The Playgoer: The "Cheap" Seats

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The "Cheap" Seats

Howard Kissel had a nice idea for a column this week--what it's like to actually sit through a Broadway show from the last rows of the balcony. About time someone talked about this. Problem is, he leaves out one thing: seeing a show from the balcony often, um, sucks. And still costs over $50!

Howard will have none of that, though. The last row at Phantom (admittedly $20) is "one of New York’s great theater values." (I'm still trying to figure out what the word "value" can mean in relation to Phantom.) Sightlines for Lion King and Chicago are perfectly fine, so why complain. (Are you noticing yet he only talks about musicals here?) Plus all that wonderful souped up miking lets you hear everything!

Drawbacks? Sure. With the amplification actors just don't project like they used to, he admits. And after faulting Hutton Foster's lack of depth in The Producers he concedes, "Perhaps more nuances are observable downstairs. " As that great critic George Bernard Shaw once said: "Duh."

Of course, Kissel's piece is not an exposee, but a consumer guide. What else should I expect from a daily newspaper. (Though the Sun arts page continues to show another way...) The Daily News wants to help sell those seats. Ok, the more complimentary way to put it could be: they want to encourage their readers who might think theatre is too expensive for them to give it a try. But as you and I know, there's nothing like a bad balcony experience to knock the curiosity right out of someone. And rightly so. I often take college students to shows, and I know that the surest way to get someone hooked on the theatre is to plant them down front, in an intimate space, in front of a great actor. Marching them up to "Row Z" from where they stare at the leading man's baldspot all night, makes all your preaching about the "immediacy" of theatre so much hypocrisy.

If this is something of a necessary eveil, then anyone who truly cares about "reform" on Broadway should get behind one cause: Subsidize the Balcony! And I don't just mean those stratospheric two rows way above the stage of the Kerr (where Doubt is now). I mean anything above the orchestra. We hear over and over again from old timers how when they were starving young artists or students, they could always rely on the balcony. Now? Well, look up the prices yourself.

The implications of this are worse, of course, for plays. (Which Kissel never bothers to mention.)
Yes, maybe for a big loud Miss Saigon being miles away is perfectly fine. But the experience of seeing an intimate drama like Doubt or Virginia Woolf from upstairs as opposed to downstairs is not just a question of degree. It could be the difference between getting a play or not. I remember seeing The Weir on Broadway from "up there" along with a row of my fellow TKTS buyers. While the downstairs crowd was enraptured by the intimate storytelling, all I heard next to me afterwards was "I wish they didn't have to use such thick accents." Never mind that this was the original Irish cast, so this was hardly a choice. What I took from that was not that our modern actors mumble too much or we have lost the art of "big" staging. But we as an audience may have lost the art of active listening (especially with music blasted directly into our ears all day via those little white IV's called IPods), so that reception of drama from that distance has become impossible. This has been a problem ever since we started demanding our drama be "real" and "naturalistic." In civilized theatre cultures, the theatres got smaller to accomodate the new aesthetic. We still play in barns. (On Broadway, at least-- the definition of which, after all is "that which seats greater than 499.")

What am I saying? Get the wrecking ball out and demolish the balconies? (Hey, maybe make them separate mini-theatres! Like the movie multiplexes did with those big theatres.) Of course not. Perhaps these are notes toward a later, expanded post about the increasing inhospitability of Broadway to serious drama. (Or at least it's lost on those who can't pay $100 or even $50.) Again, maybe for musicals this is not an issue. But when something is produced in one of these behemoth theatres that features human beings on stage, speaking words, we have to question the appropriateness of the venue. I know many of you could tell me you saw such-and-such a drama from the last row and were still blown away. Yes, great acting still reaches. (Redgrave in Long Day's Journey, for example.) But the exceptions today, I feel, are ever more exceptional.

Meanwhile--Hear ye, hear ye, all would-be reformers of Broadway: Subsidize the Balcony!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have had both types of balcony experiences. A positive one was Jefferson Mays' AMAZING performance in "I Am My Own WIfe" - which I am convinced he could get across in a football stadium. (Maybe that's an exaggeration, but you get the idea.)