Monday, June 17, 2013

Everything That's Wrong (And a Little Bit Right) with Broadway Today

Esther Hannaford and friend in King Kong Live
Ever since Rogers and Hammerstein created the first true 'book musical' (Oklahoma!) in 1946, the genre has been about telling stories with songs and dances which actually advanced the plot. Over the years, there have been many innovations to and variations of that concept. Personally, I find most musicals written before 1967 to be colossal bores; dated, silly, naive and supremely indicative of the times in which they were written (I said 'most,' not 'all' - there are exceptions to every rule, even mine). 

In 1967, Rado and Ragni's Tribal Rock musical Hair changed everything. Musicals (despite R&H's anti-racist South Pacific) became socially relevant. Their stories and songs did more than entertain, providing avenues of social comment and discourse. The 70's brought us shows like Pippin; A Little Night Music; Chicago; A Chorus Line and Working. Broadway finally had something to say. The 80's continued the trend with Evita, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. They also brought us the show that would start the trend of musical spectacles, the amazingly still-running Andrew Lloyd-Weber version of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera. A falling chandelier; a mechanical elephant and grand staircase filled with outrageously costumed characters started the trend of the Broadway Spectacle. Of course, in the 90's Disney invaded Broadway with director Julie Taymor's wildly successful production of The Lion King and there's been no going back. Ever since, Broadway musicals have gotten more and more elaborate, requiring more spectacle, more effects and bigger stunts. Stephen Schwartz's hilarious 2003 Steampunk adaptation of Gregory Maguire's novel Wicked sealed the deal and the shows have gotten bigger and more outrageous ever since. See Taymor's ridiculous Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for prime examples of modern Broadway's excess.

In development for over five years, the new musical King Kong Live saw its world premiere in Melbourne last month and from all accounts, the show is a quantifiable hit, extending it's initial limited run Down Under through August. Featuring an 18 feet + tall gorilla puppet and a decidedly anachronistic score (you can listen to parts of some of the songs here), King Kong Live is slated for Broadway sometime in 2014/15. 

I get it. Tech-savvy 21st Century audiences expect more for their theatre dollars. If I'm spending $110 or more for a ticket, I want to be wowed too. But where does it end? Transformers The Musical? Ironman Sings? Godzilla!? The original 1933 King Kong may well be the movie that made me love movies, but will King Kong Live be the show that ends my love affair with the Broadway musical? I certainly hope not.

Wow! That's certainly impressive. And while I would love to see the show (assuming I can actually afford the ticket price), I am much more excited to see Neil Patrick Harris in the announced revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Broadway may well be 'The Great Invalid,' though spectacles like Kong and Spider-Man may well be the shows that price it out of reach for most folks. My advice to Broadway producers harkens back to that of Henry David Thoreau: Simplify. Audiences are expected to suspend their disbelief. They don't need 18 foot-tall puppets to do that, no matter how amazing they may be.

More, anon.

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