OBIES 2012: Don't Dress for Theater

A week of Broadway torture proves that hope lies with the scruffy

OBIES 2012: Don't Dress for Theater
Robert Adam Mayer
Obie-winning actor Steven Boyer, from Hand to God

Like most theater critics, I am a slow learner. (Why else would we still be theater critics?) So I didn't realize, until last month, that the Broadway League was trying to kill me. No, I don't mean that literally: It wasn't an intentional act on their part, and it wasn't directed against me personally. No malevolence or violence was involved. The League, the trade association of Broadway-theater owners, operators, producers, presenters, and general managers, was just doing what it's supposed to do: scheduling the dates on which Broadway productions had to open to be eligible for this year's Tony Awards.

But Broadway producers have evolved the habit, which the League has done nothing to discourage, of opening their shows as close as possible to the Tony deadline. They apparently believe, mistakenly, that this will make any junk they shove onstage easier for Tony nominators and voters to remember. This year, they outdid themselves: Ten Broadway shows opened in the second half of April, seven of them in the five days from the 22nd through the 26th. (Two shows each opened on the Sunday and Friday of that week, since producers fetishize, idiotically, the selling power of the Monday and Friday New York Times.)

My colleagues, like me, moaned and snarled as we lurched from one show to the next. I only had to go to the theater on seven consecutive days. Others had to stagger, groggily, through weekend double- and triple-headers; where they found time to write, I have no idea. I only know that my eyes got even blearier than usual, while my head, full to bursting with images and mental notes, felt several hundred pounds heavier. Tromping my glum way in and out of erratically ventilated, overcrowded theaters, through April's customary changeable weather, I naturally caught a cold, and after filing eight reviews where I would normally file four, I lay in bed, numb and blank-brained, for two days, cursing the League, my choice of occupation, and everyone who ever dreamed of producing a Broadway show. And vowing never to go to the theater again—a vow that I immediately broke when I recovered.

Obie-winning actress Cherise Boothe, of Obie-winning playwright Kirsten Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar
Robert Adam Mayer
Obie-winning actress Cherise Boothe, of Obie-winning playwright Kirsten Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar
actor Gabriel Ebert, 
of Amy Herzog’s 
4000 Miles, named Best New American Play
Robert Adam Mayer
Obie-winning actor Gabriel Ebert, of Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, named Best New American Play


More OBIES Coverage:
OBIES 2012: What Off-Broadway Needs Now
Obie Night 2012: New Guard, Loud Crowd, Devil Puppet
The 2012 Obie Award Winners
Scenes From The 2012 Obie Awards
Photographs by Robert Adam Mayer
Makeup by Margina Dennis
Location: The Gene Frankel Theatrer

But since the Tony deadline had brought the Broadway season to its inevitable end, my post-recovery theatergoing was Off-Broadway. That's where my great revelation struck. Sitting through Man and Superman and The Caretaker, after a week that had included Ghost, Don't Dress for Dinner, and Leap of Faith, I realized that I didn't hate theatergoing at all: I just no longer saw the point of going to Broadway. My seven days of torment had taught me that the theater was fine, but that Broadway was irrelevant to it.

Many people may exist who would view my hellish week as a stroll in Paradise; they're welcome to their delusions. Under no obligation to think or write about what they see, they may actually find Broadway theatergoing a source of pleasure. Perhaps, too, they're young and have more stamina than I do, though I don't see how the young can afford today's Broadway prices. (I don't actually see how anyone can afford today's Broadway prices.) Broadway—for a lot of people it means theater. Beyond its monetary significance, the name has a thousand links and a million associations; Broadway's propagandists have done their work well.

The irony is that their efforts have come at the end of a century-long historical transition. Historically, for most of 20th-century American life, Broadway was the theater: England, continental Europe, Off-Broadway (which evolved out of the 1910s "little theater" movement), and "regional" theaters (to a later consciousness "resident theaters") all contributed to it. But Broadway was the mainstream: It had its own system, evolved its own attitudes, and generated the bulk of its own work.

All that has changed, and changed forever. "New" Broadway musicals, most of them recycling movie scores or dead composers' catalogs, come from London or Los Angeles; this season's sole innovative piece of music-theater, Once, was shaped by British and Irish artists working with American performers Off-Broadway. Broadway in its heyday had a distinct taste in plays, with an especially distinctive approach to comedy. This year, the Tony nominees for Best Play are all migrants from past seasons Off-Broadway (where two of them won Obie Awards—for Direction, ironically). The one new "Broadway" play I saw during my week-long agony, David Auburn's The Columnist, was produced by a nonprofit as part of its regularly scheduled subscription season.

The escalating costs of Broadway, now so wildly out of kilter, have coupled with this long-term historical change to supplant the art form's central need, which is the desire to do the work. Theater is made by people who devote their lives to it because they believe in its value (professional, from "profess," to believe). Naturally, they want to make a living, and if possible a profit. But the first motive is the value of the work: Broadway's tradition is a long litany of people who profited, some of them greatly, out of the work they loved and professed. This includes wealthy producers, who knew they were not artists but also knew what they believed in, whether it was a specific shade of red suitable for musicals, a parade of six-foot-tall showgirls in giant headdresses, a romantic comedy loosely adapted from the Hungarian, or a final scene that would reduce the most cynical audience to helpless weeping.

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