Thursday, June 4, 2009

Hair and The Norman Conquests: Reassuring My Faith in Broadway Theater

While I consider myself an massive theater geek and will gladly babble on to anyone about the many merits of attending live theater, I do have to admit that a lot of what Broadway’s had to offer the past few years has been questionable. One of the main problems seems to be that Broadway has forgotten that it needs theater actors, not movie actors. I remember years ago when I first started making my way down to the city to see shows and I would hardly recognize any of the cast member’s names, since they weren’t household names; they were trained professional New York City theater performers.

But lately Broadway seems to be relying on bringing in big name celebrities to sell tickets. Julia Roberts made her Broadway debut in 2006 in Three Days of Rain…and the reviews were terrible and the show closed. Katie Holmes made hers in 2008 with All My Sons…and no one really seemed to care. Then there’s the revolving door of “celebrities” that take turns starring in Chicago, like Lisa Rinna and Wayne Brady, and the who’s who of American Idol rejects that rotated in and out of the now-closed Rent. It’s no secret that Broadway theaters have been hurting for money for years and have been forced to turn to measures like corporate sponsorships to stay afloat, but the name-dropping casting is a stunt that just doesn’t work. Newsflash: Even if the star of a show is a big name, if the show is terrible, people aren’t going to shell out the money for the exorbitant cost of a Broadway ticket. When a theater ticket can cost the same as a full day’s salary, audiences want to see performances by people who know what they’re doing.

Broadway theater also has a tendency to forget one of the fundamental rules of the theater: Theater is meant to be entertainment. What was once designed as a way for everyone—from kings to peasants—to enjoy a couple of hours, has turned into 150-minute long lectures on issues like tolerance, matrimonial strife, and how hard it is to be young/old/black/white/poor/rich in the world today. While there’s nothing wrong with a show offering a lesson or insight on a common problem, no one wants to be bored during a night out. There’s night school and poetry readings for that.

It’s due to these common ailments that so many Broadway productions are suffering from that added to my utter delight in both Hair and The Norman Conquests. Hair offers lessons galore—being young is tough, war is horrible, marijuana can be a lot of fun—but it’s never heavy-handed, and good god is it fun! The singing! The dancing! The daisies! It’s a rocking good time set to a story you can relate to. The Norman Conquests is also highly entertaining, but in a more subdued (and British) way. The trilogy of plays offer a lot of laughs with their physical humor and awkward pauses, but they also hold a mirror to problems that most people come across at one time or another—unhappy in love, unhappy out of love, unfaithful partners, and a cat stuck in a tree (naturally).

And both shows manage to accomplish theatrical greatness without one big celebrity name between the two of them, and they continue to sell tickets. I just pray this trend continues, because if next year I start seeing ads for the Jonas Brothers starring in Billy Elliot, I will throw up and move out of the city.

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