Sunday, 22 February 2009

How Not To Put a Musical On In a Recession

So "The Story of My Life" has announced a shock closing notice for today. I don't know much about the show except the few reviews I have seen. It didn't appear to be a drastically awful show, just a bit boring and thoughtful. Well I've seen plenty of plays that were a bit boring and thoughtful yet they didn't close after only five regular performances; why do musicals have to be different?
Looking back in history the fortunes of musicals have played greatly on the fortunes of the economy. Theatre's golden era was in the boom just after the second world war, giving us great classics from Rodgers and Hammerstein and early Sondheim works. This was also a great period of change for the musical- straight after the war the musical was still operetta based (such as the recently revived by Encores! Music In The Air) yet by the sixties we were seeing rock musicals like Hair (again, recently revived). Theatre was given room to grow and develop in a time of prosperity.

Come the eighties and we see a period of great depression and with that the decline of Broadway. The area around Times Square was filled with porno theatres and drugs. People wanted cheering up in these times and so out popped Andrew Lloyd Webber and Boublil and Schoenberg with their London super musical transfers. Substance soon gave in to spectacle (think the chandelier in Phantom and the Helicopter in Miss Saigon). The Tony award winners for best musical reflect this- all large-scale high kicking shows.
Fast forward to present day and we are again facing recession following what had been a good period for the musical. In the past few months about half the musicals that were on Broadway have closed leaving the "big hits" like Phantom and Chicago to satisfy the tourists not affect by the credit crunch. But we have moved on, (possibly foolishly) recently there have been attempts to put on more thoughtful, smaller shows. In theory this is a good move; smaller shows equal smaller overheads and thoughtful shows can mean return visits by theatre enthusiasts. In an ideal world this would be great, I like a deep and meaningful show and would prefer that over Andrew Lloyd Webber. Unfortunately I'm a poor student and can't afford repeat trips. In reality the small shows hasn't fared well- Glory Days closed on opening night and even Title of Show, one of my favourite shows couldn't manage more than a few months and all they needed was four chairs and a keyboard!
In Britain we've seen a slightly different trend- that of slightly depressing big scale shows. Two shows come to mind; Marguerite and Imagine This which provide a great comparison. Marguerite had the big star name (Ruthie Henshall) and the writers behind the eighties supermusicals. Imagine This was the first musical for Shuki Levy, had a first time producer (Beth Trachtenberg) and was headlined by Peter Polycarpou- a theatre stalwart but not much of a star. Both only survived a few months but I found that at least Imagine This had some substance and could have done better if weren't for the economic climate. Marguerite was trying to be an eighties supermusical but was just a bit too depressing to make it. Both were about the second world war but at least Imagine This had no quarms in hiding this fact.

So whats the moral of the story? Regrettably I have to say that for theatre to survive in a recession we have to look to happy, clappy large-scale crowd pleasers. New York, at least you have Off-Broadway; a space where experimentation is allowed without so much pressure. You also have not-for-profit theatre such as Encores! and MTC. London has to stick or annoyingly cheerful fair with only few places like Menier Chocolate Factory, Finborough and the Kings Head occasionally taking a risk (although I'm rather dissapointed at the current Finborough lineup- where's the Sunday/Monday musical? Oh no, it's been replace by poetry). Bar the Menier, these places are so tiny that you couldn't put on an off-Broadway piece like The Wild Party and so we have to stick to smaller pieces such as the sublime John&Jen.

Alas, I'll just have to wait until I have enough money to get back to Broadway where I feel my allegiances lie. Sorry West End, there's just no community to draw in the theatre lovers and so we have to get our kicks somewhere else.

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