So Long, Farewell... For Now

Lots of shows are closing in New York in the next few weeks, some that haven't even been open very long... I'm a little sad, but not surprised.

The revivals of West Side Story, Promises, Promises, and A Little Night Music are all closing. I heard mixed things about all three, and honestly, how about fewer revivals and more new shows, Broadway power brokers, huh? It used to be that revivals were rare on Broadway. It wasn't until the eighties that there were so many of them the Tonys had to add a revival category. Audiences also like what's new, folks.

Also closing are some brilliant, exciting, original shows like Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottsboro Boys, and In the Heights. Every one of these contributed to moving the art form forward, and it's a shame that the New York commercial theatre couldn't keep them alive. At least Normal and Heights enjoyed healthy runs. The other two were clearly too interesting and too demanding for the tourist trade that now makes up most of the Broadway audience. I'm actually surprised that Next to Normal lasted as long as it did; at least it found an audience for a while. But the closing of The Scottsboro Boys is a real tragedy. Maybe mental illness is easier for mainstream audiences to take than all-American racism and injustice. The Broadway audience remains almost entirely white, upper income, and suburban -- which may explain the demise of Scottsboro Boys -- but luckily, that's not true of New Line and the other companies like ours around the country.

Though it may be cold comfort for the creators of these shows, they will all have further life. The New Liners are very interested in producing both Next to Normal and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, as soon as rights become available. Nobody will make much money off of New Line's productions, but New Line and others like us do keep the work alive. Just like we did for High Fidelity a couple years ago and just like we will do for Cry-Baby next season.

I'm reading a new musical theatre book called Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, by Larry Stempel. I knew I was gonna have issues with this book even before I started. Anyone who insists on using the old spelling of "theater" probably isn't all that tuned in to the latest trends. And true to my fears, the book is mostly a big mess. Stempel spends almost a third of the book talking about operetta, the Ziegfeld Follies, and the like -- and though this may be interesting to some folks, it's not musical theatre in the contemporary sense, and those forms have very little to do with musicals as we know them today. Then the book gets better while it covers classic musical comedies and classic musical dramas. But once he gets to the late 1960s, Stempel falls down again. He doesn't understand rock musicals, he doesn't understand concept musicals, and he doesn't have any respect for the really interesting work being done now.

The second red flag for me was reading on the cover that Stempel is a music professor; it seems to me an author needs a background in both music and theatre in order to write intelligently about musical theatre. This book inadvertently makes that argument for me. Like too many others, Stempel considers the 40s, 50s, and early 60s "the Golden Age" of musical theatre and everything that came after is somehow lesser. That drives me crazy. As proof of his silly bias, he cites another book that also drives me crazy, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, by Mark Grant, another idiotic survey that dismisses everything cool in the last several decades. Shallow people have been writing about the "death" of the American musical theatre since the 1960s. But, to paraphrase a musical I really hate, it's not dead yet.

I mention all this because it reveals a central problem. Too many people still think Broadway is where great musical theatre gets created. But that hasn't really been true since the 1970s. Now, anything that's really cool on Broadway starts somewhere else, and as we can see this weekend, if it's really original and exciting, it probably won't last too long in New York. Sometimes, really adventurous musical theatre art still can do okay on Broadway (In the Heights, Next to Normal), but more often, it can't. And the big regional theatres will only produce shows that do great on Broadway. A double-whammy.

For example, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson will have run only about three months on Broadway, and Scottsboro Boys only about two months. The brilliant Passing Strange ran only a few months (but luckily, Spike Lee preserved the Broadway production on film). The hilarious, smart, insightful (and badly directed) Cry-Baby ran only two months. The flawed but still very cool Caroline, or Change ran about four months. The beautiful, emotional (but also really badly directed) High Fidelity ran only 19 previews and 13 performances -- and then garnered rave reviews and a sold-out run here in St. Louis. All this reinforces my argument that we can't look to Broadway for the best new theatre art.

Broadway is often where the coolest art goes to die.

And New Line is where it goes to be resurrected. Just look at our last few seasons, and all the shows that didn't do that well in New York, but did really great here in St. Louis: The Robber Bridegroom, Bat Boy, Assassins, High Fidelity, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Love Kills, The Wild Party, I Love My Wife, and coming soon, bare...

And we'll be announcing our extremely cool 2011-2012 season at the New Line dinner Tuesday night. I'll post it here soon after...

Long Live the Musical!