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Does Commercial Success Kill Shows?

August 15, 2007

Mark Fisher's very interesting blog posting in The Guardian a couple of days ago asks a daring question:

"Is it hypocritical for those of us who love the theatre to rave about a production and campaign for its success, only to turn cold on it when it achieves the kind of mass appeal we always believed it deserved?"

Fisher continues:

"It's hard to remember a time when Stomp was an innovative experiment in percussion, when the Blue Man Group was part of the avant garde and when musicals about the wives of Argentinian leaders seemed pretty cutting edge. Does commercial success kill the soul of such shows or is it merely our restless quest for new ideas that makes them seem stale?"

Fisher's posting made me think a lot about my own biases when it comes to the arts. For better and for worse, I am often incredibly sniffy about commercial shows. Sometimes I think my feelings are justified and sometimes they are not.

Fisher makes an excellent point in his posting about context. ("Seeing a play up close and personal in a studio theatre, when the playwright's ideas are fresh and the actors are at their peak, is very different to seeing the same play two years later in a mainstream theatre after an umpteenth change of cast.") I think he's absolutely correct when he says that seeing a production on a huge Broadway stage once it's been cloned several times is just not the same as seeing it in a small studio space out of town in its early days.

It's often the case that shows that have become hits just don't seem to fit the medium of their newfound success. Two examples from my recent theatre-going experiences include Avenue Q and Kiki & Herb. No matter how expert the performers are and how much audiences seem to enjoy the shows, these two productions are simply not meant for massive stages. These are chamber shows at heart and you just don't get the same connection to them when you see them in a big, commercial context. Avenue Q is a rough, warm musical. It feels slightly heartless on San Francisco's drafty Orpheum stage, where it's currently playing on its national tour. And Kiki & Herb just doesn't work as well for me in a space like The Geary Theatre where you're not jostling for space with a big transsexual and mopping beer off your T-shirt.

That being said, I don't think it's "a restless quest for new ideas" that makes these long-running stage successes seem stale to theatre aficionados. I think it's the shows themselves that don't age well in many cases. Art has a time and place. The theatre frequently reflects the precise times we live in, the spirit of our age. So it's natural that after a while, shows lose their relevance and start to wear thin at the edges. Even something like Avenue Q, which was first performed off Broadway only a few years ago, in 2003, is starting to look a bit mothballed. Muppet nostalgia has had its day and that day is swiftly passing.

Tied to that is a desire in the ardent theatre-goer to feel emotionally involved in what they're seeing. When I go to the theatre, I'm not necessarily interested in "new ideas." It's kind of meaningless to search for such a thing anyway, for nothing is truly "new" and concepts that appear innovative are usually recycled ones presented in unusual ways. All I want is a feeling of connection to what I'm experiencing in the space.

Connection is an immediate thing. It can exist at varying points during the evolution of a show. it comes and goes. Usually it's there at the moment of conception, when the ideas respond directly to the moment, which is why critics often get excited about a production in its early stages only to turn on it when it becomes successful later on. By then, unfortunately, the show has reached its sell-by date.

I don't know what the solution to this state of affairs might be. Perhaps critics should make a point of NOT returning to review shows during commercial runs if they've covered them earlier on in their evolution. Perhaps producers should endeavor to get promising shows commercial runs sooner so that they don't go stale so fast.

Or, simplest of all: Perhaps we should just accept that peoples' opinions of art change all the time. Just as there's nothing wrong with hating Shakespeare when you read him at school and then realizing how great he is later on, it's OK to fall in love with John Doyle's version of Sweeney Todd at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury and then feel lukewarm about it when its Broadway incarnation reaches San Francisco three years later with a revised cast.

1 Comments:

  • I am always interested in questions like these. Coming from the "actor" perspective, it is always interesting to watch the rising success of a performer while noticing that he/she do eventually lose some of their "soul" as the commercial success is donned upon them.

    This is especially evident with comics who go on to commercial success.

    Money can catalyze a lot of changes to something or someone, and I dont think that art escapes the "negative" influence of commercial success. Can it escape it? Yes, but it seems pretty damn difficult.

    Michael
    The Cool As Hell Theatre Podcast

    By Blogger Michael, At August 15, 2007 at 7:39 PM  

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