Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Triumph of Theatre

This past spring, after attending at the National Arts Centre a touring-company revival of The Sound of Music, I was reminded about thoughts I’ve had in the last few years as to how paradoxically in the age of the Internet, the live performance was being revived as a key part of the entertainment business. 

It is a consequence, of course, of the ability of Internet users to pass back and forth digital copies of recorded performance, illegally, of course, but nevertheless it is a fact of life.  According to figures compiled at this site, sales of recordings (compact disc, cassette, vinyl record) have declined from a peak of nearly 20 billion U.S. dollars in 2000, to around six billion inflation-adjusted dollars in 2013.

Thus, in order to be assured of a living, musicians must play live, the only type of performance experience that cannot be adequately pirated or bootlegged.  

The movie-industry has also been affected by digital bootlegging, though not as dramatically as has recorded music.  

Nevertheless, much of the revenue derived from movies comes from other than actual cinematic audiences: while sales of digital-video discs have declined dramatically from their peak in 2004, the slack has been taken up by video-on-demand and related services which bring the movie-going experience direct to the home.  

Recently, too, it was reported that Star Wars / Star Trek director J.J. Abrams, along with other filmmaking luminaries, were boosting a service that would bring newly-released movies directly to the home.

But, while the movie-theatre business itself remains moribund, there has been a very big revival in live theatre presentation, as well.


Often, "new" musical theatre productions are simply reboots of unsuccessful or long-forgotten motion-pictures.

Last autumn, for example, the Arts Centre hosting the touring production of Newsies. Opening on Broadway in 2011, the story is based on an actual New York city newsboy-strike at the very end of the nineteenth century, and is evidently successful enough to be taken on tour across the continent. 

Newsies was, however, originally a movie released by the Disney company in the early 1990s — which was (according to Wikipedia) a complete flop. 

I’ve never seen this movie, nor yet the stage production itself, but is a reversal from the original practice, wherein Broadway musicals would be made into movies; but often the movies adapted to the stage, were often not musicals themselves. 

Newsies originally was a musical, both others re-adaptation were not: such as The Producers, which was a bit of a sensation in the early twenty-first century (and based on a 1967 film starring Gene Wilder), or Hairspray, which premiered in 2002 and was based on a 1988 movie by John Waters (the musical adaptation of which was, in turn, remade into a film a few years later, starring John Travolta as an obese woman). 

Apparently, many stories are more popularly accessible when accompanied by song and dance, and when performed onstage. 

My thoughts in this direction may have been inspired by the book I read recently, No Applause, Just Throw Money, a history of vaudeville by Travis Stewart under the “Trav S.D.” pseudonym. 

Stewart traces vaudeville’s origins to the rough and raunchy stage entertainments of nineteenth-century America. But by the late 1800s, savvy impresarios responded to then-fashionable pleas for moral hygiene. Figuring out that a good, clean stage-show, appropriate even for women and children, was far more lucrative than appealing to smutty instincts of the crowd, theatre-men applied systematic industrial methods to the live entertainment. 

As Stewart writes, “The revolution of the `double audience’ (appealing to women and children now as well as men) added enormously to the profitability of variety production. It had been achieved chiefly though a public relations coup (courtesy of Barnum and his vaudeville acolytes) the likes of which may never be seen again. But several other innovations not only added to, but multiplied the growth of the vaudeville industry, making its existence a foregone conclusion. Variety, after all, had been small potatoes. Its producers were small businessmen whose dreams didn’t extend any farther than their own saloon doors. Vaudeville, on the other hand, was big business. Following Adam Smith’s principles of division of labor and mass production, its producers would come to control the entertainment of the nation.” 

The difference between the old theatre-owners and the showmen of vaudeville, Stewart writes, “is essentially the same as the one between the proprietor of your local greasy spoon and Ray Kroc,” the later being responsible for franchising the original McDonald’s restaurant into a global operation. (Stewart, No Applause, p. 84)

I’ve long viewed the McDonald’s restaurant as the epitome of the division of labour, which even before engineered machinery, is the decisive factor of modern work. The technical resources of the McDonald brothers in 1950s California were no different than what was available to countless other roadside proprietors had at there and across North America. What made their restaurant so special was how they divided up the work needed to make burgers and fries in the most efficient way possible. 

Similarly, the original manufactories were not necessarily steam-driven: they instead employed unskilled workers, each doing a fraction of the total work, to achieve exorbitant productivity. As Stewart observes, “The nineteenth century saw the birth of mass production and distribution of nearly everything: furniture, clothing, tools, appliances. It was inevitable that the techniques and the philosophy of industrialism would come to the theater.” (Stewart, p. 85) 

Vaudeville performances were thus staged from eight o’clock in the morning until late in the evening, or even the early hours. Audiences could pay to enter and leave any time, and were treated to about ten separate acts, repeated over again until closing, according to “Trav.” 

There was a rough pattern the performances: novices and less-polished openers would warm up the crowd for the headliners that took up the middle of the cycle. Then, less-talented acts further down the playbill, would follow on until the final “chaser”, a performer so bad that he or she would literally chase the audience from the seats. The goal was, of course, to create room for more paying customers. Often, notes Stewart, one of the segments of the vaudeville show would be a short silent-film. 

The talking-pictures, though, were (along with the Depression) a cause of vaudeville’s demise. In the 1930s, film-production boomed even as live-theatre, and most other American industries, went into prolonged slump. 

However, as the movies could now feature singing as well as dancing, the musical talent of vaudeville and Broadway largely decamped to Hollywood, creating the great age of the movie-musical from the ‘30s to the 1950s

While vaudeville largely faded out, Broadway continued to originate musical-theatre during this period, with many of productions successfully adapted to the wide-screen. But as the west-coast became the talent-centre for the musical, the stage was set in New York for a fluorescence of theatrical drama, such as not been seen (in the English-speaking world, at least) since Elizabethan times. 

During this period, plays written by Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman met with great commercial and literary success, in spite of their often bleak and tragic content. 

They dealt in subject-matter considered too controversial and subversive to be a part of “golden-age” Hollywood cinema. Orson Welles gained footing in show business through the theatre, though he is best-remembered for his contributions to the art of the film. 

Significantly, however, very few of the classics of the “great age of American drama” — such as Our Town by Wilder, O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman by Miller, or The Children’s Hour by Hellman — were ever definitively adapted to film. 

Cast of recent staging of Death of a Salesman, with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman second from right (and Spiderman to his left).

Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire is perhaps the exception; but it is remembered chiefly, it seems, for Marlon Brando’s undershirted repetition of the character’s name, “Stella”, than for anything else. 

Apparently, the twentieth-century American dramatists were communicating something onstage that couldn’t be reproduced effectively on film. There was, on the other hand, little financial risk for theatre-owners to stage these high-brow plays, because of the relatively low cost of production (certainly compared to the expense of making a motion picture). 

Edward Albee, a playwright whose career began at the tail-end of this dramaturgical flowering, was in fact the grandson of a vaudeville impresario

Reaching his greatest success in the early ‘60s with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which was successfully adapted into an Oscar-nominated film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), Albee introduced strong language and nudity to the stage, though in relatively chaste form, compared to what came later. 

Perhaps the new era of the Broadway musical began with the premiere of Hair, in 1968. Featuring a group of hippies trying to evade U.S. military conscription, the play also had full-frontal nudity at its climax, a first for Broadway, if not for the American stage as a whole. 

Just a year later appeared Oh! Calcutta, a revue of sexuality-theme sketches that featured nudity throughout the show. 

In real way, both Hair and Calcutta were reviving the smutty character of the pre-vaudeville stage when, as Stewart describes it, boozing and whoring went hand in hand with theatre-going: when taverns and bawdy houses were not located right inside the venue, they sat right next-door. Calcutta’s incorporation of exhibitionism in the old-style revue, made it seem instantly avant-garde. 

Broadway's Theatre Row, 1970s version.

But soon the New York theatre district’s traditional home, around the intersection of Forty-Second street and Broadway, became far more ribald and dangerous than the worst of the nineteenth century saloons. 

Theatres that had staged dramas and musicals were often turned into pornographic cinemas, and the area around Times Square for a time recorded the highest number of offences for its land area, than any other place in the world. Broadway the street was saved by the aggressive policing of scofflaws (which in turn led to a reduction in more serious crimes), and the revocation of slot-palace business-licences. 

Major retailers were encouraged to invest in the area, significantly including the Disney company (hence the implicitly derisive term “Disneyfication” to describe the contemporary Times Square district). 

Below the famous “sign” at the Square (now a series of giant flat-screen monitors), have been installed bleachers so that visitors can sit and view midtown Manhattan as a show in itself (and they in turn are on stage for those walking through the area). 

Perhaps because of its experience in staging technically sophisticated, interactive entertainment at amusement parks in California and Florida, Disney has also become involved in a big way in live-theatre production. 

Not all recent Broadway-musical successes have been based on old movies.  In particular, Hamilton, which debuted in 2015 and features a fictionalized account of the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and his ultimately fateful rivalry with the Vice-President, Aaron Burr.  Set to a largely hip-hop score, with Hispanic and African-American actors playing Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and so on, it has been a smash with audiences, especially young people, and is strikingly original in concept and execution.  

Cast of Hamilton.

The irony of all this is, of course, that while the cinema at one time supplanted live-theatre as the main source of public entertainment, now live-entertainment has become the growth industry even as the movie-exhibitor business shrinks in size. 

Aside from being transformed into all-around leisure spots (with the addition of fast-food outlets, video-arcade games, rooms for children’s parties), the switch-over to digital projection has allowed cineplexes to transmit live entertainment as well — sometimes sports events, but also awards shows, and even opera and other kinds of highbrow spectacle. 

Contemporary musical theatre’s revival, often adapting failed or forgotten movies into box-office successes, is part of the trend in which the live performance has become the more lucrative part of the entertainment business, as the Internet and digital technology reduces the value of recorded entertainment to near zero. 

The successful live-staging of stories that were failures or forgotten in other media, demonstrates that the form of experience really does matter, over and above its narrative content. And also that live performance which cannot be reproduced effectively in other, recorded media, is all the more precious to audiences.

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