I confess: I love commercial theatre. The fancy sets, the lavish costumes, the indomitable divas, I can’t get enough.
Death of a Salesman?
I’ve seen it eight times.
Angels in America?
It’s like my Bible.
So why do I feel like a traitor? Why do I feel like I’m betraying the artform I claim to love?
In the theatre school environment, “edgy” and “experimental” are often taken as defaults, inherent components of making and appreciating art as a young person. Alongside these descriptors usually come the phrases “politically charged” and “important in the modern moment,” often connoting that pieces which live in the commercial realm are not and/or cannot be politically charged or important. However, as a wise professor once told me, “Commercial and experimental theatre are not mutually exclusive. They are fundamentally bound.”
We could not have Hair without Viet Rock, nor could we have P.S. 122 without The Schubert Organization. It’s like Gear Theory– every piece of theatre influences and speaks to every other piece of theatre, and without both the Establishment and Anti-Establishment markets, the machine would cease to function. Neither pole could exist in isolation for the holes they would leave in each other, so to say that one is superior to the other is not only elitist, but ignorant of the basic functioning of modern American theatre.
What’s exciting about the current state of ‘popular’ theatre, however, is its newfound openness to experimentation. Pieces like Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 have found a way to hold fast to their downtown roots while simultaneously making it big on the Great White Way. They understand that the grungy, visceral, unapologetic aspects of their beginnings do not necessarily have to disappear to appeal to a wide audience. That is not to say that all avant-garde theatre has the potential to land on 42nd Street, but it does show that a large portion of the uptown community is willing to test the waters of pieces without catchy tunes or predictable plots.
In short, let’s just keep in mind that no piece of theatre ever began as anything other than ‘new work’, and because of that fact, wherever a show ends up, be it barn or Broadway, does not heighten or lessen its value.