The Playgoer: Brantley's Top Ten

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Brantley's Top Ten

First a couple of jabs at Top 10 Lists:

1) I don't intend to do one. But I do hope to use my downtime this week to "reflect" in some fashion, probably by finally writing up major shows I did see but never reviewed ("DruidSynge", "Company", "Stuff Happens", e.g.) So stay tuned.

2) I think everyone in "The Theatre Community" needs to get together and decide when we do our "Best Of's". Come on, is it December or June? End of Year or End of Season? New Year's Eve or the Tonys? Notice how many shows on people's lists have already been validated by Tonys. How many time do we have to celebrate History Boys! And yet notice how Well got forgotten, again.... At least the Oscars have this straight. The "movie year" is the calendar year, simple. Yet another reason the Tonys are irrelevant?

Ok, now that that's out of the way, I want to draw our attention to something very revealing in Ben Brantley's Top Ten list for the Times, Sunday.

As he explains up front, this is circumscribed as a "Broadway Only" list. (That Isherwood mixes both on and off B'way, just continues to skewer the whole thing even more. But at least he includes a couple of regional productions.) Brantley's enthusiasm that there even were ten shows on Broadway he could recommend is telling. But notice what a backhanded compliment it in fact is:

[T]his is the first year in my decade as chief theater critic of The New York Times in which Broadway, all by its big, bloated self, provided enough laurel-worthy shows that even a list of 10 can’t include them all. Never mind that the majority of them came from overseas or Off Broadway. No one is saying that Broadway’s own ideas extend beyond the strictly commercial. But as an importer of talent (sort of like a Brooklyn Academy of Music for mainstreamers), it has shown unusual taste in 2006.

The BAM line is a good one. But it's worse than that. Broadway is now purely a rental hall, without any guiding artistic programming.

Take a look at his top 10, and when you realize that they all (not just the "majority") in some way originated in a nonprofit environment--whether domestic or abroad, Broadway or Off--you'll see the extent of the situation.
  • Coast of Utopia--originally commissioned and produced by London's Royal National Theatre, and produced here with a new cast & director, by a nonprofit (Lincoln Center)
  • Company--originated at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (albeit with an eye to Broadway) and directed by John Doyle, a creature of the English subsidized theatre model if there ever was one.
  • Grey Gardens--transferred from Playwrights Horizons
  • The History Boys--Royal National Theatre (imported in its full mint condition, w/ original cast)
  • Kiki and Herb--Uh, ok, he may have me there. For all I know Kiki and Herb may never have received a grant. But they surely never made any money all those years downtown. (And while they may have on Broadway, the show was a disappointing commercial underperformer.)
  • Lieutenant of Inishmore--transferred from Atlantic Theatre Company (after originating in London at the Royal Shakespeare Company)
  • The Little Dog Laughed--transferred from Second Stage
  • The Pajama Game--Roundabout Theatre Company (a juggernaut, yet, like Lincoln Center, nonprofit)
  • Shining City--Manhattan Theatre Club (new production, but Irish/London play)
  • Spring Awakening--transferred from Atlantic Theatre Company (after years of workshops at Roundabout, Lincoln Center, and other nonprofits)
Also note that the four shows Brantley singles out as the worst of the Broadway season--Lestat, Tarzan, High Fidelity, Times They Are A-Changin'--all have one thing in common. They were all shows developed and produced directly for Broadway.

What shall we conclude about the old paradigms now, eh?

I say this neither as a positive or a negative, just a reality. Broadway is no longer a generator of viable new work and therefore can no longer be considered the chief venue of The American Theatre. I think people in the theatre have known this for a while. But that message hasn't gotten out to the mainstream media and the public at large, and certainly not to the Tonys!

(And it's the job of these folks to make sure it never does get out!)

I say let's not mourn the passing of the old Broadway system. Let's just acknowledge and move on. In other words, let's start recognizing where the new American theatre is really coming from--before it gets pilfered for Broadway.


Anonymous said...

On the "when do we do best of lists": Is it perhaps a NYT-wide policy for their departments to do this sort of thing? Today's Dining section is bursting at the seams with best ofs and highlights of the year articles and lists.

Playgoer said...

CORRECTION: I've been reminded that "Times Are A-Changin'" indeed did premiere at San Diego's Old Globe--which, despite Jack O'Brien's successful exploiting of the tax status there to launch his pre-B'way products (Hairspray, Grinch) I guess we should still consider it nominally a nonprofit.

But, hey, I guess that's what explains why at least "Times" was a fabulous, cataclysmic failure, as opposed to something purely lamely commercial like Lestat (which, lest we forget, was Warner Brothers' attempt to compete with Disney Theatricals).