November 6, 2008

The Blockbuster Musical

by Jordan Coughenour

Often looked upon with the polarizing lows of being either an enclave of elitist complications or a puffy, nonsensical frolic-fest, the musical has steadily grown more and more out of touch with contemporary media and society. Once a primary form of expression and popular sentiment, commenting on society with songs such as "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" from Americana, Broadway also was a primary form of American social advancement, with African American actors such as Ethel Waters taking on startlingly nuanced leading roles before Hollywood even began to consider serious racial diversification. Even in the 1970's, when speaking openly about homosexuality was still taboo in many social circles, Broadway boldly showed its fearlessness in playing home to the dance musical A Chorus Line, which featured three openly gay characters.

Even a brief glance at the offerings on Broadway today however, and it's difficult to distinguish between the Great White Way and your local megaplex theatre. Offerings such as the ridiculously laughable Shrek the Musical, the soon to open Billy Elliot, and the recently closed Legally Blonde are all adapted from their successful movie counterparts. While such unoriginality might be excusable if the final product were in any way enjoyable to watch, both Shrek and Legally Blonde play out more like onstage puppet show versions of the cinematic predecessors than their own, stand-alone piece of creativity. Both are shiny, loud and admittedly, very nice to look at, but everything about them is superficial. The most distressing part of this entire situation is that audiences still pay a great deal of money to see them! Ever since the blockbuster sensation The Producers, and its creator, Mel Brooks, realized the marketable potential in name-brand musicals, ticket prices on both Broadway and the West End of London have skyrocketed to around $100 a pop. That is, until Mel Brooks came around for a second go with Young Frankenstein and had the gall to ask for $450 for a single ticket. Luckily, Young Frankenstein opened to horrendous reviews and failed to create the buzz necessary to entice, or rather, fool, people into shelling over nearly half a grand for a show.

These so-called "blockbuster musicals" are slowly but most assuredly causing the continuous downfall of Broadway as a legitimate artistic medium. As the Russian literary critic, Vissarion Belinksy, once stated, "If something true can be understood about art, something true will be understood about liberty too." American liberty must be in a sad state indeed if this is what is honored at the Tony Awards. Again, it all falls back on the shoulders of Mel Brooks. In charging such an astronomical amount to see a Broadway show, consumers began wanting to see their money onstage in ways that transcended pure talent, and so we are left with gaudy, flashy spectacle. The shows that are byproducts of popular movies also have roots in this monetary vein. Seeing a Broadway show is itself a gamble; you hand over your cash and hope that you will be moved and entertained. It only makes sense that familiar titles of established quality would be the most reasonable place to spend your money. The situation doesn't seem to have any end in sight, as an economic crisis makes people more wary of where they place their wallets than ever before, and the financial burden of producing a show with no viable headliner or previous following is too risky to even consider. Should a producing team have the nerve and pocketbook to invest in such a show, it's inevitably only a short matter of time before it shutters it's doors of originality and creativity forever, and the gargantuan monsters of corporate escapism and gall continue on. The most recent causality in this massacre was this summer's off-Broadway transfer, [title of show], which slammed spectacle up the kisser by using a set of nothing more than a few metal chairs, a table and a piano. The musical quickly built up a cult-like following of Broadway die-hards, with its inspirational, though financially unviable slogan and 11 o' clock number, which proclaimed, "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing, than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing." The show closed last month after only 102 performances. Shrek the Musical continues on, and future adaptations of Hollywood movies such as Midnight Cowboy and Catch Me if You Can are already in the works.

(Editor's Note: This piece is also cross-posted on the iVoryTowerz blog.)

(Promotional photo of Shrek the Musical from DreamWorks Theatricals, a division of Viacom, by Joan Marcus.)

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