10 Musings, Thoughts, And Opinions On The Current State Of The American Theatre

1. Let’s Start at the very Beginning

There are four types of theatre currently happening in America.

  • Theatre that entertains and distracts
  • Theatre that illuminates ideas and makes people question
  • Theatre that does both
  • Theatre that does neither

All are necessary and important.

2. Dancer First

Our industry has gotten into a nasty habit of identifying and categorizing performers by what skill they do best. “Oh, he’s a dancer first” “She’s a mixer” “He is an actor actor.” What does that even mean?? Sometimes performers even feel the need to rank their skills. “I’m a singer, actor, dancer.”

It is not hard to see how we have gotten here. We work in show business, after all. In this industry, one is expected to know his specific skill sets. What makes you marketable? What is going to make you money? How should you label yourself?

This is a dangerous way of thinking of ourselves as artists. We are all much more than that and share a more unified purpose.

You know what we are? Storytellers.

Chuckle if you like at the cheesy or pretentious sound of the term – but this is a much more apt title for what we do. We are all, through our specific skills, just telling a story. Through our dancing, our singing, our acting – we are working to communicate thoughts, ideas.

Storytelling is an innate part of mankind’s culture. The Greeks were the first to theatricalize it, but we have been telling stories since the caveman days. Now, we have television, books, movies, social media, news, ….politics…, and of course the theatre – all stories.

So, while knowing one’s specific strengths is an undeniably important aspect of making a career as an artist, we must be cautious not to ostracize ourselves.

We are united by a much greater purpose.

 3. On the Road Again ( Please )

What if Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane had taken The Producers on the road? What if some kid in Pierre, South Dakota could have seen Billy Porter in Kinky Boots? What if Idina and Kristin had head out with Wicked for a year?

Seems preposterous, does it not?

However, not too long ago, the biggest music theatre stars of the day toured. Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Yul Brenner, etc. If you played a hit role in a hit show in New York, it was only natural you would head out with the touring production.

It was your duty to the American public.

This trend has all but disappeared. And I totally get it. Big names do not want to leave both New York and their families to do a gig that would pay less than Broadway. And, nowadays, touring productions are seen as inferior to their New York counterpart.

How unfortunate! Can you imagine how much it meant to a family in Albuquerque, New Mexico to see Joel Grey in Cabaret? They did not have to go to New York to see the original. The original came to them.

The only person to have done this recently to my knowledge is Alice Ripley who went out with Next to Normal. For that, I have mad respect. How much that meant to an audience- to see the original actress playing the role for which she won the Tony.

Sadly this fad has faded away – and I suspect its disappearance  has hurt theatre attendance on a national scale.

4. Wintergreen for President

Theatre has political power.

We, as creators and artists, have the ability to illuminate political issues, comment on social injustices, and bring to light situations of which the public may not be fully aware.

The Gershwin brothers remarked on America’s obsession with war in Strike up the Band. Marc Blitzstein and John Houseman dealt with corporate greed in The Cradle will Rock. Kander and Ebb tackled labor unions and communism with Flora, the Red Menace.

These artists and others understood that one of the obligations of the theater is to comment and critique the people and systems that govern us.

I do not think we fully utilize this power today. We hide from the controversial in fear that ticket sales will plummet. Sure, we produce musicals that teach morals of love and self-acceptance, but what about a musical commenting on the fact that basic healthcare is neither available nor affordable for every U.S. citizen? What about a show that uses some terrific metaphor to critique a government whose stubborn bipartisan mindset has halted progress? What about a musical exploiting the sad fact that people in our nation are going hungry when we have more than enough food to go around?

But, excuse me, I’m getting political…

The point is we in the theatre have a duty to remark on the politics around us. For if we brave artists do not comment, who will..?

5. If I can make it…where?

New York City is the undeniable capital of theatre in the world. You simply cannot argue with the numbers – number of productions put up in a year, number of professional artists residing there, number of people (whether locals or tourists) who attend the theatre – New York wears the crown.

However, New York is not the only place in America where meaningful, innovative, and successful theatre is being produced. It is not the only place one can make a living as an artist.

This is the best kept secret in our industry.

Cities like Seattle and Chicago are thriving artistically. One can pay the bills there as a theater artist. New works are being produced, theater is being re-imagined, and people are filling the seats. Areas like South Florida and the southwest are also pockets of theatrical fertility.

New York is incredible, but you would be remiss to think that the big apple is the only place where fantastic artistic work is being done.

6. There is Nothin’ Like a Dame, however…

The musical theatre adores its women. We put them on pedestals and make them stars. From Ethel and Mary, to Carol and Angie, to Chita and Gwen, to Patti, Bernadette, and Audra ( this list could go on and on ) – we adore the ladies of Broadway. And rightfully so! These women are all immaculate storytellers, beautiful belters, and have proven themselves time and time again.

For whatever reason, the men of the theatre have never managed to reach the same star status. Why is this?

My hypothesis is that the gays tend to idolize the divas. I am sure there is a deep-rooted psychological explanation for this phenomena – but, who cares? Gays run the theatre, and we love our ladies. And that’s cause none of us got enough love in our childhoods.

And that’s showbiz, kid.

But, recently I’ve been asking myself- who are the male theatre stars of today? Who are the men constantly creating new solid work and contributing towards the evolution of the form?

So many. Christian Borle, Norbert Leo Butz, Danny Burstein, Brian D’Arcy James, Chris Sieber, and Nathan Lane to name a few. We are living in an age of really fabulous men of the theatre.

Let us not make them always take a back seat to our ladies. We want our men to stay around.

7. The Big Fish Phenomenon

I am so tired of hearing people shit all over Big Fish. Was the show perfect? No. Was it the worst thing Broadway has ever seen? Hardly.

The show’s untimely closing seemed to cement and affirm people’s critiques while simultaneously erasing any positive thoughts on the production they may have had. Big Fish instantly became a TERRIBLE show. I have noticed this same pattern with several productions that have shuttered swiftly. All of a sudden, the ENTIRE production is regarded as a failure.

Now, I realize theatre is subjective ( and isn’t that terrific ), but we cannot discredit an entire show/process just because it flopped.

What about an original score? What about FANTASTIC performances by members of the cast? What about the innovative use of projections? What about artists getting together and telling a new story?

I am not opposed to critique – to the contrary, I am quite the proponent- but we, as a community, must support each other and celebrate our peers on their brave endeavors in putting a new piece of work into the universe.

8. ( Title of Musical ) – Live!

I do not understand people within our community hating on Sound of Music – Live and similar productions.

These live, televised shows are greatly beneficial to the theatre. You know why? They get young people interested in musicals. And the theatre desperately needs young people if we want to continue.

Do you know the average age of the theatergoer? Me either. But I would guess – old. And that’s all good and well! Old people love the theatre, and they have money. Terrific! However, where will be in 10 years? 20? If we want to keep the theatre a RELEVANT and VITAL part of culture ( unlike say, the opera ) – we must work to bring in these younger folk.

One of our best assets in that goal lies in these widely-viewed televised musicals. They are mass marketing tools for our most important demographic. Kids and teens see these programs and, consequently. become more interested in theater. They want to see shows, enroll in classes, take a family vacation to New York.

So, think twice before hating on this new fad of live, televised musicals. They are one of the theatre’s greatest assets.

9. The Best of Times is Now

I adore the Golden Age of Musical theatre. I understand and appreciate that this was a remarkable time in our history- copious amounts of wonderful theatre were being produced, the form was being stretched and integrated in a new way, and theatre enjoyed a much more prominent place in popular culture.

However, we must be careful not to regard this time in history as the peak of our craft. When we look back on the golden age with an attitude of “it will never be that good again”- we are doing ourselves in. We are adopting a mindset that the theatre is on an irreversible, downward spiral.

Don’t get me wrong – I LIVE for music theater history and find it remarkably important. The American theatre has a rich, rich legacy, and we should honor and learn from it. But we should not enter the 21st century with the mentality that our best days are behind us.

Onward and upward, I say.

10. What makes us special makes us STRONG

There is one component of theatre that always has and always will make the form unique – it is LIVE. It’s happening right in front of you, baby.

The audience and performers are breathing the same oxygen.

When you are seeing a show, you are witnessing a once in a universe experience. This moment will never happen again. Actual energy is being exchanged between the audience and performers- energy that is unique to that specific performance- energy that is palpable and tangible.

The theater is alive.

And when we are taking part in this unique, energy-exchanging art, we are able to forget our day-to-day troubles for a holy two hours. We are able to laugh and cry at the follies and woes of others. And, hopefully, we are able to leave the theatre understanding our own lives just that much more…

Long live the grand tradition of the American Theatre! TC mark

featured image – Shutterstock

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