Viewpoint: Regarding My Attitude Towards Musical Theater

It can be hard to be a digitally mindful fan of musical theater. Sure, there are communities online where theater fans talk theater, but if you even respond to a non-theater website's commentary on live theater, you're instantly a target. A website can run all the horrible press they want to about a show in previews even if the writer didn't see the show and I turn into the bad guy for--not even defending the show--offering my opinion on a show I did see. It's enough to make me, say, block access on my end to a blog for a few days so the other users get the blood lust out of their systems and treat me like a person again. The layperson reaction is symptomatic of a greater streak of cynicism regarding American theater that has been growing for years. It seems the public at large just doesn't care about the art form anymore. I don't mind that, either. Interest always ebbs and waves regarding any commercialized art form (remember when the music industry "was dying" because the labels were suing housewives for their children's downloads in the late '90s?), but for the most part, the disinterest and pessimism doesn't hurt live theater. Yet, more and more often, this cynicism is leading to misplaced aggression against everyone involved in a show, including those who see it. That is when I start becoming annoyed.

Take the curious incident of Taboo in 2002. What started as a fun transfer of a Boy George's autobiographical show about his experience as a club kid and rising music star in the 1980s turned into a feeding frenzy among NYC critics. There were problems with the show, for sure; it was heavily re-written under the assumption that Americans did not understand the culture, which made the show lose much of its charm and wit at the face of too much exposition. However, the complaints about the show had nothing to do with the production onstage. The critics--professional and amateur--were ripping into Rosie O'Donnell's role as producer. Something "big" happened in her personal life (I can't remember, but it was something stupid like a public argument) and people turned on her. Taboo was, on its face, a bad show because Rosie produced it. Nothing anyone in the cast, crew, or production team said could save the show. If an actor defended Rosie, they were paid off. If another producer defended Rosie, they were only doing so to save face and drum up sales. If no one said anything, that meant they agreed with the criticism. The show shuttered after 100 performances, and people were still mocking Rosie because she promised to bring the show back to Broadway.

Why were otherwise sane, compassionate, almost-optimistic critics sent into a such a fit over a mixed Jukebox/original score musical? Did they just not like Culture Club? It surely wasn't the acting, as the show received two Tony nominations for its acting--Best Actor, Euan Morton, and Best Featured Actor, Raul Esparza. Nor was it the score, as Boy George's clean, narrative driven pop score was also nominated for a Tony Award. Even the costumes were worthy of a nomination. With the exception of the 2009-10 theater season, critics have always been members of the Tony nomination committee. It seems strange that all this bad blood would be forgotten mere months after the show closed (to triumphant cackling) to embrace the show with these nominations. If the critics (loosely used, as seemingly everyone--not just journalists--was talking about this show) liked the show enough to help nominate it, why was there so much hate flying around when it was coming to Broadway? Surely professionals aren't petty enough to let gossip and hearsay cloud their judgment on a show.

But it happened. And it happened again and again. Brooklyn: The Musical had no right, with it's simple presentation and recycling bin costumes, to step on the Great White Way. Young Frankenstein was an awful show because it had the highest ticket prices in the history of Broadway; go ahead, sift through the reviews and see if anyone didn't mention the ticket prices while justifying the dog-pile on the show. The Addams Family is nothing like the comic strip and has to be bad if the director was replaced before coming to Broadway. It doesn't matter if shows that did all these things in the past were praised. These production were different. These productions were bad for doing what others did before them because suddenly those elements were bad.

The worst, most incendiary topic right now is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. It appears that a show that lost funding because of the death of the investor is now eligible for the Rosie O'Donnell Memorial Shit on the Show No Matter What prize. The show's opening has been delayed multiple times because of some really bad luck. Aside from the death of the investor that left the show with no money to continue (which halted everything that was already in progress--paperwork, readings, sing-throughs, investor performances that would all need to be restarted, most from scratch, when money came back in), the show was delayed because of actor injury and technology gaffes.

I can already feel the presence of people claiming I'm a Taymorbot defending the show no matter what because I'm paid/obsessed/crazy for Julie Taymor. Nothing I say will deter that opinion from the cynics who want the production shut down under the guise of "safety" or "legal" concerns. I just thought I'd recognize it before continuing.

I'm not defending the actor injuries. If a stunt is not safe for an actor to be involved in, it clearly needed more testing and better design before the first actor was strapped in. That two actors were injured on the same stunt within a month of each other is inexcusable. The production, however, has taken the proper avenues to pass very intense inspection from New York State officials testing all the stunts and flying mechanisms.

Here's the problem with blaming the cynicism on the injuries--it started long before that. Blogs that never cover theater were mocking the show at inception because a comic book can't possibly be a good musical. And twenty years ago, the comic book movie was declared dead because no one could make a good one. Both are relevant here, as the criticism shifted from "no comic book could be a good musical" to "oh man, they're not making it just like The Dark Knight, only with singing and dancing; that's gay."

The Today Show exclusive performance of "Boy Falls From the Sky," the first time anyone in the general public saw any bit of actual content from the show, was ripped apart for--I kid you not--costuming, sets, and orchestration. Because clearly, Reeve Carvy's band--with none of the other instruments that join them in the show--was the full orchestra, and they would be performing the entire show in rock show scaffolding with street clothes on.

People complained that it didn't sound like a show score, which is strange because the people saying "musicals are teh gay" normally hate show scores. People complained that it didn't sound just like "x" rock score, which makes sense since it's U2's first musical. Even after seeing Julie Taymor wax poetic about her set designs, costume designs, and stunts, these blogs that never covered theater before were calling the show a disaster and saying it would look just like the above video. In other words, they wanted to hate the show, and they invested that hatred in the Internet.

In the modern Internet era, where people can click on a little button to splash someone else's words all over their Facebook and Twitter account, writing from such a place of unabashed hatred and ignorance can help fuel cynicism about something we know little about. I'm not innocent of it, either; neither are you, if you've ever commented on a bad movie trailer or strange logline for a film. I like to think that I at least evaluate what's presented in front of me rather than shoot blind venom all over something I otherwise would have no interest in.

Jump forward to the first preview performance of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. A preview, for those who don't know, is essentially an audience dress rehearsal. The cast, crew, and creative team is putting on the show for a paying audience to get feedback on it in the last stages of development. Shows radically change during the preview period up until they are "frozen" a few nights before opening. This is when the critics are invited to come in and review the show to help you, the potential theater goer, decide whether or not to see a new show. It is rare for preview period press to go beyond casting changes, stars visiting the theater, and interviews with the cast/crew/creative team.

Instead, people were actually Tweeting during the show to complain about everything. Why they thought it was okay to whip out their cellphones--a dangerous act in such a stunt heavy show, as the light from the phone can distract the actor and cause injuries onstage--and complain during the show is still unexplained. What's inexcusable, however, are the theater critics who wrote entire articles based off of Twitter feeds and message board posts; some didn't even see the show. Others decided sensationalism--like interviewing the woman who claimed everyone in the audience was a "guinea pig" at a preview (uh...redundant much?)--was the way to go, but only if it meant trashing the show.

As is indicative of this newest wave of theater cynicism, the few people who were positive in their reviews were accused of being Julie Taymor or an employee of the production. They were torn apart, no matter how well they defended their opinion, with statements like "shut up, it sucked, you're wrong." These comments and articles from people who haven't seen the show have taken off like wildfire. Movie websites are publishing articles based off of comments at BroadwayWorld.com (a theater fan message board) and not even fact checking to see if their comments make sense. One site (which had written three previous articles trashing the show before it even had a performance) said that a Greek Chorus (Geek Chorus) stepping in and out of the plot made no sense and never happened in ancient theater; the role of the Greek Chorus was to comment on the plot and fill in various roles in the narrative. The Greek Chorus is just one of the many "facts" being twisted and warped to criticize the show.

My commenting as such is what spurred this post. Apparently, discussing how this is a convention that Julie Taymor borrowed for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and explaining how the writer of that article was misinformed meant I've been defending Taymor non-stop and need to shut up and calm down, lest I turn into a pretentious asshole. I wasn't aware that I wasn't a pretentious asshole. And by pretentious asshole, I mean someone willing to use big words, research, and complex sentence structure to bolster my arguments rather than simply attack someone for thinking differently.

You may not think that being nasty about a show that is being re-written as you read this is harmful, but it is. Bad press is bad press, and bad press makes people want to wait and see if it's worth going to a show.

Here's a similar situation. The Scottsboro Boys, the last musical from Kander & Ebb about the nine black youths falsely accused of raping two white women in the pre-Civil Rights Movement American South, played a warmly received run Off-Broadway without a squeak of protest over the show's use of minstrel show conventions to focus in on the blind racism that fueled the real life incident. When it transferred to Broadway, it received the same warm reviews. This time, however, a protest group was organized because they heard it was a minstrel show. They would stand outside the theater at a few performances each week, screaming at theatergoers for being racists because minstrel shows are bad; too bad this wasn't a minstrel show. Too bad all the claims the protesters made were false. Too bad the show closed after six weeks because of lackluster ticket sales (that can partially be attributed to people being harassed for trying to buy tickets, and partially attributed to the show being too small and conceptual for a Fall run on Broadway). Ignorance played a huge part in the show closing, and (thankfully) the show played to mostly sold out audiences its last two weeks. There's even tall of bringing the show back for another limited run in the spring so more people can see it.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark should be an easier sell on Broadway than The Scottsboro Boys; however, bad press is still bad press. People I know who don't go beyond Facebook and Google searches turned from trying to organize groups to see the show for discount rates to not wanting to see the show. Their reason? They were linked to scathing blog articles about the shows that made claims like Julie Taymor forced an actor to go on for a performance with a concussion or actors have died working on the show. A few sales here and there may not seem like much, but it adds up. Word of mouth is everything on Broadway, as it's impossible for the average person to see every show that opens. I saw Brief Encounter, for example, instead of The Scottsboro Boys or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson during their Broadway runs (saw them previously Off-Broadway) because enough of my friends told me it was the right decision. Had they sold me on either of the other two shows, I would have seen them instead.

The point is this. I don't mind cynicism. I don't mind if you hate musical theater because people don't just burst into song. I don't mind if you think a musical about a superhero can't possibly be any good. That's fine. Just don't go around posting hate for the sake of hate based in lies other people told you about shows. I don't think you'd appreciate it if I started writing articles all over the Web about your company's bad business practices, lazy employees, and dangerous working conditions. Why would you do that to someone else's livelihood? It might be entertainment to you, but it's a career to them, and one they constantly have to train for with money out of their own pocket far beyond your Masters or Doctorate. Have some compassion and enough backbone to not write out of ignorance. Say all you want to when you see the show or form an informed opinion based on plot descriptions, videos, audio, design photos, interviews, and previous experience with the players. Just think twice before saying a show is awful when you know next to nothing about it.