Sunday, March 11, 2012

Give My Regards to Broadway: A New Perspective

This past spring break brought me back to New York City, home to some of the best theater in the world. Those who are closest to me know that when it comes to theater, I have a critical eye and I am not afraid to share my often astute, but not always infallible, observations. Prior to business school, my analyses of those productions I attended frequently focused on actors' performances, tone and style of the production, directorial interpretation, dramatic structure, general aesthetic, etc. But now, carrying almost two years of MBA-level education with me, I sit in a darkened theater with a whole new level of baggage with which to deconstruct the show.

Shortly into the program, I knew that my nearly superhuman powers were developing further. With less than seven weeks of class behind me, in October 2011,  I attended the Boston-area premiere of Lucy Prebble's play ENRON, a modern day morality play set against the events of the recent corporate scandal. As I turned to my friend at intermission expecting to bash the production's pacing and shoddy blocking, he, a very intelligent undergraduate theater and political science major at Boston College, admitted that he was having a hard time following the plot. I then, unaware at the time of my pedagogical path, began to explain this human tragedy in terms of a balance sheet equation. Yes - I know. Who am I? With less than one semester of accounting under my belt, I was describing plot by using terms like assets, liabilities, and accounts payable. While Professor Pete Wilson is proud, I am pretty sure Brooks Atkinson is rolling over in his grave. Alas, I have not been able to view theater the same way since.

Below is a  recap of some the thoughts that crossed my mind as I sat through some of the hottest shows in town during this past week.

GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN: Producers are banking on an all-star cast comprised of theater royalty (Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones), former TV stars (Eric McCormack, John Larroquette, and Candice Bergen), and well liked, current Broadway go-to actors (Kerry Butler, Jefferson Mays, and Michael McKean) to draw in the crowds. This breezy, timely piece may not be very memorable, but its ensemble certainly is. In this case, the money is definitely on the marquee. Though I sat through an early preview, the cast was already beginning to find the rhythms of the banter. Though I had full faith that this ensemble will have a polished political potboiler on its hands come opening night, I sat there with bated breath every time octogenarians Lansbury and Jones rose from a drawing room sofa. Clearly their knees aren't what they used to be which leads me to wonder what additional costs did the producers face when insuring this show?   

DEATH OF A SALESMAN: Commercial producers love to dust off this classic every ten years or so for another Broadway outing. This time around Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman carries those weathered brief cases sullenly across the stage. Yet again, this production is counting on star power to fill the seats. To capture even the teeny-bopper audience, Andrew Garfield (from The Social Network) has been cast as Willy's prodigal son, Biff. Clearly, not as strong an actor as Hoffman (most of Garfield's scenery chewing performance in the second act is caught in his throat), the young heart-throb should help bring in young audience members eager to catch the star in action before he dons the Spider-Man suit later this year in the comic book franchise's latest installment. 

As I prepare for job interviews during my last semester of business school, one quote from Miller's play will ring loudly in my ear:

"The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want."

Here's hoping my interviews end happier than this play!

ONCE: Based on the hit 2006 indie movie of the same name, this adaptation's beautiful contemporary score does justice to its source material. Though a moderate success during its theatrical release and a 2007 Academy Award winner for Best Song ("Falling Slowly"), its base audience is probably too small to truly leverage it into the hit musical stratosphere. As I watched this musical, I applauded producers for taking a chance on this unconventional romantic comedy. I assume this musical made it so far from page to production, not for its effective melodies and heart, but for its relatively low costs (at least by Broadway musical standards). The writers have placed the action of this production in one setting (a Dublin bar), though the scenes are represented across multiple minimalist locations. Actors double as musicians. And characters are capped at thirteen. With steady ticket sales and modest operating costs, this musical could potentially see a long run and a decent return. At this time, positive word of mouth is needed the most!

ONCE also must be commended for its fantastic use of product placement. While flipping through the program, I came across an advertisement (picturing the musical leads) for C.F. Martin & Co. declaring to be the proud sponsors of the ONCE guitars. Given the importance of music and instruments, specifically the guitar, in this production, the product placement not only in the program but in the script came across as the most genuine and organic endorsement I have seen in years.   

VENUS IN FUR: VENUS IN FUR is a sexy, literate new play by David Ives and directed adeptly by Walter Bobbie. A star is born in Nina Arianda's hilarious performance as Vanda, a manipulative and talented young actress who coaxes playwright/director Thomas (played by Hugh Dancy) into letting her audition for him after-hours. Producers must have known they had a hit on their hands with Arianda as this Broadway mounting is the project's third production following two sold-out off-Broadway runs. Setting up shop this last time at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater allows both Arianda (as a Best Actress candidate) and the play to be eligible for the coveted TONY Award come June - an honor restricted to Broadway productions. With likely nominations and awards in its future to fuel ticket sales, a small cast of two (low operating costs), and sunk costs (sets, costumes, etc.) recouped during its off-Broadway iterations, producers are hoping to cash in on this play while word of mouth is positive and Arianda remains the critical darling of Broadway. Unfortunately, with so many new works opening in the next couple weeks, it is most likely that this humble comic production will be lost to audiences in the sea of openings this spring. After all, this play is "so last season."

THE JAZZ AGE: My last stop of the week was at a private industry reading of a new play, THE JAZZ AGE. Focusing its plot on a 'bromance' between F. Scott Fitzgerald (played by Kieran Campion) and Ernest Hemingway (Pablo Schreiber) with Zelda (Hannah Yelland) on board to complicate things. Fully staged productions have promises of dancers, an onstage jazz band to provide musical scoring, and projections. With only three principal actors, cost for future productions look manageable but will certainly increase with the addition of dancers in the ensemble and musicians. Producers beware - doing this era right does not come cheap. While listening to the reading, I tried to adopt the mindset of a commercial Broadway producer. Would this story sell? Though I have a personal affinity for this period and these authors (see my ongoing attempt to adapt Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise into a musical), I do question how much mainstream appeal this literary circle has for today's audiences (::ugh:: tourists with their neon fanny packs and orchestra seats for MAMMA MIA) aside from the whimsical world embodied by Woody Allen's brand of humor in last summer's delightful Midnight in Paris. Once again, it all comes back to that balance sheet. Show me a production that can be mounted well for a modest amount and then I might consider an investment.

In short, it was a very successful and entertaining trip to New York. To my theater friends who think I sold out by going to business school and chastise me for only seeing dollar signs (and not art on the stage) - I leave you with one redeeming thought. Despite a total of five Stephen Schwartz and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals currently playing on Broadway, I escaped the big bad city without seeing a single one. There is some hope!


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