The Playgoer: the Synergy of "Magical Thinking"

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Friday, March 16, 2007

the Synergy of "Magical Thinking"

According to Riedel today, Vanessa Redgrave's one-woman show of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is turning out to be the surprise "producer's dream" of the season:

The Redgrave-Didion combination - Redgrave is starring in Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," now in previews - is especially potent, with advance ticket sales nearing $4 million, an impressive number for a dramatic play. There have been $10 million musicals this season that haven't sold as many tickets.

I suspect the reason is not just Redgrave's draw, but the turning out of New York's literary set--those educated cultured crowd that normally takes little interest in theatre that isn't Tom Stoppard or The History Boys. It's the perfect "snob hit" by taking a very popular highbrow book title and merging it with the cachet of a four-star British actress.

The "anti-theatrical" prejudice of American intellectuals is well-established and goes back a long, long way. I could complain about the lack of coverage of the more interesting homegrown theatre or the need to improve accessibility and scheduling of performances. (Ticket prices, of course, are not necessarily an obstacle for this demographic.) But at the end of the day, the silly truth is probably that a lot of hoity-toities still think theatre is fine for singing and dancing and witty Oscar Wilde quips, but otherwise a commercial wasteland just a notch above Vegas.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Anti-theatricalism of the intellectual set: yeah, it exists. But what a whiff of anti-intellectualism in your post! Didion is a great writer. Redgrave is a great actor. That's about as good an explanation as anyone needs. I don't think it's snobby to prefer that to s musical about a spelling bee or with singing puppets, enjoyable as those shows may be. How many well-written, well-written plays make it to Bway? As you yourself note, not so many. When they come -- like Journey's End -- so do the crowds. That seems to be something to celebrate, not grouse about.

June said...

I agree with you to a large extent, Anonymous, but it isn't true that smart folks go to Broadway shows when the shows are well-written and well-acted. The TERRIBLE box office numbers for Journey's End, which got amazing reviews, bear that out. William Golding's description of the "snob hit" still holds true.

It's also been interesting to read the response to TYOMT on the Talkin' Broadway chat site--stuffed with people who see lots and lots of shows but dominated by musical-theater lovers. There, TYOMT is a monologue written by a first-time playwright! It's received quite negative (heck, dismissive) response over there.

The Playgoer said...

To Anonymous,

I'm hardly recommending intellectuals see "Spelling Bee" and "Avnue Q" instead of "Magical Thinking."

Rather, what I meant to take them to task for was the lack of curiosity about current theatre that leads people to think that ALL theatre is silly musicals about puppets and Spelling Bees.

Or, to put it another way--you don't have to pay $100 to see Vanessa Redgrave recite a Joan Didion novel for $100 to see some great acting and great writing on stage.

As for Journey's End I WISH you were right, but alas June is right. Sales are dismal. And it's the best thing on B'way... If ONLY everyone buying a ticket to Redgrave/Didion were forced to also buy one (or two!) for Journey's End, they would definitely not regret it.

But, alas, without theatrical royalty actors or NY Times annointed novelists, it has zero "snob appeal" factors.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you're right about Journey's End, alas, and 'twould be great if "snobs" flocking to the Didion could be made to go. But I still object to your hostility to the Didion and the people interested in it: Save your barbs for their NOT going to other things and don't bitch about TYOMT and the Times's promotion of a fine writer. This is a fine line, I know. I just hate to see TYOMT attacked a priori for its appeal to a certain audience. (And btw, it's not based on a novel, but on a memoir.)

June, too, is right that the Golding "snob hit" still holds sway. I would like to see a more serious conversation about how to get those "snobs" interested in more (good) theater. The national magazines don't cover theater -- not only because some (eg The Nation) are philistines, but more because they don't want to use up precious print real estate on something taking place only in New York (I'd put NYRB in this category -- Mendelsohn writes about theater once in a blue moon when it's something considered to be of national interest.) That leaves the local media. The Voice, sadly, is no longer a paper for the intellectually curious/politically engaged; New York Mag isn't either (and this is no swipe at Feingold or McCarter, who do admirable work, though neither has room for much adventurism). And that seems to put all the pressure on the New Yorker -- what your "snob" demographic is no doubt most likely to read. (And the NYT. Why, do you suppose, this readership is not moved by the over-the-top reviews of Journey's End?)

Anonymous said...

Rich people only care about themselves (i.e., they can identify with an old person losing their partner, but who the f*** cares about soldiers dying in a war).

Mr. C said...

What's the matter with the rich people who don't flock to see "Journey's End" or any other play raved about in the Times? Well, for one thing, if you've gone to some of these allegedly great shows, they're not actually all that great and are often quite bad. (For such supposed arbiters of taste, The Times critics are pretty awful.) If you are not a normal theatergoer and decide to plop down $100+ based upon to give this "theater thing" a try, you are not very likely going to give it another try (a rip-off is a rip-off no matter how you regard $100), when the productions which supposedly represent theater at its best are so uninspiring, uninteresting, and outdone in every way by any kind of quality film.

For those who think "Journey's End" has not dated/aged badly, really, have you NEVER seen any depictions of combat and/or the futility of war? Oh yes, and gotta love the simultaneous sentimentality and solemnity of that self-congratulatory ("ahhh, yes, what we are doing is important and relevant") curtain call... I mean, COME ON. If that's what you're defending, if that's what you think great theater is, LET IT DIE.

Mr. D said...

Mr. C,

The point is (whether one likes Journey's End or not) is that rich people will go see shitty revivals of, say, Edward Albee's Seascape, because of Albee's name and because it's about the existential angst of being rich and white (and heterosexual, too -- Albee knows his audience). People are not not going to Journey's End because it is shitty, they are going because they only care about their own limited concerns.

Mr. C. said...

Mr.D,

Are rich white people more inclined to see/welcome theater which addresses (and ultimately assuages) the anxieties of being rich and white? Yes. On that point I completely agree.

My rant was aimed more at those (here and elsewhere) who hold up Journey's End as the theatrical pearl before the philistine swine who can not appreciate its awesomeness. Journey's End is a great example of theatrical virtue only if you like your theater taxidermied and embalmed (and many critics indeed do.)

--Mr. C.

Adam K. said...

Mr. D,

If you think Seascape is about the existential angst of being rich and white, you probably didn't see it, were half-asleep while watching it, or were too busy thumbing through Das Kapital to actually listen to the dialogue. And if you think all Albee characters are white or heterosexual, you haven't seen or read The Death of Bessie Smith, Fragments, or Three Tall Women -- or were aware of his producing Amiri Baraka's The Dutchman. I'm sick of this reflexive Albee-bashing. If the theater establishment actually listened to what the man had to say, it wouldn't be in such a mess today. Don't believe me? Read his collection of essays Stretching My Mind, starting with "Which Theater is the Absurd One?"