyone familiar with New Republic head Marty Peretz's politics on Israel will not be surprised by this slanted coverage. He could have used the play as an opportunity for debate, but no.

As Jimmy Carter's new book demonstrates, the basic views expressed in "MNIRC" can no longer be dismissed as "fringe." Oh, people are pissed at Carter, no doubt. So much so that Brandeis University has reportedly refused to allow him--a former president, mind you--to address students unless accompanied by Alan Dershowitz to debate him. (Now that's "balance".) So one would hope the way is being paved for a truly open forum--in both our universities and on our stages--to explore the incendiary issue of Palestine & Israel.

Phil Weiss has some good stuff on the Carter story, too, on his blog.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

"Urinetown" & "Development Hell" threads

I've fallen behind on two hot topics this week, so let me at least pass on some links to those who haven't.

Mark Armstrong continues to have the goods on the ever-evolving "Urinetown" creative copyright disputes--including new statements from SSDC!

Jason Grote has some eloquent words in response to the recent controversial American Theatre editorial defending the new play development process in our nonprofit theatres. Jason, a playwright, has been on the receiving end of the worst of it, but also sees the merits and offers tips from the models that work. (Also check out the comments on Mark's original post, including some war stories from Christopher Shinn.)

For the bloggers out there, this may be old news already. But I'm still finding these conversations (with many further links and comments) engaging and urgent.

On the latter subject I feel like adding, after my previous post, that I agree with the commenter who argued in American Theatre's defense they are a trade publication. So it is basically their mission to advocate for (and, if necessary, defend) their membership--i.e. the nationwide LORT network of nonprofit professional theatres. Fair enough..... But still, doesn't that make American Theatre the proper forum some really informed constructive criticism at least? Editor Jim O'Quinn, obviously, is entitled to his opinion and it's his magazine after all. But I do hope they follow up with more of an open forum and solicit both pro and con statements. I'm sure the feelings of their membership and readership are in fact very divided, and they deserve to see the division expressed. As an official and supportive outlet, AT is in many ways the perfect venue to have that happened in a civilized way--and one that more people will read than a blog!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Does Sex Still Sell on B'way?

It's very tempting to just chuck "fair use" concerns and just copy & paste Michael Riedel's entire "Spring Awakening" column today because it's so damn funny. And actually quite revealing of just how irretrievably "old" Broadway has become.

One would think after the mega reviews, the Spring Awakening team would just be bathing in it, no? In short, no.

What do you get when 35 producers start brainstorming about how to sell their critically acclaimed new musical? In the case of "Spring Awakening," you get some marketing ideas that are either downright bizarre or just plain idiotic.

Here are some of the proposals that have been kicked around at "Spring Awakening" production meetings:

* Because the show features a lot of teenage sex, let's work out a sponsorship deal with a condom maker. We'll slap a "Spring Awakening" logo on the condoms and pass them out for free at the theater....

But one production source, inspired by the level of marketing know-how on "Spring Awakening," privately suggests that all the producers run around Times Square wearing sandwich boards that read: "I'm one of the 35 producers of 'Spring Awakening.' Please come see my show!"

But note also the desperate cluelessness in this--quite literally--producing-by-committee approach over just how to make contact with this alien youth demographic:

* Let's give a bunch of free tickets to the staff at Ruby Foo's in Times Square. A lot of young people hang out there, and the waiters will talk up the show.

* Since the show appeals to audiences in their 20s and 30s, let's not quote old fogey critics from the big newspapers. Let's only quote student critics from college newspapers.

Never mind that Charles Isherwood in The Times wrote, "Broadway may never be the same!" Or that The Post's Clive Barnes cheered: "A must-see, groundbreaking jolt of genius!" Far more influential is John Labera, of the Hofstra Chronicle, who wrote: "It is difficult to stop talking about 'Spring Awakening.' One minute you'll be crying your eyes out. The next minute you'll be rolling in the aisles."

And don't forget Connecticut College's daily, which proclaimed the show, "The best musical of the 21st century!" (Hey, there are only 94 more years to go).

College newspapers? Who reads those??? Of course, there's an obvious youth-oriented 21st century alternative. But that would involve using the "internets."

No wind of "bloggers nights" or any such outreach on this one so far. For their sake, I at least hope they have a MySpace page.

But back to the sex. One would have thought the provocative "feeling up" poster image (viewable here) would be enticing this target audience. And maybe it is. But apparently that doesn't matter.

The new ad features cast members jumping up and down. The idea is to project the show's "kinetic energy and excitement," a source says. Previous ads emphasized the musical's sexual themes. But the producers have decided that sex turns off older theatergoers, who must be lured to "Spring Awakening" if the show's going to have a shot.

"Look, we'd love to get the 'Rent' audience right away," says a production insider. "But it takes time. For now, we're surviving on the traditional audience."

I guess that "traditional audience" did start coming out after the reviews. The Playbill box office firgures report a surge (sort of) from 40% capacity to 60% in the week after opening. (The O'Neill Theatre is a 1,000-seat house, by the way.) But, obviously, that's still not enough to see them through to profit. And if they're hanging on for Tonys (six months from now) that means a long hard slog, financially.

Again, these are not at all meant to impugn the integrity of "Spring Awakening" as a show. On the contrary, the data supports an argument that it's, if anything, too good (i.e. original, relevant) for Broadway and that the Broadway industry has become so ossified in its "traditional audience" ways that it seems like economic suicide for an artitiscally ambitious show to play there.

Without a major movie star, at least.

REVIEW: "The Atheist"

Another blurb for me in the Voice.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) this is one I didn't have much more than 200 words to say about..

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Coast of Boffo

Variety's Gordon Cox takes us inside the mindbending logistics of producing Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia" at Lincoln Center. Despite a $100 ticket price per show of the trilogy (except for two rows in the balcony @ $65) it is selling very, very well. So much so that amazingly LCT has been able to extend--with its busy starry cast intact--for two months.

Following up on some previous posts on this, I do want to concede what one commenter said about ticket prices--namely that there was one way to avoid the heft price and that was subscribe as an LCT "member." Fair point, and I'm now kicking myself for missing the boat on that. They must have sold really fast, though.

Still, I have sensed no special outreach from LCT to schools, young people, underprivileged--any population one would idealistically want to include in such a "major cultural event"--what's more a major educational event. (It's a history lesson, after all.) Yes, they're probably still ending up in the red on this one. But if you're a nonprofit, at least lose money with integrity.

Anyway, here's some highlights from Cox's fine reporting:

Prolonging the engagement while preserving the entire cast was particularly impressive given that the ensemble includes such name thesps as Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Ehle, Martha Plimpton, Amy Irving, Brian F. O'Byrne, Josh Hamilton and Richard Easton....

Salaries were negotiated for the extension to "near Broadway equivalency," according to LCT exec producer Bernard Gersten. (As a nonprofit, LCT generally pays thesps less than the union standard required for commercial Rialto productions even though LCT's Vivian Beaumont Theater, where "Utopia" is being staged, is officially a Broadway house.)

The original suggestion was to push the "Coast" run all the way through the end of June. That would allow the show to take advantage of potential buzz from the Tony Awards, being handed out June 10.
Ah... So is that what this is about?

"The actors were a little bit gun-shy on that," says Gersten. For now the run ends May 13, just before Tony noms are announced, although a further extension remains a possibility.
I doubt many in the original cast will stay even longer. But LCT has nothing programmed in the Beaumont for summer, it looks like. So why let it go dark, they'll say, and probably go for it, even with cast replacements. (Just please, Andre Bishop, please, no Tony Danza as Bakhunin!)

At the very least, the longer engagement will help keep "Utopia" in the minds of Tony voters. Unlike "Angels in America," another multi-part legit production whose two plays came six months apart and were eligible for Tonys in two consecutive years, LCT is pushing for all three parts of "Utopia" to be considered together as one single production. That issue will be decided in the spring by the Tony Awards admin committee.
This is smart. The trilogy really is one play, as people are finding out. (Which is why it's a crime to charge three full price tickets to it!) But as much as I have no respect for the Tonys, I always felt it was weird--and unfair--for "Angels" to win Best Play twice.
The extension also will help boost the theater's earned income from "Coast," since the three installments have fewer total playing weeks than three separate productions at the Beaumont normally would. Due to a rigorous sked that reduces the frequency of performances for one part to make time for rehearsals for another, many weeks in the first half of the run have fewer than the standard eight perfs.

"We were short on earned income, but we had accepted the consequence of it," says Gersten. He also said that mounting the three-parter cost roughly the same as three separate plays -- usually in the area of $2 million-$2.5 million.

But even Bishop and Gersten didn't expect "Coast" to prove quite so popular.

They originally planned a top-heavy sked, with 55 perfs of "Voyage"; 34 of "Shipwreck," and 27 of "Salvage."

"We didn't assume everyone would want to see all three," Bishop admits, adding that they believed many theatergoers would come for the first part to get a taste, but would not necessarily want to commit to two further plays.

They also assumed no one would buy the marathons, which have a hefty top ticket price of $300.

"I was totally deluded," Bishop says.

The marathons were the first to go. Most buyers purchased more than one show, and many bought all three, which meant that "Salvage," with the fewest perfs, sold out first. (Tickets remain available, on a very limited basis, to the original runs of the first two parts.)

Now here's something interesting...
"What we have found is, the play is accessible," Bishop says -- despite the show's potentially intimidating intellectual pedigree, which was further pumped up by a recent article in the New York Times recommending 11 history books to read in preparation for viewing "Coast."

Stoppard sent a letter to the Times in response, encouraging auds to come as they are. "What kind of madman would write a play that requires the audience to read a dozen books in advance?" he wrote.
So what we have here is a lot of really rich people willing to spend $300 (x2 or 3, for the family) to look smart? Are middle class intellectuals deciding to spend their christmas money and treat themselves? Or are all the rich, educated, sophisticated professionals who notoriously never go to theatre finally showing up!

I suspect actually an influx of smart theatregoers from out of town who have made it a kind of intellectual tourism trip.
With auds flocking to the imminent marathons, LCT is still working out the logistics of those day-long events.

"How do you make feeding arrangements for a thousand people?" Gersten asks of the auds who will be spending a total of 12 hours at Lincoln Center.

For now, LCT is planning to beef up its concessions and to provide lists of nearby restaurants.

"Will audiences bring their own lunch and eat in the lobby?" Bishop wonders. "We don't know."
That's right. Unlike London's Royal National, Lincoln Center was not built to be a true theatre "center". The cafe bars alone at RNT (and there are several) are worth the visit!

That is one of the benefits of a national theatre, I suppose.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Robert Wilson

Interesting interview with Robert Wilson in Backstage, on the occasion of the recent documentary about him.

Here's a bit that will rile up some playwrights out there:

Acting is about doing something, not about reading. The easiest things are the most difficult to do on stage: to stand, to walk. Trying to stand or walk casually, naturalistically, is already to fail. There is nothing natural about being on a stage, trying to act like there is no audience in front of you. I always tell my actors that the space in the back is as important as the space in front of them. They need both to create the tension that will hold the audience's attention. It is important to get the movements right before even thinking about the text. I rehearse silently at first, without text or music. I put the movements together with the sound much later.

Talk amongst yourselves.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Too Late to Save "Hi Fi"

New York 1's Roma Torre so far seems the only critic to actually like the soon-to-be late "High Fidelity."

Its aim is simply to entertain which means it's loaded with kitschy gimmicks, some of which score while others fall flat. But mostly it is successful in reaching out to a young, culturally hip audience that does not want to think too hard and just have fun....

But best of all in this show is Will Chase's pitch-perfect performance as a winning kind of guy who keeps on losing. Impressive last year as the best of the Lennon’s in the musical "Lennon," he sings and acts with a truthfulness that makes you want to jump right up and buy a 45.
Yeah, I imagine quite a few in the audience have had the urge to reach for a '45...

And which demographic again doesn't want to think at the theatre???

(Maybe assumptions like that is why no one succeeds in attracting the young hipsters in the first place...)

Development Hell Rocks! (says "American Theatre")

Check out Mr. Excitement's illuminating dissection of the current American Theatre editorial defending development hell--I'm sorry, new play development.

According to editor Jim Quin,

What some detractors may not realize is that the American system of new-play development, for all its shortcomings, is virtually unique in the world; except for the British theatre (where the well-funded Royal Court takes the lead), writer development is simply not practiced in most of Europe.

This reminds me of a random Simpsons joke where a kid in some silly essay grade-school contest on Freedom intones with a straight face, "Where else but America--or possibly Canada--can one pursue their dreams..." Yes, where else in the world can one submit your play over and over again to theatres with no money so that they can put on one-day-rehearsed music stand readings of your work. Oh yeah--everywhere! Except in some of those other weird barbaric countries, you might actually see sets, costumes, actors off book, and audiences.

As Mr. E points out, that "except the Royal Court" is a big exception!
What Jim O'Quinn avoids mentioning in this Editor's Note is that the Royal Court isn't known simply for doing a bunch of readings. They made their name in the 90s the authentic way, by actually producing the new plays of Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Christopher Shinn, Joe Penhall and many others. (On my recent trip--well, 2003--to the Court, I caught The Sugar Syndrome, written by 23-year old Lucy Prebble.)

Indeed, what countries is Jim Quinn talking about?

Maybe, maybe, he means that other countries don't have labyrinthine grant processes to fund tons of pointless readings. And perhaps the rate of actually production of new work is not as high in Europe as in England. (Again, perhaps. I'm sure this is knowable. And probably not true!) But one thing I do bet anyone about new work abroad--it costs a lot less in some cities to rent a space and put it on yourself, advertise it, and get people to see it. And in a welfare state, you can better sustain yourself as a new playwright so you can live to write again.

No, I'm sorry, the U.S. is not a "writer's theatre" as Quinn puts it, because it is not a writer's culture.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Our National Endowment for the Arts has just released a bucket full o' money to a bunch of theatres. See here for a partial list, with a link to the complete.

I guess this is how the NEA works, but it's quite striking how many on the list are the big nonprofit theatres (McCarter, Guthrie, e.g.). And in NYC, Lincoln Center got a grant for Part 3 of the Stoppard! No doubt they were counting on it. But, given this influx of taxpayer dollars, they still make no apologies for the $100 tix?

In related news, Dana Goia has just been reappointed for another term as NEA chief. I haven't been following his tenure closely, I admit. But he seems the best we can hope for from this administration. At least with Democrats in power, he can get some bankrolling!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"Die Fidelity"

Barbara Hoffman gives the full NY Post treatment to High Fidelity's posted closing notice.


'HIGH Fidelity," low turnout - which is why the producers of the $10 million Broadway musical announced yesterday that they're pulling the plug Sunday, scarcely a week after the show's Dec. 7 opening...

...[T]he young, single men who flocked to the film - the so-called "Spamalot" demographic - stayed away from the musical in droves.

According to the Playbill stats, in the week leading up to December 10, High Fidelity did 45% capacity in a 1,435-seat (at an average ticket price of $54.90).

Meanwhile, the Spring Awakening producers say "We do so have an advance, Riedel." The reviews have helped them double it. Now it's all up to word of mouth for them...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


"In a major change for one of New York City's resident not-for-profits, Manhattan Theatre Club's artistic director Lynne Meadow will take a sabbatical for the 2007-08 season, MTC announced Dec. 12. Meadow will use the time 'to travel and write,' according to a statement. She will return to MTC for the 2008-09 season."

MTC was becoming just that unsustainable I guess.

Read the whole story in Playbill. No doubt in the Times tomorrow.

The good news is look who's taking over, as a temp at least: Daniel Sullivan!

Notice he's bolstered (buffered?) by the quite large MTC leadership team, staying in place:

Daniel Sullivan, a close associate of MTC and director of several Manhattan Theatre Club productions (Proof, Sight Unseen, Brooklyn Boy, Psychopathia Sexualis), will serve as acting artistic director, working with Barry Grove, MTC's longtime executive producer, and with MTC's artistic staff, including Paige Evans, director of artistic development; Mandy Greenfield, director of artistic operations; and Amy Loe, director of artistic administration.

I admit, those titles don't show off Sullivan's best work, which maybe hasn't been at MTC recently. (Although why didn't they mention Rabbit Hole?) Perhaps he was better represented by Intimate Apparel (Roundabout) and Stuff Happens (Public).

Meadow will still be directing the new Charles Busch play in the Spring and not taking her very dignified sounding hiatus till the summer. It does seem time for new leadership at MTC, if they're going to survive the Curse of the Biltmore. But it may require more extensive replacements at the top levels, and/or a whole new mission.


In a Sunday piece tucked away in the Times metro section, Charles Isherwood paints the full picture of a pathetic Broadway experience, not even a shadow of the glory days.

He also reminds us of those demographics:

The latest demographic report from the League of American Theaters and Producers, the marketing umbrella agency for Broadway, shows that during the 2005-6 season, 19 percent of Broadway theatergoers were from New York City, down from 31 percent in 1980-81. The immediate suburbs contributed 24 percent, slightly fewer than the 28 percent of a quarter-century earlier. While visitors from other countries held even at 11 percent, the largest growth came in the category of tourists from elsewhere in the United States, at 45 percent for the most recent season, up from 30 percent of the audience in 1980-81.

As a result, in the ratio of us and them, us being New Yorkers and city-adjacent folks, the balance has shifted considerably. “We” made up 58 percent of the audience 20-some years ago and now account for only 43 percent.

And yet this is still the theatre venue covered almost exclusively by the media as representative of The American Theatre.

Ok, I let me New York snobbery show through there, I guess. I suppose it might be more accurate to say that this is The American Theatre, since so many, many Americans from all over are coming.

But we can now see clearly that Broadway is not the New York Theatre. There is a New York Theatre, but it's not there. And people who hate Broadway might be surprised to learn how good it can be.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"declaratory judgments"

That's what the accused Urinetown copycats are sueing (counter-sueing?) for.

Now the Chicago team, too. More specifically...

The Chicago team's suit asks for declaratory judgments stating it did not violate the Copyright Act or the Lanham Act (which contains federal trademark law). Shechtman [the Broadway team's lawyer, Ronald H. Shechtman] accused both productions of those violations in a Nov. 13 letter that set off the controversy.

Both the Chicago and Akron suits name Urinetown's Broadway director John Rando, choreographer John Carrafa, set designer Scott Pask, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and costume designer Gregory Gale.

The Chicago suit goes one step further by naming Barbara Hauptman, executive director of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC), who has supported the Broadway team. Adler [the Chicago team's lawyer, David M. Adler] says his suit also seeks a retraction of and possible monetary damages for "defamatory statements" made by the Broadway team at a press conference, held at the SSDC offices on Nov. 15, two days after the letter was sent.

So the head of SSDC is being sued? That's news that should get directors everywhere to sit up and notice.

Anyone want to elucidate us on this Lanham Act?

Spring Awakening raves

The Spring Awakening crew must be very happy the Times sent not Brantley, but Isherwood for the big review. A) Isherwood already wrote a thumbs-up for them the first time around this summer. And B) Brantley has not been too kind over the years to director Michael Mayer, especially when it comes to musicals.

Meanwhile, the Sun's Eric Grode wonders if it isn't "the best rock musical ever" and even the Post's old-timer Clive Barnes is ga-ga over it.

The ticket sales will definitely spike now. Let's see if that young audience comes out. Or if at least their parents take them.

Aristophanes Kills The Onion.

Audiences nowadays are so used to being spoon-fed the most simplistic material, they don't recognize good comedy anymore. You can read them stasimon after stasimon of the funniest chanted poetry ever, and they still sit there like so much stone statuary at the Oracle of Delphi.

What do I gotta do, beg?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Low Fidelity

"Talking Heads, Guns 'N' Roses, Bruce Springsteen — this list has nothing to do with music geeks and everything to do with marketing demographics. And when the otherwise winning Mr. Chase punctuates his first song with a thunderous move on air guitar, any hopes of establishing hipster credibility are pretty much shot."

-NY Sun's Eric Grode, with (we can hope) the last word on High Fidelity: The Musical.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Billington in NY

Whether you end up agreeing with his reviews or not, reading the perspective of the veteran London critic Michael Billington on his visit to New York is intriguing.

Here, for instance, he's actually impressed how Little Dog Laughed and Regrets Only testify to a vibrant mainstream tatse for gay boulevard comedy. His reviews on the plays may be mixed, but his comparison of the current London and New York scenes on this issue is fascinating.

Now if we can only get Billington to see some shows downtown.

Theatre YouTubes

Kudos to George Hunka for taking up the mantle of tracking down the best theatre clips on YouTube. So far he's posted scenes from two 60s British milestones, Marat/Sade and Pinter's The Homecoming.

Technically these are just theatre-related since they're from the movie versions. But in both cases, the original director and original cast.

Happy Friday viewing!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Infantilizing the Audience

Joe Fornabaio for The New York Times

Is it just me, or is there a fascinating tension in Campbell Robertson's front-page NYT story today, "Magical Moments, Tantrums or a $250 Lullaby." On the one hand, it goes about documenting the absurdity of wealthy parents buying up Broadway seats for their tots, who have no idea of what's going on. On the other hand, the article also seems to send the subliminal message: why don't you take your kids to a Broadway show this holiday season!

Case in point: see photo above. Remember, the article--headed by this photo--appeared on the front page of the Times. (And I don't mean front page of The Arts.) To some of us the image may scream absurd conspicuous consumption. But to the perceived typical NYT subscriber, does this not say, Awww?

And then: who do I call to get tickets?

Actually, what I think is going on here is Robertson wrote a very serious and informative piece taking us inside the demographics of the new megamusical in the Age of Disney, but that the Times saw its potential to be yet another charming consumer guide for the rich and famous. Among Robertson's more critical points:
The perception of Broadway as a destination for families with children has been growing for years, keeping pace with the rise of the tourist audience. According to the League of American Theaters and Producers, the proportion of Broadway theatergoers under the age of 18 rose from 4 percent in 1980 to a peak of 11.6 percent in the 2000-01 season. Last season 9.6 percent were under 18, with a third of those — or 384,000 theatergoers — under 12.
In other words, Disney hopes to succeed on Broadway with the same formula that blossomed for them in their 90s animated films. Namely--your ideal ticket buyers are not individuals, but families. Preferably big families. Why sell just a pair of tickets when you can sell 4 or 5.

Of course that means putting out product that mom and dad feel comfortable taking the kids to. And if you think that means PG-13, then you've just cheated yourself out of the potential millions you miss by excluding the todlers and teethers.

The article communicates very well--if subtly--that the only bankable forumla for success (i.e. profit) on Broadway today is A Show For The Whole Family. Contrast this to the plight of the more "adult" musicals I wrote about yesterday.

In his lede, for instance, Robertson conveys the boom for the industry along with the risk for the parent/consumer:
Four hundred and fifty bucks. That’s what it cost the Agnew family for a Saturday night performance of “The Lion King.” Whether that considerable chunk was spent for two hours and 45 minutes of delight or for one flustered and fuss-filled act followed by a hasty escape at intermission came down to one person: Harris Agnew, age 3.
Turns out they stayed. But if they didn't...They ain't gettin' that $450 back. It's Disney's.

The story reminded of some of the troubles Mary Poppins (a Disney-Cameron Mackintosh co-production) was having in previews, as reported on by Riedel. More worrisome to the Disney moneymen than the uncooperative special effects were the stated concerns that the show was a) too long, and b) too scary. One would have thought kids like to be scared...until you realize they're talking about kids kids. Like 3 years old. I like to imagine Sir Cameron and his director Sir Richard Eyre's reaction when Disney explained to them the show--like the circus--must be completely inoffensive to just to ladies and gentleman but children of all ages.

As promotional as I think the article is, the Poppins people won't like what they read as some of their worst fears are realized.

The verdict is still out on “Mary Poppins.” At a recent Sunday matinee there was a small exodus of theatergoers at intermission, each group led by a little child.

Escorting a party of five was Emma Iadanza, recently turned 6. This was Emma’s first early exit, said her father, Joe Iadanza (who, it probably should be said, was not paying; this one was on the grandparents). Emma had been to six or seven shows. “Mary Poppins,” Mr. Iadanza said, was too scary for her in some parts and boring in others. But you never know until you go.

By the way, the new Grinch musical clocks in at 1hr 15. Twelve shows a week. They're no dummies.

While there are certainly some unique problems the little ones pose (Robertson reports breast-feeding in the house, as well as the occasional availability of “lap tickets") there's also a lot of chuckles to be had when you realize that these toddlers are not necessarily much worse an audience than the regular crowd.
“You make sure that they’re fed and you make sure they’ve had their nap”...

“It was a lot of money for her to sit and sleep”...

...there are more bathroom trips and perhaps a general squirminess among members of the audience, but not much more so than among the grown-ups at the more ponderous Broadway shows....
Now if they just threw in "lap tickets" and breast feeding for the adults, that would be showbiz...

Urinetown dispute "getting uglier"

The Urinetown debate rages on. Not only in the papers, but on this blog! Check out the extended discussion going on under the previous post's Comments.

Meanwhile, Variety's Gordon Cox stays on the case, with this surprising development:

The "Urinetown" dispute is getting uglier.

Joseph P. McDonnell, who directed the original 1999 production of "Urinetown" at the New York Intl. Fringe Fest, is accusing the team that staged the Broadway version of the musical of plagiarizing some of his contributions to the show.

Maddening, perhaps. But inevitable. The genie is out of the bottle. Even one who supports the idea of director copyright in principle has to acknowledge that there could be no end to the claims. And, hey, who am I to say McDonnell doesn't have a case?

One reassuring thought is that this is what courts are for. Nothing wrong with people making claims. As long as there are responsible judges to resolve them. I am aware of my uncharacteristic optimism there. Plus, getting tied up in court and legal fees is no fun. But the movement is out there, so a clear ruling is badly needed.

Time Out: Rating the Critics

Time Out comes out this week with a big cover-story poll on the New York critics. In every field.

We set out to review the reviewers, our own included. First, we developed a system of grading, on a scale of one to six, using five categories: knowledge, style, taste, accessibility and influence. Next, we enlisted panelists, from publicists to curators and artists—in other words, the people most likely to be directly affected by criticism—to use our system to rate NYC’s arbiters of taste and to provide (anonymous) comments.
Complete list of panelists here. Even some bloggers' votes were also solicited, including yours truly.

So take a look at the theatre roundup. You may be surprised.

For instance, lowest scoring? Hilton Als! Not Charles Isherwood.

Highest scoring? Charles Isherwood.

(Actually, not technically true. Time Out's own David Cote eeked him out! But the TONY critics are listed separately. Good for David. But I'm sure he's not a little embarassed by the appearance of rigging. I can attest, though, that the whole process was pretty anonymous and independently conducted.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"Spring Awakening"

As I predicted earlier, a youth-oriented new musical like Spring Awakening is going to have trouble in today's Broadway market. Michael Riedel follows up his previous High Fidelity pre-postmortem with a look behind the scenes at this more promising and better respected effort. Riedel goes to bat for Spring, but is frank about their weak advance sales, and their marketing dilemmas.

The producers - all 35 of them - have been wracking their brains to come up with a marketing campaign that will lure both traditional theatergoers, who might be put off by the raw sexual themes, and people in their teens, 20s and 30s, a group that generally shuns musicals as hopelessly unhip. So far, they haven't cracked the code.

Says a production source: "We're chasing an audience that doesn't go to the theater. They're elusive. And the older crowd that goes to the revivals doesn't know what this show's about. It's a real challenge."

The struggle has led to spirited debates among the producers, sources say. One camp wants to tout the show's edgy sexuality; another wants to project a gentler image of romance and coming of age.

So the dilemma is, how to appeal to one group without turning off the other. Especially hard since part of what will deter one group is the sheer presence of the other. Hipsters don't want to see a sexy rock musical alongside their grandparents and the old guard doesn't want to dress up, pay hundreds of bucks for a night at the "theatah," and find their view obstructed by someone's nose ring.

Unfortunately for Spring Awkanening, both groups have to come--plus a whole lot of other people--and be willing to shell out upwards of $75 for the experience.

(Riedel's not kidding about the 35 producers, by the way. He wrote an earlier column about how they've had to hire a separate "producer wrangler" to protect the small group of original "lead" producers from all the others--who are basically the moneymen & moneywomen. God help the stage of Radio City should this show ever win Best Musical at Tony time.)

Here's a great example of the conundrum faced by the quixotic team:

The split has even flared up over the show itself. During previews, a couple of producers argued that the end of Act I, in which a teenager is forcibly seduced by her boyfriend, should be toned down. These producers wanted a kiss rather than a near-rape.

They didn't prevail, though, and "Spring Awakening" - which played off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater last season - hasn't been Disneyfied for Broadway. But the ad campaign seems to be navigating the middle ground. The poster art depicts a boy on top of a girl (who's showing a bit of flesh above her stocking). It's the sex scene, but it looks more like a first kiss.

"For a show that really pushes the envelope, there is no edge," a top theater
executive says.

No edge, yes. And younger audiences can smell fake edge a mile away. Hence no one under 30 will go see High Fidelity.

I'm fascinated by the debate over this particular scene, though, since in Wedekind's original play, the moment is explicitly written as a rape. The musical however (which I saw in the Atlantic Theatre run) omits Wendla's cries of "Don't, don't!" so for my money it already tones things down, and, what's more, leaves the impression that the groping is consensual. Maybe what people are really complaining about is the "boob flash" as Melchior feels her up and the actress exposes a breast. So, despite the de-fanging of Wedekind, I'm sure I'm not the only one who thought--when news of the Broadway move was announced--hmm, that will be one strange first act curtain on Broadway.

I predict that Spring Awakening will get very good, respectable reviews. (That's if the critics don't concluded the little Off-Broadway show doesn't fill the big theatre.) But will they be money reviews? That's what a show like this needs, with no stars, and only a tepid soft-rock score as its calling card. The producers hope it can be the next Rent--but the Rent success is hard to repeat. If you remember back in '94, it had incredible buzz at New York Theatre Workshop. (And let's face it, the horrible story of Jonathan Larson dying made for great press.) A day didn't go by without hearing about all the celebs lining up their limos along East 4th street to get a peak.... Plus, Rent had much better hip cred. It may have been the La Boheme storyline, but no one cared, since they wisely dressed it up like the East Village. And it was about AIDS, so pretty current. While I love late-19th century German drama as much as the next guy (ok, more than), Spring is at a disadvantage because of the foreigness of names and setting, no matter how much bop & groove Duncan Sheik can supply. This is not to say Spring Awakening isn't good. I think almost anyone who's seen it can attest to it being first-rate work, even if it isn't to your taste. (I myself am in that mall camp whose only gripe is it's not as good as Wedekind.) But from the p.o.v. of a producer, this seems like a huge gamble.

As I said in the earlier post, keep an eye on Spring, Grey Gardens, and Company. Their fortunes this season will be a very interesting test--a barometer--of where the Broadway audience is at these days. The future of the more sophisticated, adult tradition of musical theatre on Broadway lies in the balance.

ALW & Shakespeare II

Apparently Slate's Timothy Noah agrees with me about the vapidity of a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber remark in the Times recently. But if you think I'm tough on NYT, get a load of what this real reporter says:

I don't mean to hang Chmela [the reporter] out to dry. We all write something stupid now and then. But I've always believed it was impossible that the editors at the New York Times would ever let something this transparently stupid into their newspaper, except possibly during the last week of August or the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, when most smart people go on vacation.
Just to be sure, Noah took the time to scan all possible references to Lloyd Webber and Shakespeare in the same sentence, in search of anything to justify Chmela's claim, "Mr. Lloyd Webber is often referred to as the Shakespeare of his time." Here's what he found:

1) Soup-to-nuts (as in the Liverpool Daily Echo noting that Cornwall's Minack Theater hosts "a 17-week season of plays and musicals in the summer, from Shakespeare to Andrew Lloyd Webber")

2) Your-face-and-my-ass (as in Ireland's Sunday Independent observing, "You don't go to an Andrew Lloyd Webber show looking for Shakespeare.")

The only favorable comparison I was able to find between Lloyd Webber and Shakespeare was from a piece by Peter Goddard in the Toronto Star, and that focused solely on business acumen.

Noah seems that rare political commentator who actually knows something about theatre. He references Ming Cho Lee. I'm impressed!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

"Corrie" closing

The producers of the Off-Broadway run of "My Name is Rachel Corrie" have just announced an early closing on December 17. True, that's still run 4 weeks longer than the originally announced November 19 date. But they got a little cocky, I guess, extending to December 30 after the first rush of post-opening sales.

Gee, do you think someone suggested the sales after December 17 might not be strong? While a pair of tickets to this paen to Palestinian activism seems like the perfect Chanaka present to me...maybe the holiday sales prognosis was not good.

I still haven't been able to learn exactly how well the show has been selling. (Box office figures for Off Broadway, unlike on, are not listed on Playbill and Does the early closing indicate bad, or just tepid, word of mouth? Has the departure of original actress Megan Dodds after the extension lessened enthusiasm? One would assume it was selling well in November to warrant the extension--or is this just a labor of love producer Dina Hammerstein and did she decide at some point to just pour money into it for the prestige, or for the cause?

In any case, the New York chapter for this play is finally over, I guess.

Quote of the Day

"It is a delicious irony that Broadway, the ultimate temple of commerce, depends heavily on work subsidised by the British taxpayer."

-The Guardian's eminence grise Michael Billington, in town to review The Vertical Hour.

Quite a different take on the play, by the way, worth checking out. Especially notable that he does not trash Julianne Moore.

His overall point is that the play's merit is apparent in how starved Broadway audiences seem for substantive drama about contemporary issues. Good point. I only wish, though, that Billington took a wider look around the New York scene before making statements like, "Subtract the Brits and Broadway drama is negligible." Broadway drama has become an outright impossibility, I'd argue. (Reminds me of what Ghandhi said when asked about "Western Civilization"--"Sounds like a good idea," he replied.)

Urinetown & The Case of the Creative Copyright

The Urinetown story continues to have legs. Also, many interesting comments on the last post. Including Isaac's call for me to take more of a stance on the whole intellectual/creative copyright issue.

So here goes. Many of the advances achieved over time in basic rights (in both employment and renumeration) for artists have at first been met with skepticism. Back before the first Actors Equity strike in 1919, for instance, being an actor was just considered a risky profession. So if you didn't get paid for rehearsal or reimbursed for your costume, dem's de breaks was the prevailing wisdom. I'm sure many theatre pro's resisted the unionization, warning that no one will produce large-cast shows any more, or that it will cut down on rehearsal time, etc. I'm sure there were many good arguments.

Go back even further into the 19th century, and you don't find basic copyright protections for playwrights until the later decades. Hey, you were lucky to get your play on once, was the thinking. Don't expect to chase down royalties from every little stock theatre once it gets into print. The result was almost no one--even authors of the occasional hit--could make a living as a full time professional dramatist, thus weakening our dramatic literature in this country as a whole during that period.

Today, these two advances seem so essential to the functioning of the theatrical profession that we don't question them. That's because we see actors and writers as the most central contributors to the artform. So maybe that's why there's been more resistance to advancing the rights of designers and directors? Especially in the area of "copyright."

I suspect playwrights resist this because it implies co-authorship (or at least co-creation) of a work, and upsets the accepted hierarchy of the playwright writes the play and the directors & designers merely interpret it. The Chicago and Akron Urinetown productions are basically arguing for a very broad definition of "interpretation" to mean that two people can interpret a play very similarly without copying each other. But notice how you don't hear people usually argue that two writers can't write the same string of words without probably some copying going on.

The current practices privilege the written text as the "essential" work, and disputes like this one upset things by basically questioning that. Not in devaluing the script, but by elevating the non-written contributions of staging and design choices. I am sympathetic to guarding the playwright's work as unique and sacred. But I don't think that should prevent us from recognizing other contributions to a production as well. And by recognize I do mean legally and financially because...well look what kind of society we live in? If you can't get paid for it, or have it down in writing in a legal document, our civic-economic system doesn't really recognize it at all, does it?

It's easy in the Urinetown case to look at the individuals and circumstances and have sympathy for "the little guy." No, a struggling director may say, John Rando does not need more credit or more money. Yes, "Urinetown" is a simple plot told in a "rough theatre" style and, one could say, "designs itself." (A point I'm sure that could be cogently refuted by the original expert design team.) On the other hand, I see some details in the case particularly damning for the little guy. The fact that an actor from the original show is behind one of the productions shows this was not a case of two people coincidentally having the same thought in two different time zones. And I sincerely doubt that--as successful as John Rando and his designers are--they would fly out to the midwest and sit through two productions of a show they left behind long ago and go to court over some 3-4 figure renumeration if they did not feel major elements and substantial portions of their work was not being reproduced without any acknowledgment.

But leaving aside the particulars, let's think of the big picture. If Rando & co. "win" (whatever that means here), what are the conequences? Well it wouldn't be received as good news by regional theatres--or even anyone producing a "revival" for that matter. Of course, a multi-million dollar Broadway revival can more easily afford the complicated licensing fees involved in recreating something like A Chorus Line from the Michael Bennett template. (Even though even these producers stiffed the original dancers whose stories make up the piece, unlike Bennett, who gave them a cut.) But, sure, if I were a dinner theatre in Akron, OH or a small Chicago theatre, having to devote more of my budget to fees could be prohibitively expensive. Certainly, the result could possibly be a discouraging of productions of successful familiar shows and therefore a dip in business for all concerned, including the very theatre artists we all want to help.

Call me an optimist, but I have faith, though, that there's a way to make this work, to both recognize non-written elements of a successful show in reproducing it and to keep the costs down. I sense that Rando & co. are not being totally irrational in their campaign, not seeking millions of dollars. A lot of this is really about the credit. Yes we want to sympathize with the small town director who happens to stage a show the same way Jerry Zaks did on B'way. But imagine yourself as the director of a successful original show--perhaps a script you helped nurture through rehearsal. How would you feel about a director somewhere else replicating your unique staging ideas and claiming them as his own? If you read the details of the Joe Mantello case, for instance (the landmark director copyright precedent case over Love Valour Compassion) they are very persuasive and I really do find myself sympathizing with him--insanely prosperous director that he is. In fact, I don't hold Mantello's success against him in that case because it is precisely because of his success, his clout, that he got the case heard. His victory truly helps other directors far less famous.

So here are some possible guidelines and areas of negotiation that could possibly satisfy directors (and designers) while not skyrocketing the costs of producing revivals and regional premieres of hit shows.

-The credit in the program. If the formality of acknowledging the influence of a previous director and/or designer can just become routine (and inexpensive) in the playbill, that could go a long way toward appeasing the original artists. Even now, mega-directors like Hal Prince are able to write themselves into the licensing contracts of every show they direct. (So that your even your Company program will have to say "Original Production Directed by Harold Prince," even if this production has nothing to do with his staging.) Very few directors have such clout now. Maybe SSDC (the directors union) can make at least that kind of recognition easier to attain.

-Renumeration can remain small. Obviously there have already been many isolated renumeration agreements with directors and designers. I wonder what the going rate is? I bet setting some standards (and setting them low, while they can) now would actually be better for small theatres than leaving them at the mercy of bigshot agents every time they want to negotiate the rights to the latest B'way hit.... Also, how about an expiry date? No one's saying you have to pay the George Abbott estate if your modeling your staging of Damn Yankees on his. How about paying nominal director/designer fees on all shows within five years of their B'way run, if you're basically using their work. After that, there's still credit in the program, but no fees.

-Defining the terms. As one commenter with a musical expterise posted, it is possible to define what constitutes plagarism or undue copying. A song, for instance, may be considered plagarized only if a pre-specified threshold of sequential notes are identical. You can't just argue the songs sound alike. Likewise, detailed stage managers' records of blocking and stage business can be documented and a threshold agreed upon. (So that even stealing an isolated "bit" might still be allowable in itself.) While the very thought of "copyrighting" directing may send shudders down the spines of directors and theatres everywhere, the details of what constitutes it may not be as scary as everyone thinks. Or at least they don't have to be. This is still unchartered territory.... Also, the precedents set by designers can be helpful. Now that lighting plots and stage design plans can be copyrighted, let's see what we've learned from that so far.

Perhaps the most persuasive point I can make in favor of "settling" this is... it's not going away. It's in the interests of artists everywhere (and small theatres in particular) to have something properly negotiated and spelled out now. Otherwise, individually powerful directors like Mantello and even Rando could push their claims much farther, as far as their dollars will let them. An agreed upon standard contract and licensing agreement could at least reign in the cases of the mega-directors. And let's face it, they're the one likely to be behind the shows most people want to copy!

In sum, now that we've legalized and rationed the playwright and actor's work, why leave the directors and designers out? Especially in an era--let's face it--where our theatre is more of a "director's theatre" than ever before. Before the last century, none of them had rights. We've come a long way since then, so why not be more inclusive.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Lord Lloyd Webber gets another title

"Mr. Lloyd Webber is often referred to as the Shakespeare of his time with musicals like 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' 'Evita' 'Cats' and 'The Phantom of the Opera.' "

I have never seen a more egregious use of the passive voice. "Referred to"? By whom??? Other than the publicists over at the Really Useful Group. "Shakespeare of his time"? What the hell can that mean???

And yet there it is in the New York Times, in an article by Holli Chmela about the Kennedy Center Honors last night.

I've searched hard for a wink of irony in that line, by the way. There isn't any.

Tale of Two Citie$

The $100 theatre ticket comes to LA. Even at the Center Theatre Group, which I thought was a nonprofit. Then again, so is Lincoln Center. At least, at Center, it's just the first 15 rows on a Saturday night.

Meanwhile, Guardian blogger Maxie shows us just how much good theatre you can see in London for £10 and under. (That's less than $20, btw.)

A tale of two cities? Or of two ideas of government, and society.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Pissing Contest? (Urinetown, Round 2)

The accused Urinetown copycat productions are fighting back. In court.

The Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, OH, has sued the Broadway team, and a lawyer for the Chicago production at the Mercury Theater sent the Broadway team a letter denying all charges.

The suit, filed Nov. 22 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, asks the court to declare that the Akron production is "not substantially similar" to the Broadway production and did not violate any laws.

"We want an acknowledgement that the work done in Akron was original and didn't violate anybody's creative rights," says Terrence L. Seeberger, a lawyer for the Akron production.

"We're not going to be bullied, honestly, by something we deem very harmful to the industry and we're not going to sit and take it, especially when we worked very hard to create something completely different on its own merit," Tom Mullen, the director and producer of the Chicago Urinetown, tells

Not quite sure yet what they're suing for. Defamation of artistic character???

The Broadway team, though, does have one thing on their side. Copyright. Did you know that lighting plots can be copyrighted?

The suit acknowledges that the Broadway lighting design was copyrighted on Aug. 21 of this year, but does not acknowledge any other copyrights, except for the script.

Ronald H. Shechtman, a lawyer for the Broadway team, said that he has received approved copyrights for the choreography and set design as well. Applications for copyrights for the direction and costume design, filed in late summer, he says, are still pending.

In the past, only the work of playwrights, choreographers and set designers has been deemed protected by law, but for direction, and costume and lighting design, the situation is much more fuzzy, Shechtman says. But, he added, "if they want to test us on the issue of stage direction, we believe this is an appropriate test case."

Test case? Wow.

Keep an eye on this one. There could be lots of divided loyalties here, splitting theatre folk down the middle. Will the support be behind achieving more recognition and renumeration for original creative contributions? Or on the side of the little theatres in the heartland against the Bullies of Broadway?

Friday, December 01, 2006

"Special Theatrical Events"

More diplomacy over at Tony HQ:

The Tony Awards Administration Committee assembled for the second time this season Nov. 30. The Committee discussed the eligibility of nine Broadway shows that have opened so far this season....

Both Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway and the recently closed Jay Johnson: The Two and Only will be eligible for nomination in the Special Theatrical Event category.

Martin Short's show, on the other hand, will compete in (I assume) for the Best Musical nominations....Good news for Kiki & Herb fans, I suppose. The category is theirs so far for the taking. If the category even survives, that is. At least they are worthy of honor. Otherwise, based on recent years, the "Special" category is starting to resemble other meanings of that word.

See the full Playbill coverage for other Solomonic judgments handed down on questions such as: is the guy playing The Grinch eligible for "Lead Actor" even if his name isn't above the title???

Havel gets his due

"Vaclav Havel will finally collect his Obie Awards.

In 1968 he won an Obie, the Off Broadway theater prize, for his play “The Memorandum,” but since he was under house arrest in Czechoslovakia, he could not receive it in person. In 1984 Joseph Papp, the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, smuggled the award into Czechoslovakia and presented it to him in secret. Mr. Havel won two more Obies that he could not accept, for “The Increased Difficulty of Concentration” in 1970 and “A Private View” in 1984.

But on Monday night Michael Feingold, the critic and chairman of The Village Voice Obie Awards, will present him with a certificate representing all three prizes at a panel discussion at the Public Theater. The panel, which includes Wallace Shawn, Edward Albee, Israel Horovitz and Anna Deavere Smith, will discuss Mr. Havel’s work and its influence on American art."

- Campbell Robertson, Arts, Briefly.

Of course, he would still not be eligible for a Tony.

Casting Calls & Civil Rights

Uh, I don't know if I want to touch this one...

A new report from UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center suggests struggling women and minority actors might want to bring something extra to their next audition besides a head shot: a civil rights lawyer.

Some casting calls that specify gender and ethnicity could violate federal anti-discrimination laws, according to the report by Russell Robinson of the UCLA School of Law, who examined Breakdown Services' listings of national movie casting calls from June 1 to Aug. 31 and analyzed roles compiled by online movie sites.

Robinson's report concludes that 69% of available acting roles are designed for white males, either explicitly or by unspoken consensus, and that minority actors were limited to no more than 8.1% of jobs, depending on the ethnic group....

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars excluding contenders for a job based on race, ethnicity or gender, though Robinson said leeway is given for creative works in which the narrative would be compromised. Imagine, for example, Billy Bob Thornton cast as slave rebel Nat Turner.

But Robinson argues that many casting calls limit potential hires when it is not crucial to the narrative, and that could violate federal laws. He recommends that Hollywood film producers ban race or gender designations in the casting call "breakdowns" except where defensible for narrative....

Courtesy of Scott Martelle, LA Times.

Now this is about film & tv auditions. But clearly it's an issue theatre directors, producers, casting agents, and, of course, playwrights, will probably have to address very soon as well.

This understanding of a "narrative" exception does seem sensible and helpful. But I can also imagine a playwright being brought into court to defend why he/she insists a white actor be cast just because "I'm writing about white people" when the script's "narrative" is not explicitly centered around race.