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On Walking Out At Half-Time

December 3, 2008

Yesterday evening at about 9.45pm, my husband Jim and I flopped down at a bar in the so-called "theatre district" of San Francisco feeling disgruntled. The bar tender overheard us muttering to each other about the various feelings of relief and guilt that come with leaving a show at intermission.

"Must have been pretty bad, huh?," said the BT plunking menus down in front of us. "What did you see?"
"We saw half of The Phantom of the Opera," we said glumly.
"Now that's a first. I've never heard of anyone walking out of Phantom, though this bar sometimes gets quite busy with people leaving other shows at half-time," said the BT.

He then launched into a recollection of the "hordes" of theatregoers who showed up at half-time having prematurely left performances of a recent UK-based tour of UK director Tim Supple's polyglot Indian version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I was thoroughly engrossed by that production and reveled in the weirdness of the seven different Indian languages. The linguistic estrangement made Shakespeare's language seem newly rich and strange to me. But many people were put off. "I guess they didn't like the fact that they couldn't understand what the characters were saying," said the BT. "One guy who came here after leaving the show at intermission said, 'it's hard enough trying to understand Shakespeare in English; why make it even harder?'"

No one likes to leave a live theatre production before it's done. It's a terrible feeling. Guilt about walking out on hard-working performers mingles with annoyance at having wasted one's time to create a toxic brew of self-loathing, self-pity and self-vindication.

It's a burden that weighs particularly heavily on my shoulders as a professional theatre critic.

When I'm reviewing a piece, I always stay to the end, no matter how fed-up I'm feeling. It's just part of the job. But when I'm experiencing a production just for fun / out of curiosity rather than because I have a deadline approaching, I very occasionally play by different rules. Normally I'll stay to the end, because I just love being in the theatre and there's always something of value to make staying to curtain worthwhile, even if it's simply a basic desire to be polite and respectful to the people sweating it up there under the lights.

Somehow, though, I couldn't handle the second act of Phantom.

Unbelievably, it was the first time I'd ever seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's megalith show -- the second longest-running West End musical in history and the longest-running Broadway musical of all time.

I was rather excited at the prospect of finally seeing the production after all these years. Of course, the staging was gorgeous. The costumes and props and general spectacle still dazzled in the same way as they probably did when the musical first appeared in 1986. The performances were all extremely competent. The songs were catchy. Even though I'd never seen the work staged, I wasn't surprised to find that I knew many of the production numbers already, some of them nearly entirely by heart.

But what turned me off was Phantom's lack of soul. This is a strange thing to say, because millions of people who've seen the musical around the world would claim to be utterly sucked in by the heart-wrenching story and the characters' love-lorn plights.

But Jim and I just didn't feel moved. "Don't you want to stay for the second half if only to find out about the Phantom's past?" I asked Jim as we stretched our legs by the orchestra pit at half-time. He pondered the question for a moment, as did I. We quickly realized that we just didn't care.


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