Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


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, November 29, 2004

Chitty Chitty Boring Boring

Tickets are now on sale for the Broadway version of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." I caught it in London.

Recommendation number 1: Skip it and say no more.

If you have fond memories of the film from your childhood, and you want your kids to experience similar pleasures, then I offer recommendation number 2: rent the movie. You will likely be disappointed -- it's not as good as my childhood nostalgia thought it.

If you've already shown them the film, and they're desperate to see the show, I offer recommendation number 3: surreptitiously arrange for a return trip to "The Lion King" in order to assure the child that theatrical adaptations of famous film titles can actually be imaginative and entertaining.

If compelled to go, I offer a final fail-safe: Take a comfy pillow with you for napping, and arrange for your theatregoing companion, or a kind, willing stranger, to nudge you awake whenever the raison d'etre of the show -- the flying car -- appears. Then back to sleep.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Theatre and Money

I'm surprised at how much I've been drawn to articles about theatre management issues as opposed to artistic issues alone. One reason for this involves trying to take a national view and see a bigger picture for theatre than a single show. Economic issues facing theatre obviously affect the artistic trends; how they do so is most definitely a subject for this blog.

Still, though, there's something that simply goes unsaid too much, because it really is the fundamentally biggest issue facing theatre as a popular art form.

It's too expensive to do and costs too much to go.

There. I said it. I would love to take 2 young cousins to see "Big River," currently on tour. But at $75 a ticket??? That's more than it would have cost on Broadway, given the fact that tickets could have been found half-price at TKTS. Philadelphia, while apparently having experimented with something similar in the past, simply doesn't have the structure to support a half-price system. Instead, theatres rely on rush tickets, and inexpensive subscriptions for students.

The National Theatre in London, under the new artistic direction of Nicholas Hytner, found great success by offering 10 pound tickets this past season. It's obviously a model that may not work here, but I'm not asking for 10 pound tickets anyway. There's a big difference between 10 pounds (about $16) and $30 and $75.

Hytner succeeded by offering great work in a theatrical capital. But what he did on price can't be ignored. This from the Guardian's March assessment of Hytner's ultra-successful tenure so far.

"By universal consent, the £10 season in the Olivier, the largest (1,160 seats), most intractable of the National's three spaces, is Hytner's greatest achievement. For six months last year, ticket prices were slashed: top price tickets, charged for just one third of the auditorium, tumbled from £38/£33 to £25; the other two-thirds of the seats to a mere £10 - fractionally more than the price of a West End cinema ticket. "

How could he do it?

"Financially he was able to do this thanks to a combination of private sponsorship (£1m over three years from Travelex), canny application of a £14.8m Arts Council grant and stringent budgeting in the production/design department. But it was still a considerable gamble, requiring at least 75% capacity (Hytner hinted as much as 100% in an interview with the Guardian last year) over the difficult summer months to be viable."

Again, the model is tough and there's a huge Catch 22, with an extra caveat: it can only cut prices if it brings in audience, and it can only bring in audiences if it cuts prices AND produces great, popularly appealing theatre.

But maybe it's time for a huge push from both government and private sponsors to focus on grants and programs that cut prices. What's the point of doing good work if people can't afford to see it even if they want to?

For additional reading, there's a good summary of why making theatre's so expensive and other issues in this Cleveland Plain Dealer piece.

And news from Hartford that arts groups are teaming to offer inexpensive subscriptions. I still think subscription cuts are not enough; to build a theatre habit, we need to make theatre affordable as an impulse choice.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Poetics of Plagiarism

Malcolm Gladwell has a wonderful article in "The New Yorker" this week. It's about the plagiarism accusations surrounding Byrony Lavery's serial-killer play, "Frozen."

Lavery has been accused of "stealing" material from Gladwell's "New Yorker" profile on therapist Dorothy Lewis, who's suing Lavery. After a clear contemplation on copyright law in general, the piece moves into a meeting between Gladwell and Lavery, where Lavery apologizes and then discusses all the different fact-based inspirations for her play. It's an insightful look at the creative playwriting process itself, and it certainly counter-acts previous articles about Lewis's lawsuit.

What goes unsaid is that Gladwell has borrowed a bit from the structure of "Frozen," which also climaxes with a scene between a victim and perpertrator. It's a great essay: personal, thoughtful, and moving.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Not-so-odd Couple

News has arrived that Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick will re-team for a revival of "The Odd Couple."

I'll see Lane in anything; he's one of those very special performers who plays 2 or 3 different emotions or reactions all at the same time, and makes it absolutely effortless.

So no offense is intended when I ask: aren't they both Felixes?

Raised Elsewhere

The Public Theatre is set to announce that Oskar Eustis will replace George Wolfe as the institution's next artistic director. Eustis is a much-admired figure in the regional theatre, having lead the development of "Angels in America" while he was at the Eureka in CA, and having successfully rescued Trinity Rep in Providence, RI after its painful mismatch with Anne Bogart.

I've noted earlier that our theatre nationally is at a point of transition, and new leaders are beginning to be identified. Gordon Davidson, the father of theatre in Los Angeles, is retiring, to be replaced by Williamstown's Michael Ritchie. James Bundy, formerly of the Great Lakes Theatre Festival, is now heading Yale School of Drama/Yale Rep. Doug Hughes, formerly of the Long Wharf in New Haven, was mentioned positively for the Public job and seems to have declined it due to a busy directing schedule.

What's my point? Notice that all those I've named are people who have grown up, artistically anyway, in the regional theatres outside New York. Sure, there are leaders in NY, too: James Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop and Moises Kaufman were also mentioned for the Public job, and there's Todd Haimes at the Roundabout and Lynn Meadows at Manhattan Theatre Club. But the regional theatres are the ones breeding the next generation of artistic manager/leaders.

Also note that this doesn't seem to bother New Yorkers a bit. I haven't seen a peep of provincialism in any news story yet. I'll keep an eye out for it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

A Praiseworthy "Pericles"

Peter Marks in The Washington Post loves the new production of "Pericles" at D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre, directed by Mary Zimmerman. Like many others, I was a fan of Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses," although more the direction than the adaptation of Ovid's tales. I've been hoping she'd apply her creativity to classics, and this sure sounds exciting:

"Zimmerman, a Chicago-based director who won a Tony for her shimmering adaptation of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses,' has talked of being drawn to the works of Shakespeare and others that are considered lesser achievements. Like some sort of faith healer, she is liberated, it appears, by the challenge of making the theatrically lame walk again. Her imaginative fingerprints are all over this staging, and not in the smudgy way that some directors like to add gratuitous sight gags and self-conscious pop-cultural references.

No, what Zimmerman discovers is a real beating heart for 'Pericles,' and a smart and fluid new way to tell a bumpy story....

The director, making her Shakespeare Theatre debut, builds up to the beauty of this storybook ending with a child's plaything of a 'Pericles,' coated from start to finish in warm colors and beguiling images. [Daniel] Ostling's superb set puts 'Pericles' in a towering room with a massive vertical window; all during the play, faces and model ships and goddesses peer in and sail by and fly through the window. Adding to the sense of a magical playroom is a wall of drawers and cabinets, out of which cast members pull props and bits of scenery, such as the fabrics used to suggest stormy ocean swells and virginal bridal beds."

I've seen a couple of decent productions of "Pericles," but never a great one. This is one I'd like to see.

Something to Say

I was struck by Mark Swed's opening paragraphs in his LA Times review of "Caroline, or Change," the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical that has managed to travel, at least to the west coast, despite an unsuccessful Broadway run. The show has garnered very mixed reviews, with a general sense that it's lacking in entertainment value, but has something profound to say. Swed hits that latter point hard:

"At last, a musical, a big ticket musical, a big ticket Broadway musical not by Sondheim, a big ticket Broadway musical not by Sondheim at the Ahmanson Theatre that means something, that's important, that demands attention, that says, yes, the musical is not dead, has not been entirely consumed by a bloated, creativity-smothering, Disney-occupied, tourist-coddling culture of a no-longer-great Great White Way.

'Caroline, or Change' is that important, big, meaningful musical not by Sondheim that demands your attention.

And it isn't even based upon a trite movie."

Swed is the classical music and opera critic at the LA Times. The paper hasn't had a lead theatre critic since Michael Phillips left for the Chicago Tribune 3 years ago. (Full disclosure: I was a "finalist" for the job before I moved to Philadelphia -- I'm not sure what it means when you're a finalist for about 6 months for a job that never gets filled.) The overwhelming majority of the Times' theatre reviews, written by a group of staffers and freelancers, are utter milquetoast. They should give Swed the job for good. He might be a little over-the-top (what about The Lion King, which certainly wasn't 'creativity-smothering'?), but the biggest paper in the second biggest city needs to have a real voice on theatre -- and not a bland committee.

Monday, November 15, 2004

"Highest Yellow" Highs and Lows

Peter Marks in The Washington Post reviews Michael John LaChiusa's new musical about Vincent Van Gogh. It reads like a classic fair-minded assessment, with a thoughtful consideration on what keeps the show from taking off:

"The excitement [Marc] Kudisch [as Van Gogh] generates in the part is a valuable commodity, because little else in this noble effort musters anything like it. LaChiusa -- creator of such art-house musicals as "Marie Christine," a modernized "Medea" and "The Wild Party," which sets to music the Jazz Age poem of the same title -- does not have a problem conveying emotion in his compositions; although often written in tight rhymes, they express feeling in a cascading, stream-of-consciousness sort of way. The difficulty arises in the undifferentiated manner in which the characters sing to themselves and to one another. In 'The Highest Yellow,' the sense of a cast of seven performing in one voice traps the enterprise in an all-too-uniform emotional orbit. "

Die, Reality TV, Die!!

Could it finally be happening? I know it's inevitable, but it has taken forever. Could Reality TV finally be dying? From the Los Angeles Times:

"Back for another round of stage-whispered cattiness and 'final rose' ceremonies with new contestants this fall, 'The Bachelor' has lost a third of its audience compared with last season, averaging just 8.3-million viewers — fewer than the number who tune in to the Wednesday version of the CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes."

It's just one more bit of tarnish on TV's once-gilded reality boom, which has produced such monster hits as CBS' 'Survivor' and Fox's 'American Idol.' Two other unscripted staples, NBC's 'Apprentice 2' with Donald Trump and the gross-out contest 'Fear Factor,' have likewise suffered double-digit declines this fall, although both still perform respectably in their time slots."

While I get as much guilty pleasure from "Survivor" and "American Idol" as the next guy, this fad has been truly dreadful for television as a dramatic art. Clearly reality TV won't completely disappear, but may its decline be hasty and permanent!

The Boston Binge

Very interesting article from the Boston Globe about the city's recent surge in new theatrical spaces, and concerns about whether people will fill the seats.

This is soon going to become a national concern. During the 90s, many regional theatres and arts organizations were flush with cash and started a building binge: new theatres replacing old ones (the Guthrie, for example); second spaces for established theatres (the Kirk Douglas in L.A., an extension of Center Theatre Group); and big new multi-purpose art houses (Houston's Hobby Center -- an awful monstrosity, by the way).

This is one big reason that the ACT in Seattle almost collapsed financially -- they couldn't support the costs of their new space.

I believe strongly that we're in a very important transition period nationally. Theatres are experiencing growing pains, the artistic leadership is changing over to the next generation, philanthropy is under stress. I'm optimistic that creativity will prevail, but these are indeed interesting times.

"Gem" Watch II

I've been traveling a lot lately, but have been trying to keep an eye out for news on "Gem of the Ocean," the August Wilson play that's in deep financial trouble before it's even opened. There was a real dearth of news, as producers scrambled for cash. They seem to have found some from Carole Shorenstein Hays in San Francisco. Story is here.

Before the apparent, daring rescue effort of Ms. Hays, Robert Hofler in Variety noted the following:

"Meanwhile, the Nov. 11 preem for 'Gem of the Ocean' came and went with no new August Wilson play on Broadway. While some proclaimed it the end of the straight play on Broadway, it actually looks more like the end of producing as a charitable activity."

More and more, it seems, how this drama plays out (double-entendre intended!) will have serious ripple effects.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

"Gem" Watch

The Broadway production of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" remains in question. Previous post on the problem is here. Now previews have been delayed 2 weeks as new investors are sought. I hope they can pull this off. Here's the link for the latest Variety story.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

It's a Hard Knock Life

Nelson Pressley has a feature in The Washington Post on the long gestation of Michael John LaChiusa's new musical about Van Gogh, "The Highest Yellow," which is premiering at the Signature Theatre in D.C. The piece nicely sums up LaChiusa's career to this point.

On Election Day

Today is election day, and I just voted. I'm a political junkie, but I've made a conscious (and difficult) decision not to turn this into a political blog. I'm too much of an amateur in that realm.

However, since today is all about politics and the voice of democracy, it's certainly appropriate to note the recent flood of political plays.

Now, I can hear my old criticism instructor, the great Richard Gilman, asking: "Do you mean politics in the theatre or politics of the theatre?" In other words, am I talking about plays that directly relate to partisan politics or deal directly with political issues, or those that take on politics in a less direct way (Brecht's plays for example, which are political in so many ways but are not necessarily issue-driven or partisan).

In this case, I mean politics in the theatre -- straight-on depictions of politicians and politically charged events.

The list is long, and I won't mention (OK, I will) Michael Frayn's "Democracy," which is about the former German chancellor Willy Brandt. It's quite a fine play, a hit in London and on its way to NYC. There's a nice little distance to it though. It's about politics, but isn't all that political.

But if you haven't been following this obvious trend, check out this list:

Tony Kushner has written a play with Laura Bush as the main character. It's called, "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy." It received starry readings in NY. There's a great description in The Hartford Courant about a scene that depicts Laura Bush arguing with Kushner directly. Kushner really is our modern-day Shaw.

David Hare's play about Bush, Tony Blair, and the lead-up to the Iraqi war, called "Stuff Happens," has been a huge hit in London. Ben Brantley wrote about the recent trend in political plays in this past weekend's NY Times.

Sam Shepard has a new play (an event in itself) that he worked hard to get produced before the election -- it started previews on Halloween. According to the description at, "the play follows the travails of a quiet Midwestern couple whose lives -- and cattle -- are sorely abused after the arrival of a nefarious government official." It's called "The God of Hell."

These are all major playwrights, taking on the big topics of the day, and that's exciting.

And, in case you were waiting for a play about Abu Ghraib, here's the first one I've heard of, a monologue written by Canadian Judith Thompson about Lynndie England, the woman at the center of the scandal.

There's many more, but that will suffice. The current politics have seriously engaged the electorate, and seriously engaged some serious theatre artists.

If theatre still matters, it's got to take on the issues that matter to people.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Broadway Idol-atry

Variety's Robert Hofler has a piece on "American Idol" singers heading to Broadway, mentioning the tendency to compare "Brooklyn" to "Idol." Personally, whenver I see Clay Aiken, I think: why isn't he playing Seymour in "Little Shop of Horrors?"