The Playgoer: Broadway's Hotties

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Broadway's Hotties

According to Playbill, the hottest tickets on the Rialto currently are...

August: Osage County

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Grease

Hairspray

Jersey Boys

The Little Mermaid

The Lion King

Wicked

There is no one "Broadway audience" so one should not be surprised to see no one pattern here. Instead we have the two or three different aud's: August seems to be getting those rare culture-loving New Yorkers who come out once a year to actually buy tickets to a Broadway show, provided it is preferably British--or at least not lowbrow. Then you have the tourists, who account for all the musicals above--i.e. the ones that have either been running so long (Hairspray, Lion King) or got such bad reviews (Grease, Mermaid) that NY'ers won't be seeing them. Jersey Boys owes its unique "crossover" appeal in this context to the reputation it has for being both pop-nostalgia (Frankie Valli) and respectable sophisticated theatre (Des McAnuff).

As for Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, we have another crossover pitch--Great American Play (for the NY snobs) plus famous black movie stars (for the Harlem and black-church bus crowds that fueled Color Purple and P.Diddy in Raisin). Look for this formula to repeat in the near future. Stephen Byrd--Cat's producer--is entertaining parallel plans for both original African-American entertainment and more "color-blind" classics.
Mr. Byrd now has plans for a multiracial version of “A Streetcar Named Desire”; a stage adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, “Giovanni’s Room”; and a new production of “Death of a Salesman.” He has even had informal talks with Je’Caryous Johnson, a young playwright who works on the increasingly sophisticated urban play circuit — derisively called the chitlin circuit — about bringing Mr. Johnson’s original work to Broadway.
The "Salesman" reference will especially interest anyone familiar with the late August Wilson's (in)famous "The Ground On Which I Stand" address to TCG a decade ago, where Exhibit A in his prosecuting argument was:
To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans.
Hey, I'm not taking sides. I personally would never want to stand in the way of great actors playing great roles, whatever the appearance of their pigment or the DNA of their ancestry. And from what I hear the attraction of the current Cat is exactly that phenomenon.

I also am reminded of the story that Tennessee Williams himself blocked a proposed casting of the sensational African American stage actress (and later Matrix maven) Gloria Foster as Blanche DuBois in the 70s. I guess he had his reasons, too.

The issues are complex, especially when claiming to support some notion of "African American Theatre." The good thing here is that--like the Classical Theatre of Harlem, which has mixed the works of authors of color with radical reinterpretations of classics by Shakespeare, Beckett, and Genet--we have an expansive repertory for a community of actors sharing at least some threads of a common heritage. And anything that fosters such a "rep company" community among a troupe of actors doing great plays is a good thing.

The bad thing is...do we really need more hyped up commercial productions of the familiar Classic American Plays?

1 comment:

William Bailey said...

Here's what jumps out at me about that list of shows: their sales are likely benefitting from audience memories of related hit films, except for two of them. Jersey Boys, as you poitned out, has another popular tie-in -- its chart-topping music. That leaves only August: Osage County. In this day and age, its place on that list, despite the lack of a cultural tie-in, makes its anomolous best-selling status that much more impressive.