Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Monday, October 11, 2004

All Hail the Theatre CEOs!

The Shubert Organization has announced that they will name two Broadway houses after two of the Shubert's own executives, Gerald Shoenfeld and the late Bernard Jacobs. Now, I have no doubt whatsoever that these men have been fine executives, and that they've made an important contribution to the American theatre. But, naming theatres after them? It certainly says something about the current values of the Broadway theatre, that the people we honor most are not the artists but the property managers.

Charles Isherwood has it just right in the NY Times.

I don't mean to suggest that producers are not deserving of notice, or that business considerations shouldn't come into play -- maybe that's why the American Airlines Theatre made for a joke or two, but somehow didn't rise to the same level of puzzlement as the Shubert's navel-gazing decision.

I have to admit, I spent much of my teenage years going to Broadway shows, and I never did connect the names of the theatres to the theatres themselves. Tell me that a show is playing at the Royale, and I'd ask, "What played there last?" and "What street is that on?". The Playbill feature, "About This Theatre," has always been a fun pre-performance must, taking me back in time to previous experiences I'd had sitting in the same building. For long-time theatre nuts, going to a Broadway show is in part about such nostalgia.

It does seem like it would serve the Broadway theatre to brand their houses more effectively. I'd like to walk by a theatre and have its name bring back fond thoughts. Jacobs and Schoenfeld ain't gonna do it. Last year's name change at the Martin Beck, which became the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, was a smart move. Hirschfeld's name evokes a feeling, and a pleasant feeling at that.

I still haven't been to the Samuel Beckett, the mid-town off-Broadway theatre, but its very name makes me want to find a reason. OK, so Beckett's a bit rarefied -- and not exactly a Broadway stalwart -- but at least the name says, to the right crowd, that the theatre is aiming high. What does the Schoenfeld say? That you'll see a production that's been well planned, if not necessarily well-written, well-directed, or well-acted? With all due respect, impresarios they weren't.

So who would make exciting namesakes? Stephen Sondheim, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Julie Harris, Ethel Merman, Tony Randall (who tirelessly, but fruitlessly, pursued a national theatre) have all been mentioned. Many valid picks there, although for me Merman and Williams would evoke the most emotion.

In fact, think about the varied possibilities. How differently would you think of a theatre named after Edward Albee, author of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "The Goat," as opposed to one named for Jerry Herman, who composed "Hello Dolly" and "La Cage aux Folles"? A name can actually say something about the space, whether it's an intimate house for plays, or one built for old-fashioned, grand musicals.

If it's an in-between theatre, how about the Jonathan Larson, which would bring to mind the story of the struggling artist who wrote "Rent" and died just as he was seeing his dream come to fruition. Tragedy and triumph would suddenly attach themselves to the building.

And let's not fool ourselves that these names are permanent anyway. I've got to be honest: I don't know who Martin Beck was. If Larson and "Rent" are long forgotten in a decade or two, then fine. For now, a nod to Larson, who did in fact have a significant impact on Broadway, would be appropriate.

If one show does not a namesake make, how about the Michael Bennett, named for the director/choreographer/producer behind "A Chorus Line" and "Dreamgirls."

Heck, I'd settle for the Mel Brooks. At least I'd look at the sign and laugh a little.