The Playgoer: "Encores!" and The Culture of the Staged Reading

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Encores!" and The Culture of the Staged Reading

On Wednesday (April 2) I will be speaking at a big 4-day Musical Theatre conference at the CUNY Graduate Center. So if this is up your alley, please come! If not to my lead-off panel (10:00am, ugh) definitely check out the entire schedule, which features some fascinating papers covering all corners of the repertoire, past and present.

For my own topic I've decided to offer a complex--dare I say, contrarian?--argument against the proliferation and acceptance of the staged reading in place of full production, especially as typified in the phenomenally successful "Encores" series at City Center. Don't get me wrong, I love "Encores" as much as anyone, they put on a good show and give many neglected pieces some welcome light of day. But I think there's a case to be made that goes beyond what the individuals beyond "Encores" intend and effectively asks: "Is that all there is?" Are readings what we'll have to settle for in this current cultural and economic climate?

While I'm addressing the ramifications of this for our musical theatre repertory specifically, I think there are obvious examples of this in the dramatic world as well--from non-plays like "The Exonerated" to the "development hell" new playwrights find their work subjected to in endless spirals of readings, workshops, and other production "hybrids."

At the end of the day, of course, it's all about the benjamins. Readings are cheaper, and once prodcuers (profit & nonprofit alike) discovered audiences will still pay full price for them...well, the budget writes itself, doesn't it?

I'm still working on my paper itself. But I thought I'd at least post the abstract I submitted here in case anyone had immediate responses, challenges, ripostes, or "amens" to offer. So have at it. Who knows, you may end up in the paper!

"Encores!" and the Downsizing of the American Musical Theatre

One of the most successful ventures of the New York musical theatre in recent years has been “Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert,” a program of revivals at the City Center. A nonprofit company presenting only three productions a year at five performances each, “Encores” has pioneered a form of the staged reading (or “concert version”) that is cheaper to mount than full productions, yet attracts public attention commensurate with Broadway openings. On the one hand “Encores” has provided invaluable services: recuperating or restoring “lost” pieces from the past or lesser known works from illustrious songwriters’ catalogues, as well as showcasing that material with preeminent performers otherwise unavailable or unaffordable. But in proving the viability of scaled-down readings, has “Encores” also unwittingly set a hazardous precedent for the musical revival in the long run? As professional theatrical production costs skyrocket (in both commercial and nonprofit spheres alike) the fully staged revival of even a canonical American musical is an endangered species. Does “Encores”—as well as the spate of “piano and music-stand” imitators it has spawned—risk reinforcing the cost-cutting mentality of current theatrical practice by inuring audiences to the lowered expectations of rudimentary staging and designs, performed “scripts-in-hand” with abridged or revised librettos? As their successful transfer of Chicago has showed, the “Encores” aesthetic can now sell on Broadway.

By focusing on specific productions, as well as the company’s business and marketing practices, I suggest that “Encores” and its ilk have fulfilled some of the needed functions of a National Theatre of the American musical, but while also asking: at what price?


John Branch said...

Is it possible that staged readings and concert versions also represent the influence of a minimalist aesthetic? In music, one can trace minimalism from practitioners such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich to present-day popular styles of electronica and dance. From the visual and plastic arts, it seems to have spread into the world of design--just look at an iPod. Even in the realm of fully staged theater (i.e., in New York), the work of John Doyle quickly comes to mind, although I admit I haven't seen much of it with my own eyes. And surely some of Peter Sellars's opera productions have something to do with minimalism.

In fact, I might argue that there's now a kind of cultural predisposition to accept concert versions of musicals because of this spreading aesthetic. On the other hand...

Anonymous said...

Important issues, PG. I wonder, though, whether what Encores presents are really "canonical" works. At least some of the time, their point seems to be to show us precisely NON-canonical works: OBSCURE and FORGOTTEN works, which is to say, works likely NEVER TO GET A FULL PRODUCTION AGAIN. If someone sees a gem (and more to the point, cash cow), a full production may follow, but my appreciation for Encores -- notwithstanding the extremely high ticket price ($95 for a seat you can actually see the stage from) -- is that it gives me a glimpse of what I am otherwise highly unlikely to ever get a chance to see. I just forked over a hard-earned $101 ($6 ticket handling fee) for JUNO. Glad I saw it for lots of reasons, but it was very easy to see why it flopped nearly 50 years ago, and it's unlikely it could sustain a run of more than a long weekend today. It seems far-fetched to suggest that this practice will somehow damage the full-scale musical, which is being killed off by much more venal and powerful forces. CSC has done some readings of somewhat obscure plays that were contemporaries of plays they were doing in full production; TFANA has done similar series. As a die-hard sort, would I LOVE to see a full production of, say, A GAME AT CHESS? You betcha. But it would close on Wednesday for lack of audience. It is not just a consolation prize to hear good actors present it in a staged reading -- and that is not what is killing the theater.