The first time I went to New York I was 16. I remember being so excited – as I was very recently getting into theatre – and viewed Broadway as the be-all, end-all of theatre: the best of the best. Before I left though, I was baffled at the amount of friends and family I had coming up to me talking about The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King and how, before I see anything else, I have to go see those shows.
Between age 16 and now, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit New York several times, and see many shows. I still haven’t seen The Phantom of the Opera. However, every time I go, I’m struck by the culture surrounding it and the several other long-running show’s on the great white way.
At what point did Phantom, Lion King, Mamma Mia, etc. stop being shows, and start being institutions?
I’ve wrestled with this question for years now, and am thinking about it constantly since it seems every adult not involved in theatre that I have a conversation with about my future, asks if I want to be on Broadway. I fought this notion for a long time, even went so far as to write these shows off as “commercial” or “fluff” in my earlier college years.
I realize in labeling any show this way I’m instantly discrediting its merits (which they have many of). The technical elements in shows such as The Lion King or Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark are truly incredible, however what about the content?
It’s easy to argue that Spider-man is a story about the hero that resides in all of us, or how it’s a commentary on the times we live in and the need of a hero. What I saw, when I sat in theatre, though was an enormous amount of money of stage. I can’t remember the last time I saw that much work, put into the technical elements of a show, and how visible all of the work was. It was as if the producers were saying to the audience, “Even if the show sucks, look at all of these impressive distractions.”
I didn’t leave that show feeling angry, however. I left feeling compelled. I didn’t see a disaster, I saw a missed opportunity. A different type of show – a cirque du soliel of sorts – trying to conform to the troupes of a broadway musical. By shaving off a good hour or more, eliminating most (all) of the lyrics and dialogue, and relinquishing any need to follow an Aristotelian Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark can achieve a new level of success; commercial, technical, and artistic.
What I believe stops this show in particular from achieving that level is its desire to reach Phantom of the Opera status. It’s a show that was designed, marketed, and presented as the Newest New York institution.
Therefore, I pose that this idea of art as institution is a stifling container. It puts pressure on the artist and the audience. I as an audience member feel compelled to see it, to be in the know, and then to either LOVE it of HATE it.
What if it was just a play? Without the pressure of becoming as necessary as the Empire State Building. Could it then earn its success? Humbly?
I bring all of this up, again, to open up a discussion between theatre-makers and theatre-goers. What stories do we, as theatre-makers want to tell, need to tell? What do you as theatre-goers want to see?
Maybe once we figure out WHAT it is we need to discuss with our theatre, we can figure out HOW we can best go about it, and not the other way around.