Saturday, May 30, 2015

The American Musical, Without Broadway?

Source: Trinity Rep.
Logo for Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical
I saw the second preview of Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical by Sarah Ruhl and Todd Almond at Trinity Rep, Providence, last night. This isn't a review, more of a response to what the material did for me (and, for the record, I recommend seeing it).

I am always struggling to remove myself from what I see as a conditioned desire of satisfaction-catharsis, or direct relation- when I see a show. Wanting theatre to always be about or for myself is a very limiting view, and blocks me from expanding my knowledge and objectively judging work. Therefore, let me discuss what the question the piece is tackling, and then how it led me to think about a broader situation in musical theatre.

Melancholy Play is asking why melancholy isn't a part of the social fabric today. One of the first lines, paraphrased, says: "This is a defense for melancholy." Like the show, I also wonder why it isn't as present in society or mainstream art these days. According to program notes, melancholia instigated the European Romantic movement, and regarded those with it as "having a mark of genius." These days, it's all selfies, crooked smiles, and nice hair at microphones. There really isn't room to be murky.

I felt genuinely engaged, though never shaken to my core, and that's okay. It's an oddity of a piece, and it's meant to discuss something that not everyone really thinks about, or wants to. Example, a lady in her 70s said during the talk-back, "I'd never see this if I wasn't a subscriber [to Trinity Rep]." This show was for her, and I am so happy she got something out of it.

In summation: It's small, it's weird. It's absurdist, really. And the lyrics didn't really rhyme, if ever (whatever, I like that, personally). I kept saying to myself, "How wonderful that this show has been written, and likely not for Broadway."

WHOA! Is that actually one of my initial reactions when I see a show?! Should it be?! This is the Golden Age of Broadway with less financial risk anymore, so what I am saying?!

Why is it so common that musicals are so closely linked to Broadway, or commercialism. A commercial audience in a post globalized world is a very different thing from a regional theatre in Rhode Island or Minneapolis. Sometimes, non-profit transfers to Broadway strike lightning (Fun Home is rightfully doing so, and partially because it didn't just transfer, it reimagined itself, giving one a reason to see it in the particular space within which it plays). But Broadway is ONE place that is trying to appeal to tourism. It is ONE community. It has money, it has exposure. But we shouldn't let that limit ourselves from curiosity about the equal caliber of work happening elsewhere. We shouldn't be blinded by the saturated exposure that community receives.

If there's one thing I agree with Joe Dowling about (soon to be former artistic director of my alma mater, the Guthrie Theater), it's what he said in a recent article of MSP Magazine:
"...we, [the Guthrie], don’t want to [go to Broadway]...when you talk about regrets...[I regret] dabbling in that whole development for Broadway thing, which we did for Little House (2008), and also with Roman Holiday (2012) and a couple of other things. But I have no interest in the Guthrie having a play on Broadway, and nor should anyone. And I’ll tell you why: The very foundation of the theater was a result of the feeling that Broadway was not the end all and be all of American theater. The for-profit world is fantastic when it’s vibrant and alive—but the not-for-profit world, like the Guthrie, we have to be able to speak to our community, and once you say we’re doing this show with a view to taking it to New York, you immediately start using your audience as a tryout audience, and this is not a tryout audience."
Rocky at NY's Winter Garden Theatre
It opened after having already premiered
in Hamburg, Germany.
Broadway and musicals seem to be synonymous, in spite of there being some development of it elsewhere, ie Yale Institute, Austria, France, Australia. But many of these shows still seem to have their eye on Broadway. When Rocky played New York City, its marquee didn't say "Direct from Hamburg," though it'd likely be the other way around had it opened in Hamburg afterward. This desire for New York may indeed limit what an individual musical's potential is, even if it never makes it to the coveted New York.  The 2004 PBS documentary, "Broadway: The American Musical" is titled for a reason. Tony Kushner stated in his inspiring Playbill article, "Singing of Human Success: Tony Kushner on the Importance of the Off-Broadway Musical," from July 2013:
That all musicals are born dreaming of an apotheosis on the stage of a commercial theatre in the Times Square area is still a common assumption, dying by slow degrees but alive enough to be worrisome to the kind of people who worry about musicals — about the musical theatrical form, as opposed to the musical theatrical dividends. Musicals are very expensive to produce, and someone has to pay for them, and get paid back, and there's nothing wrong with dividends. Well actually there's plenty wrong with dividends, but that's another story.
I am wondering, how can we have more musicals in our go-to canon without always speaking solely about New York City? How can we encourage more musicals to be written in response to specific communities throughout America, and with professionalism and craft? Rather than trying to create work to be commercially viable, create work to respond to a question, and if it happens to have a commercial life, amazing. It's a crapshoot anyway, so why not just keep on contributing to the theatrical landscape until something hits?

I have been considering, and now finally really being open, to taking time away from Broadwayworld.com (my preferred source for that community, by the way) and seeking out theatre news from other sources. Howlround.org is one I use, sometimes. But where else? What are some other sources?

Oh, art, you are tricky!

Monday, May 18, 2015

25

Yesterday, I turned 25.

I was more freaked out being 24 than 25. That's because, while I was 24, I was living an exciting, yet wandering existence. A few weeks before 25, I left New York City to return to my native small town in Rhode Island. I haven't lived here in 7 years, since high school ended. To southern RI for a year, followed by 4 years in Minneapolis, which included an amazing pit stop in London for 4 months. After college, I jumped around for 6 months- California, Vienna, London, back home for the holidays, then New York City.

New York City was home from January 2014-April 2015. In that time, I spent most of it working as an user at the Roundabout Theatre Company's remount of Cabaret. It turned out to be an exciting job. The honest connections I made turned out to be so genuine, that I know I have a network of professionals and friends that will last me the lifetime. It was an environment where every person, front of house, backstage, onstage, and security, knew and adored one another. Private parties, late-night rendezvous in Club Cumming (by our star, Alan Cumming), and laughs. And a love for the show itself. I worked 392 of the 423 performances.

I meant to be an actor/theatre maker, but I got distracted. Here I was, in this amazing city, but the itty shitty voices in my mind were there, and a city that, in spite of its riches, wasn't inspiring me. When I woke up in the morning, I didn't necessarily want to leave my apartment. I wasn't excited to audition, to see the sidewalks, or the lights. It all made me want to curl up in a little ball and sleep all day long.

This feeling doth not a successful artist (or, entrepreneur) make!

I was surviving-just enough. But I was sharing a bedroom, not writing, not auditioning... I never felt like I had enough time to really thrive, and the resources to create art in a way that feeds me were limited. Agentless, almost penniless, and self conscious, I felt my voice wasn't strong enough to forge through the competition. Ugh! THAT word-competition. It's a word I never associated with my career until I lived in New York City. You see, the artistic industry there is SO saturated with the trained, the untrained, the connected, the unconnected, and the NEEDED, that to really stand out, you need to not necessarily be the BEST, but be the one that CONNECTS. That could mean you're a talent that blows the roof, or you're attractive enough to some higher up... the list goes on, holding up countless folks with or without integrity.

I am not ready to be there full time. Being there full time taught me that. I have an amazing acquaintance with whom I worked on a pre-Broadway show in 2010, who isn't based in NYC, yet works there from time to time. His success after leaving New York City inspired me.

Also, seeing shows curated into New York City reminded me that I don't have to be IN NYC to do work that matters.

At the end of the day, NYC is a place. It's a place that has one way of living and one way of dealing with the theatrical industry. Equating an ability to function there as talent and worth is not healthy for art in America, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. The myth of New York is perpetuated by legend, media, and stories. The number of people who can have success on Broadway and then eventually leave the city is quite high. The arts are not a corporation, try as they might. It is a fluctuating lifestyle, sustainable for some who tap into a niche. That is FINE. That is AMAZING. But it's not for everyone. We all have different purposes, and mine is somewhere between here and wherever my passions will lead me...