Jewish World Review July 2, 2004/ 13 Tamuz, 5764
Checking out the papers the other day for a theatrical event for my wife and I to attend was like tuning in to MTV and expecting to hear real music. Theater is dead - at least the kind of theater my wife and I enjoyed seeing. It isn't news that soaring production costs and trade union restrictions have made it impossible to put on a show of the caliber that was once regularly done by Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and the other giants of the musical theater. A Cast of twenty or thirty is so cost prohibitive as to be laughable today and a full orchestra is a luxury most plays simply can't afford. This has been a malady of the stage for many years.
The sorry state of the contemporary American theater is not solely a money problem; it goes much deeper than that. Cultural crassness has become the norm on the great white way. The "in-your-face" cutting edge tastelessness so prevalent in movies and television of recent years, has found its way onto mainstream Broadway - so much so that it is just about the only thing that is now being produced.
Where sophistication and style once trod the boards, vulgarity and crassness have taken over. The "legitimate theater" has become illegitimate. In a word, the American theater has lost its class.
Oh sure, there was always "experimental" stuff being done off Broadway and off, off Broadway. Countercultural theater was always around for those who wanted it. But by and large, the vast majority of dramatic plays and musicals were created for mainstream audiences and dealt with mainstream subjects like boy girl relationships, family, growing older, and normal coming of age. Not any more. Now shows deal with drug abuse, AIDS, cross-dressing, masturbation, homosexuality, and the importance of tolerance for people who are deeply involved in all of these things.
Now just consider some of the show titles; "The Vagina Monologues," Urinetown, The Musical!" "My Big Gay Italian Wedding," "I am My Own Wife," "The Vomit Talk of Ghosts," "The Marijuana-logues," and "Menopause, The Musical." Clever titles, eh?
I've been told that some of the above plays are pretty good and really do not reflect the abrasive titles that they carry. But guess what? I don't care if they are the best damn plays ever written because I won't see them. I refuse to spend my money on shows with titles that were designed for shock value. Where's the professionalism in that? If you've got a good show why take it down to the lowest, coarsest level? What's the point?
I guess in the coming seasons we can expect to have more and more plays with names like those - names that are chosen for their repulsiveness and low-class quotient. How much further down could they get? Let's see now ... What about a show called "Constipation"? Do you think audiences would sit still for that? Or maybe "Diarrhea," the show for folks on the go.
"The Hemorrhoid Chronicles" might make a nice evening's entertainment. What about something frothy and light like "Mucus - The Musical." Then we might open out of town with "Post Partum Depression - The Comedy." The ideas are endless. There could be "Pus Town." Next season we could follow that with "Defecationville." Then "Phlegmburg." There is so much more. "My Big Lesbian Mother-in Law." "Toenail Fungus and the Universe." I can get even more repulsive with these titles, but why give Broadway any more free ideas? I'm sure they'll come up with some dillies on their own.
Actually I'd love to see a new Broadway show called, "I Just Stepped in Something - And I Think it's this Play." I really do believe I'd pay top dollar to see that one. I might even fly to New York for opening night.
In fairness I should point out that Broadway continues to pepper its seasonal line-ups with revivals of classic musicals. They pretty much have to, since the vast majority of theatergoers these days are out-of-towners that actually want to see a show that doesn't feature the trials and tribulations of a transsexual threesome who are looking to adopt only gay babies. Revivals are okay, but really, how many times can you see "Oklahoma?" Is it really that hard to do a new pretty good (I'm not asking for "great") musical that appeals to most of America? I guess it must be. Or is it just a lot more fun to be crude, write stuff for only your peers and stick it in America's face?
The American theater used to be famous for the smell of grease paint - now it just plain smells.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a
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