The Playgoer: The Bumpy Road

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Bumpy Road

David Leonardt, normally a Times business columnist, has a big feature in Arts & Liesure today on the State of the Road, for touring Broadway shows. A good read.

One big point implied throughout is quite simply that the new B'way musicals may just be too gay or too Jewish to attract big "family" crowds in the heartland.

In New York, theatergoers — including some who are just visiting for a weekend from Rochester — are often excited to see something new and willing to be shocked just a little, producers and presenters say. A show of conceptual daring can succeed absent a compelling plot.

On the road the story matters more, spectacles play better, and the cultural boundaries are stricter. What might pass for normal on a movie screen can feel different when it is happening live. “The Full Monty” may have struggled because people assumed, incorrectly, that the show had full-frontal nudity. “Hairspray” revolves around a man playing a woman, while “The Producers” is heavy on jokes about Jews, Nazis and homosexuality.

“When you have a ‘Producers’ or a ‘Hairspray,’ even though it’s a very successful show, it’s not a family show,” said Mr. Nocciolino, the Rochester presenter, who also books theaters in Buffalo, Syracuse and a few other Northeastern cities. “It has appeal to the traditional theatergoer, but it doesn’t have as broad an appeal” as the 1980’s hits did.

“It’s not complicated,” he added. “Family shows play very well on the road.”

It's clear now that this was basically the problem with Avenue Q, even in "sin city" Vegas.

We have to qualify analyses like this by remembering that the audience that buys tickets to big touring musicals represents just a sliver of what we might consider a "theatre" audience in this country. (Especially since they are less likely to be interested in any other kind of drama.) But it's also clear from my experience, that such shows are what still inspire kids all over to dream of making it on Broadway, and so come to New York to train and audition, perhaps getting interest in other kinds of acting along the way. So in the sense of keeping Americans motivated to do theatre, then the road does matter.

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