The thing Broadway producers don't seem to fathom (as reported in Patrick Healy's article in The New York Times January 7) is that musicals by their very nature are not always feel-good events. And so The Last Ship will inevitably sink on Jan. 24 after a four-month run.
I saw 'Last Ship' along with "Sideshow" (that closed over the weekend) and I loved them both. Yet, I'm not surprised at their tragic failures from lack of audience. Making my way to the theaters I was forced to witness Broadway in its garish festoonery of childish ugliness, as I ploughed my way through slaphappy people, willing to be seduced by cartoon characters exchanging dollars for hugs.
It's quite easy to blame Disney for "whither the Broadway musical." But when I check the theater listings and count twenty-one shows currently running, fifteen of them musicals, I realize it's not just the 'Disneyfication of Broadway' that's to blame, it's human nature.
Over night it seems, well, to me anyway, Broadway became a playground for children and adult alike. All fifteen musicals, with the possible exception of The Book of Mormon and Hedwig are child-friendly. This means parent and child can happily sit side-by-side watching an extravaganza one doesn't need knowledge of English to 'get', or be moved by to tears.
Yet, aren't tears one of the reasons people used to go to musicals? It's the same with opera. Long after The Met folds up the merry widow's gowns, Boheme will pack the house with sobbing customers for years to come. Having a communal cry in the dark makes one feel better. Rodgers and Hammerstein did this to the hilt. Mary Martin said that on opening night of South Pacific she and Ezio Pinza were overwhelmed by the sound of crying at the finale. This happened, she said, at every performance.
At Nick Hytner's 1994 production of Carousel at Lincoln Center, I was amazed at the sound of weeping all around me (including myself) when Billy Bigelow ascends into Heaven. Yet I wonder, twenty years later, if audiences are ready for the unhappy ending of The King and I scheduled there for spring. Are audiences hoping for cute waifs, hoop skirts and fun? Possibly. I hope they're shocked out of their seats at the brutality of it.
Ship and Sideshow float with tears, especially Ship. Even with Sting center stage, one enters that bleak English shipyard and is forced to stay there. Producer, Jeffrey Seller, said in the same article that he wished he had focused on the young love story. Then maybe people would buy tickets. But he's wrong. Sting's musical is called The Last Ship not "Young Love In a Shipyard."
When I was young and being introduced to opera, I hated what I called 'brown' operas. These were ones where characters were dressed in tattered brown rags like Fidelio, so it took me awhile to realize that color doth not make an opera. Which brings me back to all the cartoon characters parading around Broadway, setting the mood as it were, for theatergoers.
The hucksters, garish lights and throngs of people one has to hustle through to get to any theater, subconsciously influence one's theater experience. Nowadays people want Happy! So a 'brown' musical like The Last Ship turns them off. More's the pity.
I was in Nebraska recently and spoke to a teacher in a coffee shop. She told me that when she retires, top on her list is to visit New York because what she wants to do most, is see a Broadway show. I was touched by her innocence, for isn't that what every theatergoer wanted once upon a time?
I want Broadway to survive for her and for me. Yet, her very innocence, if not ignorance about what Broadway show to see, doomed The Last Ship. That lady from Nebraska would not want to see Ship, or Sideshow. Or even The King and I if she gets wind that there's more to it than the famous polka. That lady wants to have fun. She wants not to think or to cry.
Funny thing about musicals is that one has to be trained to appreciate them. From an early age one has to be eased in to how serious musicals can be, along with being fun. I imagine opening night of Kern and Hammerstein's Showboat. How that 1927 audience must have expected fun, romance, dancing girls -- after all it takes place on a show boat. But instead of a happy overture they hear that first ominous chord, warning them there will be more to Showboat than frothy entertainment.
Showboat had to have changed audiences thinking, preparing the way for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Alas, this doesn't happen today. No matter how hard Kander and Ebb tried with Scottsboro Boys or Sondheim with Bounce, the once a year (or once in a lifetime) people go to musicals, they are reluctant to attend serious ones -- even with Sting.
Can the 21st Century musical be serious as well as fun, make money and have a run? Not with the popular man-in-the-street greeting of the moment: "Is everything good?" How I wish everything was good, the future of Broadway as well.