Our Backstreets #9: Bored with the Boards

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There was a time when the film industry looked to the theatre for inspiration, talent, and most important of all, material to fill movie screens. It’s great for me, a lifelong theatregoer, to be able to see the works of some of my favorite playwrights captured on film for my whenever viewing pleasure. I’m ecstatic that Volker Schlöndorff’s staged version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman starring Dustin Hoffman has been preserved, as well as Jason Robards’ performance in Eugene O’Neill’s heartbreaking one-act play Hughie. The list of excellent film adaptations of outstanding plays is far too numerous to catalog, but some standouts include The Children’s Hour, Peter Pan, Oklahoma!, A Streetcar Named Desire, Hair, and Inherit the Wind.

Lately, however, the theatre seems to be threadbare of compelling original product with which to entertain and enlighten fans of live drama. There is always a large offering of revivals in smaller theatres, of course, waiting for new theatre hounds to discover. That kind of production gets a big nod of approval from me. But I expect more from Broadway and off-Broadway theatres and their regional counterparts. With occasional exceptions, the theatre I’ve seen lately has been reactionary, slight, and positively boring.

There’s no lack of high production values, and topnotch acting, singing, and dancing on the boards. But where are the ideas? I saw The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl yesterday. It’s quite funny, but it includes some serious subjects, such as infidelity, divorce, cancer, death, and alienation. In earlier days, a crack playwright would have turned this material into a tragicomic tour de force as Tony Kushner did with Angels in America. Instead, we get something a little above a wisecrack and as thin and insubstantial as a chiffon scarf—and it gets nominated for a Pulitzer Prize!

Perhaps most ironic of all, to fill the gaps in its creativity, Broadway is looking to the movies for material. I’m not sure when this trend started, but I think it was when Sunset Boulevard was made into a Broadway musical by the George Lucas of the theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber. It even featured a movie star (Glenn Close) as Norma Desmond. Since then, we’ve been assaulted by The Producers, a vulgar, bigoted musical with second-rate songs dragging down the timeless ditties of the original film. Its un-PC characterizations of dumb Swedish blondes, old women dancing around on walkers, and mincing gay men should have made audiences squirm, but instead they seemed to love having permission to laugh the old-fashioned way.

It is one thing to watch a film made in the 1960s and appreciate it from its own historical vantage point; it is quite another to revive such offensive material as a brand-new, live experience for people to get off on. It’s even more unsettling to take this new-old musical and make another film of The Producers of it. The science of cloning tells us that each successive generation of an original will be weaker than the last. The same is true of the endless tape loop that seems to be Hollywood/Broadway.

Now we have a new theatrical ripoff of a movie for a younger generation—Spamalot, based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The material in this film is very funny, but the stage version does nothing to improve upon it. The script is repeated almost verbatim, which flattens the jokes for older fans, while reviving ideas that new audiences probably have never heard of, such as anarcho-syndicalism. The show is also full of foul language, which caused the father and son sitting in front of me to leave. This show pretends to be family fare, but it’s not. What it is, much to Broadway’s amazement, is a draw for males in their 30s and 40s who are Monty Python fans and apparently are so mind-numbed that they enjoy parroting the dialogue along with the actors on stage. Because of this new demographic surge, look for more of the same. Perhaps the inevitable stage version of Life of Brian won’t hedge its bets for Broadway’s traditional audience by putting in a lame musical number—no doubt bewildering to the male Python geeks—about Jews.

But really, who is to blame for the downward spiraling of our artistic life? Look at the people squealing in delight at the flaming fags in Broadway’s The Producers, and the real producers in their counting houses counting up their money, and I think you’ll have your answer.l

  • Mike Gold spoke:
    25th/05/2006 to 5:09 pm

    Whereas I liked Spamalot, I quite agree with your point of view. However, the problems of the American theater are much, much more broad and severe.On Broadway, you can’t get anything produced unless it falls into one of a handful of categories: a short-run drama starring one or more Big Name Hollywood Actors, a revival (usually musical), an adaptation of a movie (almost always a musical and usually a Disney flick a that), or the latest cookie-cutter “effort” from Andrew Dice Webber. Because even the matinee tickets command prices of $100.00, these shows are geared to people on expense accounts (the mainstay of Manhattan entertainment), most of whom are tourists. In order to justify the high price, they’ve cover their bets with revivals, adaptations and stupefyingly boring and redundant music.I can’t tell you the name of the last musical I saw on Broadway with a memorable original song. Well, maybe I can. Chicago. The original version. 20 years ago. I used to go to a Broadway show several times a year; now it’s once every couple years.These Broadway shows hit the road and cover the Earth. They are now becoming entrenched in Las Vegas hotels. Who says you can’t go home again?That leaves small independent theater. Chicago (and Minneapolis, and Seattle, to name but three) used to excel at this. Maybe it still does, but it’s hard to tell with independent theaters seeming to outnumber both taverns and day care centers — and that doesn’t count those taverns and day care centers that also offer independent theater. There simply ain’t that much talent to go around.”Legitimate” theater is rapidly going the way of the buggy whip. Sure, there are still some first-rate offerings, but I’m sure there are still some first-rate buggy whips, too.

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