The Playgoer: November 2009

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Coming to a Theatre Near You--Subtitles!

Someone producers finally realized that if the Metropolitan Opera can have subtitles at your seats, why can't the "legit" biz? But the West End figured it out first.

The Shaftesbury Theatre in London is the first to offer the AirScript handsets. Audiences pay £6 to hire the device during a performance of its current production, Hairspray.

The script appears in real time in a choice of English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese or Chinese. The translations have been made by translators rather than translation software.

You get the genius of it? A) Theatre has dwindling audiences. B) Strongest sector of the commercial theatre audience is tourists, many of whom don't speak English.

Therefore, it surely follows: C) Rather than shut out a huge portion of the tourist market, give them theatre in their own language!

Foreign language speakers have not stayed away from either Broadway or the West End--but just have limited themselves to language-free spectacles. Like, oh, Phantom. (Or, in that case, shows they already know from home.) But these devices represent the inevitable next step in luring the tourist market--who knows, perhaps even to non-singing plays!

So expect to see it here on Broadway soon. Just don't yell at the poor foreigners for texting!

LA rising?

LA critic Charles McNulty says the NY Times can laud Seattle all it wants, but he'll still take La La Land:

According to an Actors’ Equity Assn. spokesperson, there are roughly 79 theaters in Los Angeles that use one form of equity contract or another, a number that doesn’t include any big sit-down productions or the 40 or so theaters that sometimes use an Equity member or a guest artist or special appearance contract. Nor does it include the huge number of 99-seat productions each year (verging around 1,000, was the estimate).

"In Seattle,” the spokesperson continued, "there are 15 equity theaters and an additional 16 that sometimes use the special appearance or guest artist contracts."

I'll let Colburn work out the math. But since numbers aren’t always as persuasive as anecdotes, let me get personal about this: I moved to Los Angeles from New York, where I was fairly established as a theater editor, critic and professor. I love Seattle and admire the undeniable vitality of its theater scene. And I have a few friends up north, including Misha Berson, the theater critic for the Seattle Times. But in all honesty I can’t imagine I would have left my settled life in New York for a drama critic post in Seattle (though the beauty of the natural scenery would have made it awfully tempting).

Hey, the more the merrier, right?

But at least it's nice to know maybe stage actors can move out to LA for film/tv work and not have to give up worthy theatre entirely. Right? (Seriously, bicoastal actors, chime in.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Theatre-Geek Thanksgiving Punning

Good time waster this weekend: the TCG twitter-feed of proposed titles for "thanksgiving plays."

Best so far:

  • Yamlet.
  • A Sweetpotato Named Desire
  • Flower Drumstick Song
  • Much Ado About Stuffing
  • Who's Afraid of Virginia Ham
  • Basted ("Sarah Kane's controversial masterpiece")
  • The Ice Cream Cometh
and, of course:
  • God of Carnage
Pun-o-phobes be warned.

108 Productions (re)presents "Corpus Christi"

In the spirit of giving thanks I'd like to share a moving comment I received the other day on a year-old post about the ongoing arguments and ignorance about the Terrence McNally play Corpus Christi. It's from the director of the LA-based revival that played New York last year and was the target of yet another preposterous--though at least quieter--hate campaign, one that used the New York Times as an enabler.

Yes, Mr. Arnzen says nice things about me, but I wish to put the spotlight on the brave efforts of his company in soldiering on with controversial work.

I make a point of trying to avoid all comments on shows I am currently working on. Or at least not taking what I see too much too heart. If you believe the good you need to believe the bad as well. So I just came across this blog. Fantastic coverage of a hateful attack on this innocent and kind hearted play. Thank you for your incredible, honest, passionate and soul filled voice. The play has not suffered and though the NYC run last fall was meant to be the grand finale of a three year run the show is actually still playing and has recently picked up more steam than ever. After playing in Orange County just below Los Angeles and receiving our first real visible protest the show has a long list of possible venues that want to bring the production to them. Aside from that list there are final details being worked out for the show to play in London, Paris, a UK tour, back to San Francisco, Acapulco and even Corpus Christi TX itself. An exciting time for us all and word like yours reaffirm how important it is we continue our journey even though to this date we have yet to be financially compensated for our hard work. The spiritual fulfillment we receive has proven to be enough for my cast and crew over the past few years and looks to continue that way for the year (or years) to come.
Keep speaking the truth,

Nic Arnzen
108 Productions
Good that the production continues to have a life and continues to find an audience despite the hate- and fear-mongers. I'll give thanks to that.

(By the way, if you missed the original post--or were just, understandably, put off by its length!--may I commend it to you as one of the most thorough arguments I've made on this blog about how to fight both censorship and media ignorance about the arts. So if you're looking for some longer reading for those travel delays or as a getaway from the family dinner table this weekend, here it is.)


-Cate Blanchett arrives in New York this weekend play Blanche DuBois at BAM in a trouring production from her company in Australia. NY Mag has an interview with her and director Liv Ullmann(!)

-Everyone wants in on some summer Fringe action! Even London now, as if Edinburgh, the ur-Fringe, wasn't enough for the UK.

-In the Voice, Alexis Soloski asks the question that everyone in downtown NY wonders secretly but never says: could the legendary LaMama go on without its ageless doyenne Ellen Stewart?

-Last month I raved in Time Out about the new "Emperor Jones" revival at Irish Rep. (My first five stars!) I was regretting so few would probably get to see this terrific revival of some "unrevivable" O'Neill. But now they're lucky enough to be transferring to a longer commercial Off Broadway run, at least until the end of January.

-The movie "Me and Orson Welles"--which depicts Welles' legendary 1930s Julius Caesar staging--opens in NY and LA today, and A.O. Scott's review actually makes it sound promising! You can check out some clips and other fun stuff on the film's site.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Today's Roundup

-NY Times needs a survey to tell them artists are suffering in the recession.

-London theatre's abuzz with the talk of last night's Evening Standard Awards.

-Frank Wildhorn strikes again. Bonnie & Clyde(???) opened at La Jolla. I used to do a feature here called "Bad Ideas for Musicals." Time to revive it, I think.

-What two Broadway shows averaged only 43% capacity last week? Would it surprise you that one was Superior Donuts? Or that the other was Oleanna? Of course, not. They're plays.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Best Plays 2007-2008

I am proud to announce the publication of the latest in the 89-year tradition that is "The Best Plays Yearbook"--at one time known as the "Burns Mantle Best Plays," when Mr. Mantle was alive and running things. Thankfully Jeffrey Eric Jenkins has kept the tradition going strong.

And even more thankfully, he has even engaged me to write for it! For the previous edition (2006-2007) I surveyed the Off-Off Broadway season. In the new '07-'08 volume (yes, we're a little behind, sorry) I discuss the merits of Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate. And what better time to revisit that play than now, when the Signature Theatre's marathon of his epic cycle is getting underway to wide acclaim and when a full biography of the writer has just been published.

Here's a teaser from my intro:

Horton Foote may have written Dividing the Estate in 1989, but by the time it finally opened in New York eighteen years later, it could not have seemed more current. The day the New York Times ran a rave review of the Primary Stages production, the paper also reported that home prices had just experienced “the steepest monthly price drop since December 1970.” By year’s end home foreclosures were to rise more than 75 percent over 2006 rates and housing sales plummet 25 percent. The subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 was well underway and Foote’s play about a Texas family’s overdependence on their overvalued property found its moment....
For the rest, buy the book! Amazon is offering it at nearly $20 off the list price. (See Amazon box to the right.)

Act now and you'll also get in the very same volume essays by Jeffrey Sweet on Adding Machine; Chicago's Chris Jones on August:Osage County; Celia Wren on Sarah Ruhl's eurydice;
David Cote on The Receptionist; Charles McNulty on The Seafarer; and Dan Bacalzo on Yellow Face.

Today's Roundup

Notable news and interesting reading from around the web.

-Make more money from a flop than a hit? Okay, not more, but Variety says don't count out B'way underperformers like Shrek on the road--even if it takes the Bus & Truck circuit.

-LA Times' Charles McNulty uses the Lee Strasberg Institute's 40th birthday to reflect upon the history and legacy of "the method."

-Parabasis mourns the loss of another recession casualty, DC's Catalyst Theatre.

-Need more Schiller in your life? Ach, ja! Check out the biographies and films commemorating his 250th.

-Do Americans not get farce? SF critic Chloe Veltman ponders.

-And finally, the folks at Womens Project have asked me to spread the word that their Lab program will survive their recent grant-loss, and that the deadline is coming up soon. Applicants welcome.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Today's Roundup

-In today's Times, Ben Brantley goes gaga for Part I of the Horton Foote "Orphan's Home" marathon, and the "Escapes" Travel section of all places discovers that Seattle actually has some theatre!

-Did a play ever change your life? Well maybe you can win a prize from the American Theatre Wing for telling them about it in 350 words or less. You have until November 29 to enter their contest.

-Remember Paul Simon's "Capeman" musical? Can you believe it may be the Public?

-If you liked yesterday's trailer for the Orson Welles Julius Caesar movie, here's an interview with director Richard Linklater.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Theatre News Roundup

-The Shuberts are taking on a bigger creative say in what goes into their 17 Broadway houses, by teaming up with the Steady Rain producers. Call it insurance?

-The Voice smartly sends their music guy to go to Fela! and tell us all we need to know about the Nigerian Afrobeat superstar and whether a Broadway musical about him has any chance.

-Willem Dafoe tries to explain Richard Foreman to the NPR set. (Via Upstaged.)

-Also via Upstaged, another interview: Alan Ayckbourn, who gives yet another endorsement to, of all things, the 59E59 theaters! (It’s the sort of theater I recognize and am happy with. I would be far less happy a few blocks down in a big Broadway theater.)

-Would you believe there's a major holiday movie release about...Orson Welles' 1937 fascist staging of Julius Caesar? I'm often suspect of Hollywood movies about the theatre (not to mention those including Zak Efron), but Richard Linklater is a good director and the trailer looks pretty alright. Worth it alone for the apparently accurate recreations of the production itself.

The natural bookend I say to Tim Robbins' film about Welles' other 1937 project, The Cradle Will Rock.

Not a bad year for a 22-year-old director, eh?

"The Late Christopher Bean"

In this week's Time Out I review the seldom revived 1932 Sidney Howard comedy The Late Christopher Bean. Not bad.

Happy to discover the play. Should be done more, especially by schools (i.e. a play from the 30s with roles for women!). I'm surprised other reviews haven't pointed out the clear Van Gogh parallel, which must have been the whole point of the original French farce Howard adapted. Any René Fauchois experts out there...?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sayonara Oleanna

The Broadway Oleanna has posted a January 3 closing notice. Despite a movie-star cast of its own (Julia Styles and Bill Pullman), it has not lived up to Steady Rain standards for star-driven, two-character 90 minute plays. Last week, it did only 65% capacity, barely more than Brighton Beach when that closed. According to Playbill: "As of the January close date, Oleanna will have played 15 previews and 97 performances."

Maybe the closing notice is a ploy to boost sales. Personally I blame the ad campaign's tag line for being too prophetic: "Whatever Side You Take, You're Wrong!"

Riedel offers his take today, focusing on the backstage bickering over those "Take A Side" talkbacks:

I don't think the talk-backs sold many tickets. But since the show ran just 80 minutes, they were a way of making the evening seem less chintzy. "They definitely added value," says a production source.

Alas, Mamet hated them. He never attended one, but he's against them on principle, believing that his play should stand on its own and not be picked apart by "experts" on the law, feminism and campus sexual harassment policies."The talk-backs added a lot to the show," an investor says, "but we were told by David's agent right after we opened that he didn't like them."

Mamet couldn't stop them. Writers control only the script, not what happens onstage after the final bow. But he had a trump card to play. When the show opened to mixed reviews, the producers had to cut expenses and asked Mamet to waive his royalties. His price? No more talk-backs. Production members are bitter that Mamet nixed something they believed was helping the show.

"This is a play that's supposed to generate controversy, and the audience wanted to talk about it," a source says. "Mamet was basically saying 'F - - - you' to his own audience. We'll never know if the talk-backs could have become a selling point because he shut them down so quickly." (They ended right after the show opened.)

Quote of the Day

"I've never seen a play."

-Lance Armstrong, as quoted in Anna Deavere Smith's Let Me Down Easy

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Did NEA Screw Women's Project?

Time Out's Helen Shaw reports. Interesting comments discussion, too.

I don't know the particulars. It's sad to see any company lose a grant. But it's a clear sign that theatre co's should not expect support on demand even from Rocco Landesman.

By the way, I can't help noticing the size of the unrenewed WP grant was $20,000. And on this same day we learn of the awarding of a $25,000 "Wendy Wasserstein Prize" by the private Education Foundation of America to a young Chicago writer, Marisa Wegrzyn. The Prize money is set aside annually for, "an outstanding script by a young woman who has not yet received national attention."

One of course does not cancel out the other in the big picture. But does it signal a shift away from institutional support to celebrating individuals?

Theatre News Roundup

-Actors Theatre of Louisville announces the new batch of "anointed" new plays for the 2010 Humana Fest

-Fela's strategy for weathering Broadway with no star? Star producers! And their cash.

-David Cote says some of the best theatre in New York right now is happening at New York City Opera

-Tony Kushner gets...another prize!

-Elizabeth Vincentelli on Marsha Norman on how women playwrights are really faring these days.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Neil Simon or Norman Rockwell?

Sorry to harp on the Brighton Beach fiasco, but at least I'm not the only one.

Variety's David Rooney has an even more cutting critique of the marketing campaign:

The ad campaign clearly wasn't connecting with ticketbuyers.

But the tone, more than the profile of the ads, was problematic. The artwork was built around a pastel-colored, faux-Norman Rockwell rendering of the playwright's alter-ego, Eugene, as an adolescent and a young adult, leaning against a street sign bearing the plays' two titles. One-liners lifted from the text ran above this, all of them resoundingly unfunny out of context.

The ads suggested a sitcom that was dated, trite and artificial. A second wave of ads showed a sepia-toned, posed family photograph of the cast, topped by the tagline: "If you think your family is funny, wait until you meet ours." Oy. Even the post-opening ads emblazoned with enthusiastic critical endorsements, of which there were many, stuck to timid colors and wishy-washy fonts.

The 1983 "Brighton" is generally recalled as a work of light-hearted nostalgia, but not of any great substance. That was precisely the perception David Cromer's textured production was playing against. The production subtly coaxed the laughs out of the melancholy reality of a Depression-era Brooklyn family struggling to get by and stay together.

But the ads featured no strong images and no real indication that the production explored new emotional depths.

Admittedly, it's tough to convey tonal complexity in a marketing campaign, and the best Broadway advertising tends to be built around the simple, straightforward message of bold, iconic images like the whispering "Wicked" witches, the reverse shot of the sleek-suited "Jersey Boys," the mask and blood-red rose of "The Phantom of the Opera" or the stylized leonine head of "The Lion King."

Any suggestions, armchair marketers out there, for alternative artwork approaches?

Tony n' Tina's Arbitration

Ever wonder how Tony n' Tina's Wedding can run so long?

A labor dispute centered on long-running Off Broadway tuner "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" is heating up, with musicians union Local 802 claiming that the show's new producers did not come to the negotiating table at a meeting skedded for Monday afternoon.

Kim Ricciardi,who produces the Gotham outpost of "Tony" with her husband, Sonny, responded by saying that such a meeting had never been set. The Ricciardis took over last month as producers of the tuner, which has been running Off Broadway since 1988. Production currently plays one night per week in the basement of the midtown restaurant Sophia's.

The union contends the producers locked out the musicians beginning with the Oct. 17 performance, replacing them with recorded music.
Are the Tony n' Tina's actors even unionized?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Azenberg Speaks

Last weekend's NY1 "On Stage" program (local cable TV for you non-New Yorkers) got Brighton Beach producer Manny Azenberg to sit down for what seems like his only post-debacle interview. Unfortunately, it's not archived on their site, but here's a transcript of the highlights.

We got a hint early on. We sold no groups, no theatre parties. There was no interest. And then you assume that the word of mouth will improve it, it didn’t. Then you assume that the reviews will improve it, and the reviews by and large were kind of wonderful—better certainly than what we did originally.
And nothing happened. The numbers were so appalling that…last Friday [October 30], the accountant and the manager came into the office and said, “Manny, you have to close this.”

There used to be an audience that just went to the theatre, and the word of mouth would achieve that audience. You didn’t have to get a good notice in the Times either, because Brighton Beach didn’t get a good notice in the Times originally. That audience doesn’t seem to be there [today]. There probably are many reasons why—some sociological, and some economic, tickets are expensive. I think the audience is still there in the subscription at Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theatre Club, and the Roundabout. But that’s an audience that has grey hair. I’m not sure we’ve nurtured subsequent generations.

[Asked what he would have done differently]

I wouldn’t have done anything differently because I was educated in the old theatre. This is what you did. I was really proud of what was on that stage. […]

[But] the commercial answer to your question is: you need a star. I think it’s apparent that you can’t do a revival today without a star. If you have to use a star, then everything changes. Then you only run for 3 months, and it affects the other economics as well.
Amidst everything else, that bit about the theatre parties and group sales not coming through is indeed surprising, and makes me wonder what's up with that part of the biz these days.

Also note that Azenberg basically identifies the current subscriber base of the Big 3 nonprofits as the same people who used to make up the middlebrow NYC-area Broadway audience of yore.

And people ask why our big subsidized theatres aren't more adventurous?

On the same program, by the way, actor Josh Grisetti confirms that Broadway Bound (the sequel, in which he was to play the older Eugene) was just about to go into Tech rehearsals. Meaning it had basically been fully rehearsed by the actors.

If the earlier anonymous comment here about the backstage story is true, it would be a shame if the cast and director David Cromer are no longer on good terms, since I was hoping some other theatre (a nonprofit) might be able take up the Broadway Bound at some later date, considering how ready it was. Be nice for all that work not to have gone to waste.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Not Even Spidey Can Conquer Today's Broadway

Not too long ago $52 million was considered a fairly high budget for a movie. But a Broadway show???

Yes, it's true. And don't assume that the Julie Taymor/U2 "Spider-Man" musical is too big to fail.

LA Times' John Horn breaks through the wall of silence and shows just how serious the obstacles are at this point.

Despite all the talent in its corner, it's still far from certain when -- or even if -- the elaborate musical will open after six years of development, as it has struggled to find a backer to close the budget shortfall. If the show doesn't premiere by the end of April, it not only will miss Tony Award eligibility but also face the expiration of the musical's license from Marvel Entertainment, whose comic-book division created the enduring superhero in 1962. Bono and Edge seem bewildered by the show's odyssey. "But who cares?" Bono said. "The visuals and the music are amazing, and that's what will matter."

While many factors have contributed to the show's holdup, the musical has been derailed by some of the most complicated staging in Broadway history, as the show's creators try to replicate the superhero's skyscraper-swinging movie maneuvers inside a theater.

Three people close to the production say the musical needs to raise as much as $24 million to cover its proposed budget of about $52 million -- $42 million for the show, $6 million for theater renovations and $4 million for theater restorations. At the same time, "Spider-Man's" fixed weekly running costs total around $1 million -- hundreds of thousands dollars more than what some elaborate shows such as "Mary Poppins" or "West Side Story" cost to stage every week. Part of "Spider-Man's" expense stems from its aerial and scenic effects: More than 40 stage hands are needed to operate the musical's backstage rigging, said a person who's seen the show's budget.

Those expenses mean "Spider-Man" would have to sell out every show for as many as four years (a feat only a handful of Broadway shows ever manage) simply to break even, according to several people familiar with the production and its finances.
And we can only assume that means four years of sold out houses at very high prices.

Hey if this is where Julie Taymor wants to put her attention these days, fine. (Thankfully she's also coming out with a Tempest film.) But I just wish she lavished all this genius on something other than...Spiderman.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is 39 Steps Doing a Q?

Another would-be closing Broadway show thinks about transferring down.

The Broadway producers of “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” have opened negotiations to move the quick-witted play to the Off Broadway venue New World Stages next year, according to the show’s lead producer, Bob Boyett. “The 39 Steps” is scheduled to close on Broadway on Jan. 10 after almost three years.
And lest anyone question whether Avenue Q's move was the inspiration:
“We think what Kevin [McCollum] did with ‘Avenue Q’ was brilliant, and we hope to follow,” Mr. Boyett said.
Note also the interest in New World Stages, current home of Q as well. (Indeed it is good times over there.)

One difference between the two shows, though, is that Q started Off Broadway (at the Vineyard) then transferred up, and then back down. 39 Steps opened on Broadway at the Roundabout, remember. (In their flagship American Airlines house.) Then it transferred to the Helen Hayes, a smaller Broadway house. So this would be its "Off Broadway debut" so to speak. (But don't expect to see that phrase in the ads.)

I wonder if the Roundabout still owns a piece of the show and are they a part of these negotiations?

So just when commercial Off Broadway was having its obit written, there's a resurgence. But if these shows thrive there, will that chiefly be as a result of their prominent exposure on Broadway first--like, Avenue Q winning a Tony? Still to be seen if a hit can open cold at New World Stages.

I guess Altar Boyz is doing ok, though.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Whither Classical Theatre of Harlem?

What's up with Classical Theatre of Harlem's two founders suddenly departing with no specifically stated reason?

Guys just won another Obie last year, this time a cash grant.

The company website hasn't been updated, and the Variety story notes: "CTH has not yet announced who will replace the pair, nor have Preisser and McElroen said what projects they will next pursue."

They do have a production currently playing--but it's a co-production with Irish Arts Center, over at their midtown space.

Anyone have a clue what's going on there?

Foreman's Playpen

Cool photospread in Time Out by Imogen Brown of theatrical madman Richard Foreman's loft apartment in the village.

Above: where the magic happens.

Quote of the Day

"We've got to get away from the idea that it's good to go to the theatre...It isn't church. There's nothing innately good about it. Most theatre is still really bad."

-British playwright Mike Bartlett, 29 year old author of Cock, opening at the Royal Court.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Perhaps my optimism is delusional...I can't help it--I'm a Broadway producer."

-NEA Chair Rocco Landesman.

As tweeted by TCG from their annual Fall Forum. Complete feed here.

In Praise of New World Stages

David Cote hails the good fortunes of late over at New World Stages, one of our Off Broadway "megaplexes." While a more commercial outlet than other similar venues, it's gaining some high-cred tenants. I second the sentiment and offer some questions in his comments section.

Indeed, without New World, Theatre Row, and 59E59 I don't know where Off Broadway would be these days, in this economic and real estate climate. I mean those who don't already own their own spaces.

BTW, Village Voice named 59E59 "Best Theater for Cash-Strapped Producers" in their big 2009 Best of NY issue. Read why.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

"Brighton Beach" Debriefing

One week later, here's a roundup of what we've learned about the surprise shuttering of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and its aborted rep companion "Broadway Bound."

(Has anyone used the headline "Broadway Unbound" yet? Maybe that has the wrong connotations.)

First, we must remember that just because a show doesn't sell a lot of tickets doesn't necessarily mean people don't like it. Those who don't buy a ticket don't know if they like the show or not, right?

Unless the problem was word of mouth. Buzz about "Brighton Beach" was certainly very good among theatre folk. In addition to the generally enthusiastic critic reviews, Broadway fans (as represented on All That Chat, at least) seemed very pleased, as well. But--what about others, the "laymen" or "civilians." Well here's an interesting bit of reporting from LA Times' James Taylor:

Two women of a certain age at intermission.

First Woman: “The other thing he directed [Our Town???-ed.] was quite good, this is just boring.”

Second Woman: “I fell asleep.”

First Woman: “Ditto,” as she tosses her Playbill into the trash.

The two walk out into the rainy night.

This scene, which took place Saturday Night at the Nederlander Theatre, sums up the conventional wisdom regarding why Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” closed the next day — after only nine performances. The audience wasn’t building. Even the older crowd was staying away — and those that did come were turned off by director David Cromer’s staging and not recommending the show to their friends.

Taylor soon juxtaposes this with another pair of women "of a certain age" having completely the opposite reaction and staying to enjoy Act II. But this first exchange brings up an important empirical fact about the production that has gone undermentioned: for a Neil Simon play, it was pretty dark and brooding. And slow. At least at first. Even I--who ended up quite satisfied--took a while to warm to an uncertainty in the beginning. Something about director David Cromer's serious dramatic approach made early jokes not "land" as you'd expect in a Simon play. And speaking of dark, you know that old rule of thumb about comedy=bright sunny lighting? Not here. (And it was beautiful. Kudos to designer Brian MacDevitt.)

There's been much handwringing--kvetching, if you will--this week over what happened to "the Neil Simon audience"? i.e. middle class Jews from NYC and its environs. Did they all die? Has theatre become too expensive for them?

What if they came...and didn't like what they saw? Maybe those who come to Neil Simon only for laughs were disappointed. Face it, laughs have historically been the reason Simon's plays were hits. Aside from the two older ladies Taylor recounts, what were Simon-ites to make of Ben Brantley's big New York Times review telling them, "When these young men [the play's two brothers] exchange Mr. Simon’s words, the jokes come second. They aren’t reciting polished zingers from a Broadway master." Not their father's Neil Simon, to coin a phrase. And maybe for these folks, that wasn't a good thing.

Here's also where the production's missing "star" factor becomes relevant. Celebrity casting not only attracts customers based on the actor's fame alone; it also sends a message about what kind of play this is going to be. Casting Jude Law as Hamlet, for instance, tells the prospective audience this is going to be a serious and British experience. Casting Jerry Springer in Chicago says: this isn't even a play!

If, say, Fran Drescher and Jason Biggs were cast as Kate and Eugene Jerome, "Brighton Beach" would clearly have been more commercially successful. Not just because they are more "famous" (I guess) than Cromer's cast. People would have expected (and those actors would have delivered) a more pleasing sitcom-style version of the play and, ironically, it probably would have been greeted better on Broadway than Cromer's attempt at artistry. Critics might have called that version the proof that Neil Simon is past his date and needs to be retired, but it would have run. (Run longer than a week, at least.) So by casting real actors and making the play dramatically viable, Cromer may have made it less successful commercially--thus leading to articles like this where NYT's theatre reporter Patrick Healy says Neil Simon is past his date and should be retired because he can't compete with Judd Apatow. And, perhaps by extension, Jason Biggs.

(And even with Charlie Sheen, Patrick? "Popular comedies like the traditionally plotted sitcom 'Two and a Half Men' and the character-driven 'Desperate Housewives' also share sharply written dialogue and recognizable modern characters like those found in 'God of Carnage.'" I know some people didn't think "God of Carnage" was all that, but...really?)

By deferring to the box office on issues of taste and aesthetics, that article--typical of so much theatre journalism--looks to the box office as final arbiter, and never explores the phenomenon of the divide that often exists between artistic quality and ticket sales. Missing was the context of the fine "Journey's End" that opened on Broadway to rave reviews two years ago only to eek out a four-month run playing to crowds as small as 25% capacity. (And remember that was a pretty dark play, too--a tragic WWI story.) The problem is bigger than Neil Simon.

So that's one theory: the only chance a revival of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" would have in this climate is as a star-driven yuck-fest starring the Nanny and the American Pie Guy. Not as a sensitive and intimate Depression-era dramedy for an audience going through...a Depression. If it's got no stars, no singing, no dancing, not enough laughs, and costs $100, it's a hard, hard sell today.

But here's another interesting fact: most tickets did not cost $100, or even $75. As Healy reported in the Times:
Most tickets to “Brighton Beach Memoirs” were sold at discounts like the TKTS booths. (Producers release bulks of tickets at a discount when they fail to sell at full price.) The average ticket price for “Brighton Beach” was only $21.32 for the most recent week with available data. (The average ticket price for “Hamlet” was $104.01 for the comparable week.)
Hey, $21 is a great deal for the audience. But for Broadway producers, it's death. You might as well be giving away your product for free.

We've heard a lot about the 60% capacity problem. But that in itself wasn't life-threatening. Lots of shows hover in the 60s through previews and even after as word of mouth builds. (And remember, 60% of a 1200-seat house is still 720 people a night--just enough to sell out the smaller Helen Hayes Theatre, let alone any Off Broadway house. So don't go saying "no one came to see "Brighton Beach.")

The real key number may be that "21." Another one is "15":
The show cost $3 million to produce but never grossed more than $125,000 a week in ticket sales during preview performances — or 15 percent of the maximum possible — an amount that did not even cover running costs.
That's right, 60% of the seats was bringing in only 15% of the projected revenue. Pretty alarming math, huh. That's what the producers did not foresee and what sent them into panic mode.

So does this mean a fair amount of folks did want to see "Brighton Beach" but only at an affordable price? (And is that really unreasonable?) Or did someone mess up by dumping too many tickets at TKTS?

Another theory: not enough people even knew that "Brighton Beach" even existed. I've noticed some carping coming from the show's people this week about underexposure. This includes, believe it or not, the "curse" of the Nederlander Theatre. Apparently, aside from Rent it rarely houses a hit and some have attributed that to its off the beaten path location--one block south of 42nd Street and east of Broadway. Turns out one of the most successful forms of publicity for Broadway shows is the sheer foot-traffic of the theatre district: a captive audience of thousands, many on their way to or from a Broadway show (so they're more likely to like the theatre already) noticing your signs and marquees. Is it possible some theatre-loving folks who don't pore over the NY Times every day didn't even know it was playing yet?

Aha, but was another culprit the NY Times itself! Michael Riedel devoted his column Wednesday to a bunch of anonymous sources claiming an unusual deal the "Brighton Beach" team struck with the Grey Lady.

The Times offered the producers of "Brighton Beach" several weeks worth of splashy ads in the paper and on its Web site at steep discounts, production sources say. In exchange for what one source calls the "fire sale" price, the Times demanded exclusivity. "Brighton Beach" couldn't advertise anywhere else until after opening night. No radio spots, no e-mail blasts, no direct-mail campaign -- none of the things most shows do to generate advance sales.

First of all, bad call by NYT, eh? "Exclusive"-worthy? They seem to have really overestimated what an "event" The Neil Simon Plays would be. Also, while most people assume the Times is all that matters for NY theatre coverage, those other kinds of campaigns might have served this show particularly well, since Neil Simon is basically a popular not elite brand. Quoth Riedel:

Simon's audience is older and accustomed to getting ticket offers through the mail. "They like fliers, they like pictures, they like a description of the show, they like coupons," one person says. "You buy the mailing lists of Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center subscribers, and you send the stuff. That's how you reach the people who want to see a Neil Simon play."
Good advice. Riedel also questions the status of the once-mighty Times ad in the New Media age. I myself was wondering in the week after "Brighton Beach" opened, can they afford all those full page Times ads? To be fair, those ads--emblazoned with their rave reviews--must have seemed like a necessary attention-getting investment. But even with whatever bargain rate they got, given that the standard full page Times ad has been reported as hovering around $140,000 you can imagine how that strategy can dig you even deeper into a financial hole.

Ok, so we've got the "bad marketing" theory; the "people just didn't like it" theory; the "too dark for Broadway" theory; and the "people would have liked it if they didn't have to pay $100" theory. What else?

Let's get back to that $100 issue. I just heard the new Jujamcyn head Jordan Roth on Theatre Talk defend Broadway prices by maintaining there are still plenty of "entry points" as far as price is concerned--by which he meant not only TKTS, but internet coupons (e.g. and Theatermania), mass mailings, group sales, etc. In other words: it's like airlines and hotels. Almost no one pays the advertised full price.

Well try telling that to the producers of "Brighton Beach Memoirs", where the lower "entry points" were the only doors being opened. (It's like some old Business School problem of what you do when everyone brings in the limited coupon.) Maybe this philosophy should be reexamined.

The problem is: theatre (and, I suppose, by extension, opera and dance) remains the only performing art today that does not routinely offer any low-cost alternative platform. Don't want to pay $12 now to see a movie? Rent it! Can't afford scalped Springstein tix? Get the CD or download from ITunes! In theatre your choice is either pay $100 to see Jude Law play Hamlet or $20 to see some recent drama school grads in a blackbox. (Not saying the latter can't be as good as the former, but it's just not the same "product.")

Yes, we love theatre because it's live, ephemeral, and in the moment. But, alas, we pay for that privilege.

Unfortunately if you can't pay--you miss it. Movie fans who rent sacrifice the big screen, but they still get the movie as shot. Music fans miss out on the rush of the concert experience, but at least they're still hearing Bruce. Theatre fans...well there's always the archives at the Lincoln Center Library where you can see what the show looked like from the perspective of a video camera in the back of the house.

You get my point. Not that there's an easy solution, given the expenses of producing, at least in this town. We can't get around the fact ticket price poses a barrier to the public enjoyment of the artform. I really can't say I blame folks for thinking twice before shelling out a lot of dough on a Neil Simon revival these days. For $20 or $30 they clearly were willing to take a chance. But if you expect people to pay more--on a routine basis, that is--then you're limiting the audience only to the affluent and one-time "splurgers."

Speaking of splurgers, we haven't mentioned tourists. Where were the tourists? Surely Neil Simon is still popular out in the heartland, where he must still be done in schools and community theatres, no? Problem right now is most Broadway tourists at the moment are going to splurge either on Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, or, as ever, Wicked. But even so, maybe "Brighton Beach" in particular was not a tourist draw. "Barefoot in the Park" & "Odd Couple," maybe--as evidenced by underperforming but still longer-running recent revivals of those titles that didn't get good reviews either. Watching "Brighton Beach" again I was reminded of just how much in it may even turn off upstanding Red-State American citizens. There's lots of talk, for instance, about masturbation, remember. In explicit language. So what normally should be a "family play for the whole family" might just turn out an awkward experience for some.

Shall we even suggest the Jewish angle? Simon is considered an emblematic Jewish comedy writer, but none of his early hits explicitly foregrounded his or the characters' ethnicity. One of the things that made "Brighton Beach" new at the time was not just its seriousness but its author's very culturally specific depiction of a Brooklyn Jewish family. (One of its best features is also the unsanitized ethnic rivalry and even hatred that often spews forth from Kate Jerome's mouth.) While the appeal of the play is--or at least can be--universal, there's no getting around the fact this is a Jewish play.

And also a New York play. Once upon a time I imagine people loved the idea of coming to New York to see a really "New York play." No longer. Just as tourists can't wait to eat at the Olive Garden here and compare it to the one back home, they want to see on Broadway similar entertainment they always enjoy.

This is where a comparison/contrast to "August: Osage County" is instructive. I actually found myself thinking of "August" a lot during "Brighton Beach": both essentially old fashioned plays, both about bickering families struggling through tough times, both alternately comic and tragic. Yet one was a massive hit (at least by nonmusical standards) and one an instant flop. And both equally well acted and produced, for my money.

Fact is, "August" portrays an America that most of the tourist audience can identify as similar to their own. "Brighton Beach"--being a period piece, to boot--might seem increasingly foreign and distant. Especially in a production that highlights the particulars of 1930s Brooklyn life, especially accents. (I concur with those who found the accent work a tad bit forced at times by some actors. But I hardly second John Simon--himself not frequently seen at Temple--for calling the production not Jewish enough!)

I'm not saying all tourists are anti-Semites. Please. But is it possible that without the beloved shtick of a Fran Drescher or Joan Rivers (who actually was a late replacement in the original run of the play!), "Brighton Beach" seemed a little "ethnic" to be their top ticket buying choice this season?

I'm out of theories. We still have only questions, no answers. At least until someone gets a look at the accounting books. I'm still convinced something went terribly, terribly wrong in the financial planning of this show for the producers to be caught so off guard. The fact they were planning not just one play but two, in rep, was a key factor. "Brighton Beach" alone they may have toughed out for a while. But not while also rehearsing and rolling out a whole other opening for "Broadway Bound." In retrospect the whole idea of "The Neil Simon Plays" seems awfully misguided and even presumptuous, however valuable it might have been artistically. First, it was premised on the belief that Simon was already an American Classic like O'Neill--not the washed-up joke writer the Times postmortem depicted him as. Selling a British-accented Tom Stoppard trilogy about 19th Century Russia kinda makes sense in the current snob-appeal market; a two-play commitment about some schmucks cracking jokes in Brooklyn, not so much. I can see how Simon's longtime producer Manny Azenberg thought it was time to pay his friend such a tribute--but the rest of Broadway was not there yet.

And don't forget the crucial difference between commercial and nonprofit theatre. And just how hard it is to open anything on Broadway "cold" today, especially a nonmusical. The benefit of succeeding somewhere else first--preferably on nearby Off Broadway or else in London--is not just generating buzz, but actual ticket sales--an "advance." What killed "Brighton Beach" ultimately was there were practically no advance sales. On Broadway an advance is not only, literally, money in the bank, it's the promise of a future. Even "August: Osage County" could build an advance off of Charles Isherwood's NYT review of the Chicago Steppenwolf premiere. But when you open cold on Broadway, the audience tends to stay away longer until someone they trust can vouch for it being any good.

The other problem of opening cold on Broadway is the capitalization, raising all the money at once to mount a huge (in this case $3 million) production from scratch. Much easier to import an existing product from elsewhere, or even to invest "enhancement" money in some nonprofit regional theatre's production, where they build the set and costumes and you just buy an "option."

By going it alone (along with the requisite team of a dozen "partners", that is) Manny Azenberg proved himself the last man on Broadway who still believes in the old system.

To prove my point, I defy anyone to cite a successful dramatic play on Broadway in the last five years that was either a) not from London, b) did not star a major movie star, and/or c) was not premiered or directly produced by a nonprofit company. Notice that back in 2006 Odets's "Awake and Sing" (in many ways the template for "Brighton Beach") did ok--only ok. But only because it was backed by the nonprofit Lincoln Center Theatre.

Finally I leave you with this scary thought. What has shocked me about the "Brighton Beach" case more than all the other "when bad business happens to good plays" stories of late was just how suddenly it folded. In the past, we would see a show with such good reviews hang in there at least a month to build word of mouth. No, this time they pulled the plug immediately. Maybe investors were not as patient in the current economic climate--more pessimistic and more eager to cut their losses and put what money they have left in safer bets.

The decision to pull the plug was explicitly linked to a failure to increase sales significantly in the few days after opening. In other words, in order to survive it needed a blockbuster "opening weekend," so to speak. And just as American cinema as been reportedly damaged by the "opening weekend" mentality--wherein the studio evaluates the movie's success solely based the first few days' box office and then promptly pulls it from theaters if it disappoints--you gotta worry now about the same thing happening in the commercial theatre. Nonprofits, at least, commit to a three or four week run. But if business practices get this ruthless on Broadway, don't expect to see any non star-driven drama there for the foreseeable future.

Which, of course, leads me to ask: Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Memo to serious drama: Abandon Broadway before it abandons you.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Don't Take the Art out of Arts Education

Jonah Lehrer says stop resorting to bean-counting Excel spreadsheets to argue for arts in education.

The current obsession with measuring learning certainly has some benefits (accountability is good), but it also comes with some serious drawbacks, since it diminishes all the forms of learning, like arts education, that can't be translated into a score on a multiple choice exam. That's why the research cited above is so important: it helps us appreciate the "soft" skills that we tend to neglect.

But I think that even this clinical evaluation of arts education misses an important benefit: self-expression. I shudder to think that second graders, at least in most schools, are never taught the value of putting their mind on the page. They are drilled in spelling, phonetics and arithmetic (the NCLB school day must be so tedious), and yet nobody ever shows them how to take their thoughts and feelings and translate them into a paragraph or a painting. We assume that creativity will take care of itself, that the imagination doesn't need to be nurtured. But that's false. Creativity, like every cognitive skill, takes practice; expressing oneself well is never easy.

I say anything that gets kids to work, and actually enjoy their work, in school pays for itself.

To Mic or Not to Mic, cont.

Great comments from readers following up on my post and link to an article about the state of voice amplification on Broadway.

In case you've missed them, I want to feature a couple of insightful missives from some sound designers on the topic.

"CLJ" says:

A microphone bumped you out of the illusion? Not the fact that every single piece of scenery is unreal? That it was performed under artificial lighting? In a climate controlled room full of people?

"The willing suspension of disbelief." It's mandatory for theatre patrons, and should extend to artifacts such as microphones, too. It's not reality, and it's not supposed to be reality. It's a play, for gods' sake.

The issue isn't "mics" versus "no mics." The real issue is "competent sound design" versus "incompetent sound design." There are very few competent sound designers, and a lot of pretenders who like to play with sound gear.

If the sound design is properly executed, you should not be aware of speaker placement; it should sound like it's coming from the person speaking. And if it doesn't, it's not because microphones and a sound system were used, it's because microphones and a sound system were used very poorly.

I say this as a classically trained actor who sneered at microphones until moving over to the production end, and seeing just what they can do, properly utilized.

And here's "Nick":
C.L.J. is right about good sound design vs. incompetent sound design - as a sound engineer and designer myself, I am caught up in this discussion on a daily basis. On the one side is CLJ's "good" or transparent sound - sound that is properly delayed and sourced to the actor using the principle known as the Haas effect - (look it up). It is truly convincing, so much so that we as engineers often get asked why we're not amplifying the actors - when we are. On the other hand is over-amplified sound that makes actors sound like they're breathing like walruses hanging from the giant center cluster in the grid. That's not helping anyone push the art forward. And there are gradients in between, and times when over-amplification is the aesthetic goal.

The biggest question for me is sustainability. Both transparent and non-transparent sound have a problem - it's horrendously expensive to body mic people, and I'm worried that the format of the 1,000 seat theatre is getting less popular. I've seen shows easily spend around a half-million to a million dollars to get that sound right - and they need to hire one of the probably a couple dozen sound designers who can effectively design on that scale in a transparent way. I'm talking in the united states. How is that ever going to work?

I wonder if the solution here isn't an embracing of theatricality. The audience often thinks they want loudness when they actually want clarity. I'm coming from an environment (Chicago) where our best selling theatre is in an increasing number of smaller and smaller houses. The intimacy helps clarity of both sound and performance, and not at a great expense. The quality of the experience improves.

It's very true - the old methods of vocal projection were born out of necessity, required skill and craft, and we miss those things, and we shouldn't forget them. Nor should we mistake them for better days. Large houses and big voices engendered a style of acting that clearly communicated to the audience - but became outmoded as technology changed. Look at the difference in acting styles between the silent movie era and the talkies - huge differences brought on by a slight shift in technology. We're seeing that shift again as the technology has lept forward in the last ten years, but I think our response isn't as creative - we're somehow still pursuing the naturalistic realism of what - Miller? nah, that'd be fooling ourselves- when we could be using sound in the theater to further illuminate the human condition. And again, louder does not necessarily equal more illuminating.

The question isn't how to hang on to old methodologies - it's how to embrace new capabilities in pursuit of a human truth.
Yes, a performance conditions change, new techniques are required from actors. And new aesthetic tastes are formed.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Lin-Manuel in da (White) House

This is old (from May) but I hadn't seen it.

In the Heights' Lin-Manuel Miranda takes his Hip Hop Hamilton show to Pennsylvania Avenue and performs before The Man.

Dare we hope for a double bill with Les Freres' Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Rocco Goes on the Offensive

Well, if the Wall Street Journal is admonishing NEA chair Rocco Landesman...he must be doing something right.

Culture Grrl blogger Lee Rosenbaum's critical interview with Rocco just made me like him more!

Unruffled by the kerfuffles, Mr. Landesman, near the beginning of his Brooklyn speech, baited congressional critics by invoking what he called a "litany" of recent criticism of federal arts support: "The NEA is funding porn in California, the agency has become a propagandist for the Obama administration programs, and to truly add insult to injury, we've been told, vis-à-vis our share of the [federal] stimulus money, that we in the arts don't even work. One congressman summed up this view perfectly when he stated, 'How can we spend $50 million on the National Endowment for the Arts, when we could spend that money creating real jobs like building roads?' . . . Discouraging? Just a little."

A more politically savvy bureaucrat might have let bygones be bygones.
Sorry, but I don't see the Endowment's opponents letting bygones be bygones. It's not Rocco who's restarting the "Culture Wars." Leave that to Glenn Beck.

Also notable is the implication that Rocco will not necessarily be a friend to NYC's larger nonprofit theatres, whom he has accused in the past of running commercial enterprises at public expense. Of course, as head of the Broadway Jujamcyn empire, he also saw them as rivals.
What he may himself be best known for, aside from bringing important plays to Broadway, is picking a public fight with nonprofit competitors, especially the Roundabout Theatre. In a June 4, 2000, New York Times op-ed piece, he asserted that certain nonprofits didn't deserve public subsidy because, instead of taking artistic risks, they had adopted a "template of success . . . from the commercial arena, which, in the end, is not dedicated to the art so much as to the audience."

When I asked if his vendetta against such institutions might influence NEA's future grantmaking, he replied, "Let me put it this way: For those theaters, when I was nominated by the president, it was not their lucky day!"

In 2008 and 2009, the Roundabout, which he named in his op-ed, received NEA grants of $45,000 and $40,000, respectively.
I wonder what Rocco thought of Bye, Bye, Birdie....

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Spoken Drama in the Age of the Body Mic

Good fat meaty article in WSJ about just how much mic-ing is going on in the theatre--to the point it's becoming de rigeur even in plays.

"Area mics"--discreet microphones placed around the set or stage apron have been common for decades. (Though even that started as a shortcut for musicals only.) But even though it may not surprise us, it's worth pondering for a second the implications of the banishment of the unamplified spoken voice (arguably the stage actor's chief instrument since Greek times) from our "auditoriums."

As reporter Ellen Gamerman rightly points out, the problem is not just actors' ability to project, but the difficulty of maintaining the silence necessary anymore to let actors be heard. Not to mention the reduced hearing capability of an audience conditioned on amplification every second of the day.

Many theatergoers have come to expect the miking effect. Microphones on stage allow actors to speak more naturally, emulating the more realistic performance style that audiences are used to from movies and television. Audiences also expect entertainment to be louder generally, after years of surround-sound in movie theaters. Sound designers say it's necessary to turn up the volume on actors as Broadway theaters themselves get louder, with automated lighting and set-moving equipment making a continual background noise. "There's very little true quiet in the theater anymore," says Tom Clark of Acme Sound Partners, which is designing the sound for "Bye Bye Birdie" and other shows this season.

Playwright David Mamet is known for refusing to use any mics at all in his plays. It may be a losing battle. At a recent performance of "Oleanna," his play about sexual harassment now on Broadway, an audience member complained at a "talk back" for theatergoers after the show. Dennis Sandman, a 56-year-old financial planner from East Brunswick, N.J., said he couldn't hear the play from the balcony.
Good for Mamet. But in that case, it probably is Julia Styles' fault!

Consider also the problem "straight" plays have on the road. Considering the discussion linked to last week about how hard it is for musicals to play 4,000-seat arenas, what about when you're not singing?
The Pulitzer-winning Broadway play "August: Osage County," which last played in a 1,000-seat Broadway theater, is now on tour around the country in theaters that have housed musicals such as "Wicked." Plays, which are less expensive to produce than musicals, have become popular choices on the touring circuit. To make the family drama work in spaces such as the 4,000-seat Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, the show's crew has hidden body mics in the cast's costumes.

Actress Shannon Cochran, who plays the oldest daughter in "August: Osage County," says she doesn't have to make big gestures to indicate whom she's talking to anymore. There is one complication: A sound mixer needs to keep tight control over cast members' levels during fight scenes, when the characters are screaming at each other. "He's definitely riding it to make sure you don't blow out a speaker," she says.

Can anything spoil spoken realist drama more fake than the sound of disembodied voices coming at you from speakers at all the wrong levels? No wonder younger folk think all plays are "fake."

Finally get this snapshot from the recent Desire Under the Elms:

Stage sound isn't always invisible. Actor Pablo Schreiber was half-naked for much of "Desire Under the Elms," a fraught drama by Eugene O'Neill on Broadway earlier this year. Audiences seated at the front of the 1,623-seat St. James Theatre could see a battery pack in his long johns with his microphone wire running down his bare back.

So much for rural New England circa 1900.

(Though I guess director Bob Falls' use of Bob Dylan already shattered that illusion.)

Also check out Gamerman's exposing of the secret practice in musicals of "sweetening," or as its known in the music industry....lip synching! Gotta admire the honesty at least--once the voice is that amplified, does it matter if it's live or not?

Memo to Deaf-Actor Advocates

The reason a deaf actress wasn't cast instead of Abigail ("Little Miss Sunshine") Breslin in The Miracle Worker on Broadway was not because no deaf actress isn't talented enough.

It's because no deaf actress is famous enough.

Forget about that "right actor for the role" stuff. This is Broadway.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Two Reax to BB

"Brighton Beach," that is. (Not Bert Brecht...)

Well it's nice it made the front page of the Times. But too bad Patrick Healy turns in only a facile "culture section" rundown, just attributing the failure to "Neil Simon Ain't Funny Anymore" syndrome. Personally I think it's a lot more complex than that. More on that tomorrow.

I liked Howard Kissel's take better--on the changing Broadway audience. Out with the old Jews, in with the headbanging tourists?

The Broadway audience, which highbrows condescended to, especially when it was at its height, in the decades after World War II, was certainly centered in New York. It was middle class (with significant exceptions both higher and lower on the social ladder.) It had a higher percentage of Jews than the population at large.

It also went way beyond the Hudson. In the decades after the war Broadway was a significant factor in middle class life all across the country. It was not only New Yorkers who knew Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams (not to mention all the major figures of our musical theater.) Those names counted for something in every major city across the country, in part because their plays toured immediately after they finished their Broadway run. That was how a little boy in Milwaukee (moi) became entranced with the theater.

The tourists who come to New York have, I'm afraid, are not really an audience. Their idea of entertainment is more likely a rock concert than an evening of theater. Seeing a Broadway show is one of the things they're supposed to do while they're here, like visiting the Statue of Liberty or riding the subway.


When I think of the friends with whom I used to go often to the theater, they now tend to go more frequently to the opera and the ballet, where they find the emotional rewards the theater, Broadway or otherwise, seldom gives them.

The New Theater Audience consists of Trendies, people who have to be up on The Latest Thing, people who derive status from being able to say they saw a play The Paper of Record praised highly. It's not really an audience. But I'm afraid that's what we have.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Reverend Billy for Mayor!

photo: Michael Rubottom

Playgoer is not usually in the business of political endorsements.

But for those of you in New York City, you may be aware there's an election for Mayor this Tuesday. I wouldn't blame you if you weren't aware, since Mayor Mike Bloomberg seems to be running unopposed.

The Democratic "candidate" William Thompson is nowhere to be seen. Just this weekend he decided (three days before the election) to finally lay out an "agenda" for the NY Times, which has already reported what a shocking casual mess his "campaign" operation is.

Some may say it's wrong to blame the candidate for his bad staff. Or the fact that his opponent is able in this case to obscenely outspend him due to his own personal fortune. And therefore it's not his fault, some say, that he can't afford television ads or the millions of mass mailings we have been getting in our mailboxes from "Mayor Mike" since the spring.

But what the hell as Bill Thompson done about it? Nothing. The guy has been the certain Democratic nominee for months. He could have been on every street corner, beg for "free media," show up on every local news show, make big bold speeches in public forums that call out Bloomberg for what he's been--the city's real estate broker in chief and no more.

Therefore, this usually loyal Democrat refuses to reflexively vote for whatever party hack they put on the ticket without funding him. Not this time.

No, this time I'm voting for a man of the theatre: one William Talen, a.k.a. Reverend Billy.

Reverend Billy has been a guerrilla performance artist, disrupting many a day at Starbucks, Disney Store and other megachain outposts in the city that have displaced local businesses, sterilized our landscape, and turned us all into full-time consumers. What better figure to challenge our strictly business CEO of a mayor in such anti-Wall Street times than the deacon of the "Church of Stop Shopping." His "act" has been to appropriate the trappings and format of the gospel preacher, co-opted for a crusade against corporatism and consumerism. It's both satirically funny (teasing televangelists) but also a genuine spiritual calling.

Is it a protest vote? Of course! But, hey, so is the Democrat at this point, no? So might as well make a real statement. If Thompson gets 40% of the vote (pretty optimistic at this point) the story the next day will be "Bloomberg landslide!" If Reverend Billy can get anything over 10%, perhaps some will note the fomenting discontent and outcry for radical change beyond the two-party system.

If Thompson had a shot, I'd vote for him even with misgivings. But since he doesn't, I say vote your conscience when you can afford to.

As for what this has to do with the theatre? the arts?

1) Real Estate: granting the wishes of the city's top real estate developers has been Bloomberg's raison d'etre as mayor, and these are the same interests that are kicking artists of all kinds out of their affordable spaces and making new spaces too expensive to rent.

2) Liveability. Getting by as an artist (or arts critic!) in this expensive town has never been easy. But in our Great Recession, will Mike Bloomberg be there with a WPA? With Public Works, or subsidized housing? When has he ever showed an inclination to take care of the lower income brackets first? Let alone, the unemployed. And as the national unemployment rate soon hits 10%, you know it will be double that in NYC.

3) Philanthropists don't necessarily make the best Mayors. Yes, the highbrow nonprofits and arts bigwigs will tell us Mike Bloomberg is a "friend of the arts" and gladly hand over their endorsements in the desperate hope for more crumbs from the table. But just because he likes to "patronize" in his private life, don't mistake that for an arts policy. Especially an arts policy for lean times. Bloomberg may be a friend of the Metropolitan Museum and Lincoln Center. But what's he going to do for the Ohio Theatre, huh? And will he ever do it with public funds? Not if it means raising funds from the wealthier tenants of his new high-rises, or from the rich commuters that use our city resources for free.

So there's my case. Whatever you think, whoever you support...just please do vote your conscience.

More on the Reverend Billy campaign here. (If you doubt his seriousness, read the platform.)
And here's the trailer from his documentary, "What Would Jesus Buy."

PS. I now see that the Google Ad space in my margin automatically runs a Mike Bloomberg reelection ad now. Unfortunately I can't control the content there. (Can I?) So aside from embarrassment, my other emotion is yet more anger at Bill Thompson! NYC Dems couldn't even afford some cheap Google ads???