Sunday, March 23, 2014

American Theatre for American Audiences, Please ...

In the middle of writing yesterday’s rant about Shakespeare – both good and bad – I remembered a post I had written for another blog way, way back in October, when this here blog was nothing but a twinkle in my eye and a (still) unfinished post about staying up late. I’ve repurposed that post here, adding to it, editing it here and there, and cleaning it up.

What prompted the original post was going to a movie theatre to see (direct from London) a production of Sondheim and Furth’s “Merrily We Rolle Along.” In the original post, I was noncommittal about the production. In the intervening months, I’ve really come to dislike it, not only because I thought it was lousy – poorly conceived, directed, and performed (and I’ll cop to seemingly being in the minority in that opinion) – but also because it’s a microcosm of a creeping Anglophilia and a lack of business savvy by American producers.

"The horror; the horror."

I’ve gone to a lot of these telecasts, and they’re almost always from Britain. Now, in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of it is Shakespeare, and he’s their national playwright, and some of it is reasonably well done. An RSC “All’s Well That Ends Well” was okay, and parts of “Othello” weren’t bad – even if the whole production didn’t make any sense. Leaving aside the whole issue of Adrian Lester’s Moor being both too smart and too sharp to be taken in by Iago, the concept just fell apart. I can defend updating the play to modern dress and having an Iraq-like country stand in for “Cyprus,” but if Othello is commanding the forces there, why is his wife in permanent residence in what is portrayed as a still-active war zone? And why is Iago’s wife Emilia in the Army, and yet still Desdemona’s servant? And doesn’t the Army frown on husbands and wives – like Iago and Emelia – serving in the same unit, especially one is the superior officer of the other?

Anyway, while there have been non-British broadcasts Sondheim and Furth's "Company" with Neil Patrick Harris from Lincoln Center, and Christopher Plummer in "Barrymore" and "The Tempest" from the Stratford Festival, but those were rarities (and the latter two were Canadian, anyway -- and you have my policy statement on Canadian theatre). But the vast majority has been “live” from London and only London (although Kenneth Branagh’s strikingly boring “Macbeth” originated from Manchester).

Ken greets all the audience members who stayed awake.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with British theatre. Some of it is stirring, and some of it is not so much; it’s just like theatre anywhere else. But this “Merrily” was bad; the only reason it was broadcast at all was that it had been done in London. If the exact same production had originated at the St. Louis Muny or the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, only Sondheim buffs would have heard of it at all, and it certainly wouldn’t have been deemed worthy of being shown in American cinemas.

But if it’s by the Brits, someone will rush it over here in some form as quickly as they can. But why?  What is it about that accent and those origins that makes otherwise-sensible Americans go all dewy-eyed and weak at the knees? I was going to say “discerning Americans,” but that would mean leaving out New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who seemingly spends as much time in the West End as he does in Times Square. This self-congratulatory article deals with it. London’s “theatre scene … is the best in the world”? Yeah, it doesn’t get much better than “Grease 2 in Concert” or “The Mousetrap,” does it, Ben? 

 "The best theatre scene in the world."

But now I’m just getting petty (which is why you called, but I digress ...). My point is, though, other than London and Broadway, Mr. Brantley doesn’t seem to think any other theatre is worth his time; nothing in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, or even San Francisco seems worthy of his notice.

To make things clear, I have nothing against the RSC, the National Theatre, the Chocolate Factory, or any other production company or entity (Okay; there are some companies that have burned me so badly that I’ll steer clear of them for my own sanity and well-being, but in general, I wish everyone all the best). I mean, I’ve seen their productions in person on numerous occasions and have obviously paid good (American) money to see the broadcasts. Some of them (John Lithgow – significantly, and American actor – in “The Magistrate”) I’ve enjoyed immensely; some of them were just okay (that “All’s Well” I mentioned above, and a well-intentioned if dull “Cherry Orchard.” And some were just plain bad. If I never again see anything as tedious as Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack in “Cyrano” and “Much Ado About Nothing” – which I saw live in 1984 – I’ll be darn lucky. Some of them were just puzzling (that “Othello”). That said, anything that brings theatre into the consciousness of the mass public is to be welcomed.

"Try to do something interesting in my production, will you? Why, I oughtta ..."

But why the hell is it always – and only – the Brits? Are there no American companies or producers who are interested in bringing their product to domestic audiences?

I realize a good portion of this lack of American product is due to commercial considerations. Producers on Broadway are trying to sell tickets and make a profit, but it seems to me like exposure would increase, rather than diminish, audiences’ interest in seeing live shows. On Broadway, at least, not even lousy films couldn’t drive stakes through the hearts of “Chicago,” “Mamma Mia,” “Phantom,” or “Les Miz.” (And don’t get me started on that endless pestilence of Disney shows that started as movies.) And it’s not just Broadway. Road producers like SHN are equally as culpable. They’re so determined to bring their audiences execrable nonsense, that they ignore the possibility of presenting shows virtually, opting instead  for endless rehashes of “Mamma Mia,” “Motown the Musical,” “Kinky Boots,” or “Phantom of the Opera.” Though if audiences are truly interested in seeing that stuff,  maybe the jig is indeed up and it’s time to fold the tents and shut down the whole business.

I don’t expect to see “The Book of Mormon” or “The Lion King” at my local movie house while they’re still wildly popular in New York, although that didn’t seem to be a consideration when the National’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” or “War Horse” were screened in advance of their runs on Broadway. And, for jeebus’s sake, you can’t swing  a dead cat without hitting a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, and certainly not running a give-away organization.

But that doesn’t explain why we don’t see productions from seeming “non-profits” as the Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater, or Playwright’s Horizons. Hell, national exposure might actually help these companies’ revenue stream. And those are just companies in New York. That barely scratches the surface of what’s being done in the rest of the country.

As a reader of American Theatre, I’m exposed on a monthly basis to shows I’ll never see in person. I’m not saying that every production across America needs broadcasting, but surely Steppenwolf’s production of Nina Raines’s “Tribes,” or the Guthrie’s “Uncle Vanya,” or the Magic’s “Buried Child” (to name just three of hundreds) are as worthy of a national audience as the National Theatre’s production of Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” or that dreadful 50th anniversary gala that gave new definitions to “lousy acting.” But somehow the imprimatur of “London” seems necessary to gain any exposure. 

Nope. Not even Dame Maggie made that gala any good.

Anyway, my point isn’t that we shouldn’t be exposed to British theatre; some of what they show us is actually worth seeing. (Not enough, but still …)

What I am saying is that I’d like to see American companies, as well; or even Russian, Brazilian, Malaysian, or French (such as the Théâtre du Soleil “Richard II” I mentioned in our previous chapter). Why should audiences be deprived of great theatre just because it didn’t originate in the West End? In Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Vanya has a long rant about what he sees as the debasement of American popular culture (a rant I – and a good portion of the audience – agreed with, by the way). The rant includes this complaint: “The Ed Sullivan Show was before Bishop Sheen, and he had opera singers on, and performers from current Broadway shows. Richard Burton and Julie Andrews would sing songs from Camelot. It was wonderful. It helped theater be a part of the national consciousness, which it isn’t anymore.”

As much my colleagues and I love the theatre – either as participants or spectators – unless we do something to restore that awareness among the public at large, we’re talking to ourselves – and a dwindling “ourselves” at that. I don’t know if the Americanization of televised theatre would change that awareness, but I’d sure like to see someone try it.

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