Welcome to NYC's Hidden Golden Age of Theater

In New York theater today, what's not imported is what's underrated

Some colleagues were chatting lately, yet again, about a Golden Age of American theater. This time, they meant the years just after World War II. People seem to enjoy believing in a magical time, usually just before they came along, when everything was splendid. Such talk makes me uneasy, because I have the terrible habit of accumulating theatrical facts. I know the aureous wonders of the late 1940s, but I also know its turkeys. No Golden Age arrives unalloyed.

Hence my unease. Talk of Golden Ages always makes me hear, echoing in my brain, the voice of Barbara Cook, who embodies the phrase in two senses, being both an icon of the Broadway musical's great past and, though over 80, still displaying her expertise on Broadway today. Not many years ago, during her solo show at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, she warbled a succession of memorable songs from that gilded past, and then reflected, "They tell me now I was living in a Golden Age. I didn't know I was living in a Golden Age." And then she cocked her head quizzically at the audience and asked, "Do you think we're living in one now?"

Do you think we're living in one now? That's what echoes in my brain when I hear people picturing the past as a Golden Age. You see, Cook's rhetorical question had stuck with me. Like everyone else who spends endless hours seeing theater, I often get the glooms from what seems to be the unremittingly gray cloud of our current theatrical era. To notice that the gray cloud is displaying a lustrous gilt edge requires more effort. That's the trick time plays on us: Decades from now, the gray clouds will have dissipated from collective memory, leaving behind only the golden glory that they currently seem to overwhelm.

An Obie Shoutout: Marc Damon Johnson 
wins a performance award for his work in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays.
Chad Griffith
An Obie Shoutout: Marc Damon Johnson wins a performance award for his work in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays.
A Double-header Sweep: Playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold win Obies for their collaboration 
on both Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens.
Chad Griffith
A Double-header Sweep: Playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold win Obies for their collaboration on both Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens.

I love the past; I never understand artists who feel they can live in ignorance of it. But loving it also means never overrating it. If you cherish the past to the exclusion of the present, you trade in your chance of spotting something good today. Golden Ages can be close-mouthed creatures; they don't post signs telling you, "This is the Golden Age." And if they did, such signs would be an excellent reason to distrust them. The art that achieves its effect simply by doing what it set out to do tends to be quiet. In our time, it has all too often been jostled out of the way by the noisier, more specious kind that fails of effect while busily proclaiming its own importance. No wonder people find reaching backward for art certified by the past to be easier than sorting today's nourishing wheat from the noisy chaff around it.

The past isn't the only locale that distracts us from the devoted artists who make our present glow. One peculiarity of New York theater, in recent years, has been its increasing habit of looking away from its own best assets, instead relying for guidance on taste made elsewhere, mainly in London or Hollywood. This is fundamentally unhealthy, not because either London and Hollywood are such evil places, but because they aren't New York. A city with our long tradition, our vast community of artists, and our burgeoning ability to spawn new creative impulses can only be itself. London's taste is fine—for London. Hollywood's taste is fine, too, for those who think Hollywood the be-all and end-all. But New York must inevitably always be New York.

Not that artists from London or Hollywood should be unwelcome here. Who would resent the arrival of an actress as good as Scarlett Johansson, whatever her movie credits? Who could fail to admire London design work as gorgeous as the sets and lighting for Red? But specific artists or productions are never the issue: The issue is the habit of assuming that taste must come from somewhere else, that one has no right to evolve one's own taste.

Broadway, which lives by the profit motive, understandably needs to cast its glance elsewhere: Its affluent patrons hunger for the snobby security of pre-approved London hits; its tourist market thrives on Hollywood-branded star names and titles. While giving our local economy a wonderful boost, this situation has the unfortunate side effect of making Broadway irrelevant to the city's cultural life. "It's a business," hit-hungry Broadwayites say.

But for a business, the theater has some eccentric qualities. Mass-marketing it internationally to maximize profit tends to dry up its organic sources locally. That, in due course, dries up the profitability. The magic of the musical was once Broadway's specialty. Today, its cupboard of new musicals is bare; only Off-Broadway, where money exerts less pressure, lets our artists take the risks that might turn to gold, artistically or monetarily.

The tricky part is knowing the gold when we see it. Taste gets progressively deadened through the habit of responding only to works that arrive with fanfares from elsewhere. (Both Hollywood and London have better fanfare factories than we do.) Fanfares, too, make me uneasy. To welcome work that's already celebrated elsewhere can be a joy, but the joy of discovering unheralded wonders is greater. One of New York's longtime quirks is to keep some of its most lustrous jewels secret; the habit may be one that, in the noisy era of globalized media, we should learn to break.

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