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OPINION - A dying art form

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Would you like to see After Midnight ? I may have extra tickets to If/When if youre interested. Or how about A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder ?

I'm willing to bet you have no idea what I'm talking about and wouldn't know what yo'ud be seeing if you came.

These are some of the Tony Award nominees; this year's best-of-the-best from Broadway. And no one outside of the ever-shrinking circle of live theater enthusiasts who live mostly in New York City knows or cares. New plays, even the rare few that rise to the top and make it to Broadway, don't generate a lot of attention. A Gentleman's Guide, which leads the pack with 10 Tony nominations, is playing to one-third empty houses during its weeknight performances. Act One a nominee for best play is desperately trying to keep its doors open, and may be shuttered before the Tony Awards are handed out.

Broadway is not in financial trouble. Ticket sales are down over the last two years, but revenue is up. Last week there were 13 productions that had more than $1-million in gross ticket sales. In the good old days only one or two shows -- usually Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King -- crossed the seven-figure-a-week threshold.

What's unhealthy is the state of the art form. The costs of mounting a new show are so expensive that tried-and-true revivals get brought back again and again. New shows are crowded out, finding it virtually impossible to create buzz and interest that's needed to line-up backers and to sell tickets. Right now Broadway theaters are filled with sub-standard revivals of Cabaret , Les Miserables , and Chicago . They suck up the oxygen that new shows need to flourish.

The lack of new material is even worse at the regional and community theater level. Wausau Community Theater, a fine local group with struggling attendance, is left to debate which 30, 40, and 50 year old plays they'll choose for next season. Surely there have been very good plays from the last few years. Would a local theater company take a chance and bring one of them to the stage? Of course not. And who could blame them? They'd be performing unknown material that would stir very little community interest. Financially, they'd lose their shirts.

So what works? Musicals with the Walk Disney Companys marketing machine behind them have a fighting chance. But these are stories that started as cartoons and have been reconstructed for the stage. (Mark my words, a stage version of Frozen is on the drawing board right now.) Things that were movies or books first might have enough name recognition to make it to Broadway. But new, built-from-the-ground-up musicals the kind that Cole Porter or Andrew Lloyd Webber might construct have all but disappeared.

Why should we care? Because there are only two uniquely American contributions to art: jazz and musical theater. Everything else that makes up our artistic landscape is borrowed from other cultures. Jazz is moribund. It's only heard in elevators in classy office buildings or while youre waiting on hold. Musical theater could face a similar fate. The golden years are 70 years in the rear-view-mirror. Some of the great plays and their songs are time-worn. There's not a lot of good, high-quality new material in the pipeline. Will this art form survive?

Chris Conley
4.29.14

Image: Tony Award, via Wikicommons.com