Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On the Tony Awards and My Changing Relationship to Theatre

So last month, I decided to watch the Tony Awards in Times Square.

This was a purely last minute decision.  I hadn't seen any of the nominated shows this year, with the exception of Best Play nominee The Testament of Mary, and had even rebuffed an opportunity to watch the dress rehearsal in favor of a 6am shift at Trader Joe's (because money.  I could always find a live stream somewhere on the internets (yes, mom, that extra "s" was intentional).

But there I was, approaching 42nd St. around 6:45 and I started to wonder, as I do often, what was the point of living in New York City if I was going to watch it all from my computer screen?  At any rate, Christine Pedi from the Sirius XM Broadway station was hosting, and at least I could make my dad jealous.  So I bought a $.79 bagel from Duane Reade for dinner and plopped down in the middle of a sea of tourists to watch Neil Patrick Harris sing and dance on a giant screen.

Initially, I told myself I would stay for just the opening number and then go home, but soon I was seduced by that old razzle dazzle--theatre people know how to put on a show.  Oscars, you have officially been served.

Still, I couldn't help but feel like my 14-year-old self would have enjoyed this a lot more more.  The 14-year-old who spent car rides to school with my dad memorizing the lyrics to Mel Brooks' The Producers and sat enraptured watching Susan Stroman's walker choreography tap across the stage at Radio City.  Whose heart stopped feeling Bernadette Peters brush past my aisle seat during the opening of Gypsy.  For years I still held a bitterness that the candy colored Thoroughly Modern Millie beat out vastly more subversive Urinetown for Best Musical in 2001.

I cared about musicals then.  They were an integral part of my life.

As a writer of "straight" plays, the Tonys carry mixed emotions.  The ceremony tends to squeeze plays that aren't musicals into minute-long speed-thrus, and a few years ago moved the best book award to the pre-show broadcast. (to add insult to injury, the play nominees were recapped by speed talker Jesse Eisnenberg, who seemed to be auditioning to play a hipster Harold Hill).

And I don't see Broadway musicals anymore.  The last new Broadway musical I saw was 2010's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which closed after only a few months because it couldn't find a broad  audience.  It's easy to chalk it up to the superficiality of the contemporary theatre world, but has Broadway changed or have I changed?  Am I becoming Stan Marsh from South Park, who suddenly reaches 10 years old and finds all of the music he used to like sounds like shit?

Because of my inclinations as a critic, I am trained to look beneath the surface.  To see the larger picture.  Broadway is about more than simply fulfilling dreams--it's also a business serving the elite and the tourists who can afford to pay top ticket prices to see celebrity-studded revivals.  It's also true though that a musical adapted from a movie was a lot fresher when The Producers debuted in 2000, a period in which musical comedy was all but dead in the water and the field was dominated by dance-heavy "concept" musicals like Fosse and Contact.

The fact is, the world of Broadway felt exponentially farther sitting in the middle of Times Square than it did all those years ago watching the Tony Awards in Ohio. Sadly, there are few chances of joining the chorus as a playwright.  And even established playwrights have a hard time finding commercial success on Broadway, as we have seen this year with high profile flops by David Mamet and Theresa Rebeck.  Many well meaning family members from Ohio encourage me that I could have a play "Off Broadway," not understanding the nonprofit world is also driven by commerce (this point seems to also be lost on New York Times theatre critics).  I think sometimes we need to replace the terms "Broadway" and "Off Broadway" with "big-ass theatre" and "littler-ass theatre."  There is some bold, exciting work in larger theatres in midtown and a lot of commercially-driven crap at New World Stages.  It's unfair to put something like Annie Baker's The Flick and Naked Boys Singing in the same category.

And even if there are shows Broadway I want to see, it usually means I see them alone.  Yes, I know TDF and rush policies exist, but most of my friends usually tell me they are in rehearsal or too broke.  There are a lot of uses for $40 in New York City.  Part of why I got into theatre was the sense of community, and so when I see shows and readings they tend to be shows that I can share with people in my network.  I only went to see The Testament of Mary after seeing my friends on my facebook newsfeed posting about it.  You know when I saw the most Broadway plays? When I was in grad school in New Jersey and I specifically enrolled in classes that would force me to see shows.  For theatre criticism I saw, among others, Sutton Foster in Anything Goes and Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.  And while the costs where prohibitive, the knowledge that I would have regular informed, lively discussions about these experiences assayed any doubts I might have had about laying down the cash.  

It's not that I don't see theatre anymore:  I see a ton of it.  I go to readings, short theatre festivals, site-specific productions about orgies, and immersive shows that ply you with wine while three men with pianos guide you through Franz Schubert's Winterreise.  One of my most delightful experiences this year was seeing The Public Theatre's Wild With Happy and seeing projections of Disney World become characters in their own right.

Are these productions somehow "better" or more "real" than Broadway?  I don't like think in those terms.  I find them unhelpful and unnecessarily divisive.  It's just the world in which I am living right now.  Right now my resources and time are best spent supporting the artists whose achievements seem within my reach and who can best help me achieve my own goals.  When I plump down $20 to see a friend's devised theatre piece in Queens, I may not be able to watch clips of it on the Tony Awards, but I'll get to engage in a lively Facebook salon about issues of feminism and workplace ethics.  I am truly pissed at myself for missing Annie Baker's The Flick, but it also fell smack-dab in the middle of a particularly hellish grading period and many contacts fell by the wayside.  But that's a conversation in which I would have loved to actively participate.

And that's I guess what it's about for me: the conversation.  I was never the strongest actor, and when I used to get passed up for roles in Ohio as a kid I would become frustrated and contemplate leaving theatre for good.  But what kept me coming back was hanging out in the lighting booth and talking Broadway with my high school's technical director or the thrill of picking apart a production in the car with my Dad as soon as we left the performance.  In college I would hang with the smokers outside the shop door after theatre history riffing on Brecht and Artaud.  Now the conversation occurs in my friends' Facebook feeds (and probably on Twitter.  Though I really don't understand Twitter).

My relationship to theatre and my goals within it are changing.  I don't know where it's leading.  But I'll keep talking my way through it until I get there.  I hope you'll join in.  

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