Saturday, November 7, 2009

Broadway and the Siren Song of Cinema

The Wedding Singer. Legally Blonde. Shrek. 9 to 5. Spider-Man.

What do an Adam Sandler comedy from the '90s, a Reese Witherspoon chick flick, a popular animated film franchise, a feminist parable starring Dolly Parton, and a Marvel comics superhero portrayed on the big screen by Tobey Maguire all have in common? Simple. Each one either has been or is slated to be turned into a Broadway musical.

This isn't to say that adapting movies for the stage is always a bad idea. From the lush family epic The Lion King and poignant period piece Grand Hotel to the charmingly breezy Hairspray and raucously hilarious The Producers, examples abound of the world of celluloid being theatrically metamorphosed to outstanding effect. There is a key difference between these shows, though, and the ones that keep cropping up today - whereas the fundamental genesis behind each of those productions was a larger artistic vision, one cannot avoid the feeling that the primary motivation behind contemporary film adaptations is more mercenary. In short, while it used to be that great musicals and plays were staged because their creators had stories they wished to tell, today far too many are bankrolled because someone recognized a valuable property to exploit.

One of the great joys of theater is that it offers performance-based storytelling at its purest. We live in a time when Hollywood spends a vast bulk of its time and treasury stuffing high-priced special effects and sexy stars into profit-obsessed vehicles like so many crude meat parts into a sausage grinder. In such an environment, it is easy to understand why the quality of the actual tale being told is often considered to be of minimal importance. Directors and screenwriters are flipped around from production to production like baseball cards being swapped among fourth grade boys, while basic factors like decent writing and interesting narratives are disregarded in favor of the safety of committee-produced boilerplate plots. The end result of this is that the movies churned out by major studios are far too often tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

In contrast to this there is the world of theater, which by virtue of its comparative simplicity and physical limitations must demand more of itself and of its audience. While it is still possible to use a stage to awe an audience with spectacle (and while many musicals and plays have done this to great creative effect), it is ultimately the power of the story itself - as conveyed through the writing, directing, acting, and in the case of musicals, the songs - that determines whether a staged show is deemed successful. No spectacle that can be put on a stage can match that which a well-moneyed studio can cook up in an FX laboratory; there are no slick cinematic cuts or extra takes to compensate for poorly delivered lines or gaping flaws in the plot; and no matter how gaudy the costumes or elaborate the sets, the sheer physical proximity of the actors to their audience creates an intimacy that is as demanding as it is potentially rewarding for all parties involved. While this doesn't mean that musicals and plays are any less incentivized by the almighty dollar than their big screen counterparts, it does mean that, thanks to the nature of the medium, the big draw for a theatrical show has to be its storytelling fundamentals.

And yet, against all odds, this asset is now in jeopardy. The trend of turning well-known movies into stage productions simply as a means of capitalizing in on their popularity draws people to the theater not on the basis of the unique art form of theatrical storytelling, but instead as a means of bearing witness to glorified mimicry. While this is similar to the same mentality that causes people to flock to Disney on Ice shows and Comic-Con conventions, the difference is that those venues were by-and-large created for the sole purpose of promoting pop culture products. What American theater has to offer is not only distinct from that, but far more valuable.

The trend of capitalizing on movies into plays and musicals not only ignores what theater can offer, but could ultimately cheapen the way our culture views that institution. This is the forum that gave birth to some of our country's greatest voices, and those voices still have something to offer in those venues that could be of great value to America and the world. What a tragedy it would be if Broadway, in the name of profit, abandoned its legacy of innovation and storytelling mastery to become just another mediocre echo of Tinseltown.

1 comment:

Carolyn Marlow said...

Well, it's a very well written piece. I think, though, that it covers the tip of the ice berg. I'm not sure who you think the culprit is--I suspect the producer who is making most of the money. But what you don't cover is the question of what is wrong with a society who is clearly willing to pay much more money to see dreck than to see more high-quality, more intellectual and better acted works on Broadway. First--understand that, as Regina says, for the most part, musical theater is an adaptive art form. It will usually be an adaptation of a play--but sometimes of a movie or even a comic book or a painting. Rarely does musical theater spring whole from someone's mind. To go back to my original point--yes, ofcourse, producer's will produce whatever makes them money--what a surprise! But why is this shit so appealing to the public? That's the question. Some of this is children's theater and that speaks for itself. You must understand that there are absolutely innovative pieces that run on Broadway. they are produced every year--I have seen many of them. They just don't run very long. Plays rarely run very long. Even with all this stuff about Jude Law--that's a limited engagement. They probably wouldn't be able to keep that open for longer than 8 months even if he were staying. The public would not come. New and innovative musicals that win Tony's--Spring Awakenings, Sondheim, Yeston, etc.--only run for about 1 and 1/2 to 2 years, whereas Mamma Mia has been running for--I don't know--6? This makes a producer want to produce more splashy dreck because dreck sells--why? That's the question. Also--ticket prices are so high that certain types can't afford to go--students, intellectuals, communists, etc. So, that's another problem, so as I said--the big question for me is what the Hell is wrong here in a cosmic sense?