Playing at the palace

The Times Square of my youth was a den of thieves: pick-pockets, three-card-monte sharks, bogus blind beggars and prostitutes.  Their victims were usually tourists.  Out to stop them were cops, some in plain-clothes, and churchy types, sometimes in uniform.  And there were horse-players, like my uncle, singing in counterpoint.

Times Square today is nothing like that.  It’s a pedestrian mall, jam-packed with tourists 24/7 and it’s the one neighborhood in New York I cannot stand visiting.  But my point is not to complain about the place.
The Times Square of my youth was filled with theatre-goers as 8 p.m. approached.  They braved this dodgy area because of a happy compulsion to see the work of performers like Gwen Verdon and Joel Grey, playwrights like Robert Anderson and Wendy Wasserstein, musical-writers like Jerry Herman and Bock & Harnick.  These hearty souls – let’s call them Metropolitan Theatre Fans, read the reviews (if Walter Kerr said “Go!” you went) and relied on word-of-mouth: that is, friends’ reports on whether shows were worth seeing.

Today, who’s going to Broadway?  Overwhelmingly, it’s tourists: they view coming to New York from across the country and around the world and seeing a Broadway show a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  They’re not likely to have read reviews, or even to know other people who’ve seen a Broadway show.  They don’t go on recommendations; they go on name recognition.  Transfixed by the bright lights of advertisements, they’re excited by the names they know: “FRANK SINATRA” read the marquis on the Marquis.  “JOHNNY CASH” reads another.
And it’s not just the names of dead singers: “SPIDERMAN” was a beloved character in their childhoods.  “ELF” – “liked that movie; want to see that!”  “AMERICAN IDIOT” – “my favorite album!  On stage!”

The quantity of tourists attending Broadway today is so much higher than the number of Metropolitan Theatre Fans, it’s gotten to the point where the latter are statistically insignificant.  Which means that the critics are insignificant, since so few theatre-goers bother to look up their assessment.  Currently, there’s a musical that got panned by virtually every newspaper, The Addams Family, and it rakes in a million dollars every week.  There’s an original musical – with a title the tourists haven’t heard of – that got across-the-board raves, multiple Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, Next To Normal, and it doesn’t earn a quarter of that.

Broadway is a commercial enterprise, and shows that fail to fill enough seats close.  Composer John Kander, the most successful of living Broadway composers, worked on The Scottsboro Boys for so many years, his collaborator Fred Ebb died six years before the Broadway opening.  It’s an intelligent entertainment which got a lot of good reviews.  But the small cadre of Metropolitan Theatre Fans didn’t attend in enough numbers to make it profitable; in the parlance, it bombed.

A certain type of musical – original, finely-crafted, witty, emotionally complicated – can’t thrive in this environment.  That’s not what the tourists are coming to see.  When Backstage raved about a show of mine, the reviewer pointed out that I’d crafted something that seemed geared for those Metropolitan Theatre Fans, the vanishing breed:

A wily wizard with words, Katz has created a show that, despite his tuneful, toe-tapping music, derives its primary entertainment value from verbal humor. This is the kind of musical that’s not been made for Broadway in a long time. With its witty references to literary figures and historical events, Such Good Friends not only emulates the creative techniques of musical makers of the past but seems written for Broadway audiences of a bygone era — those more homogenous, midcentury New York theatre audiences who possessed a common body of knowledge, a certain level of education, and shared cultural backgrounds and attitudes.

This made me think about name-dropping.  For purposes of my story, set in the middle of the twentieth century, I’d mentioned several people who were famous in the middle of the twentieth century: Cliff Odets, Bertolt Brecht, Lillian Hellman and others.  And then there’s Comden & Green’s lyric, “Drop That Name” which consists of nothing but names you could hear at Park Avenue parties in the 1950’s.  In the 1960 film version, many of the names had to be changed to that of movie stars.  Essentially, the song had been written to amuse Metropolitan Theatre Fans and then MGM, in creating a mass-market entertainment, had to dumb down the references.

(Comparison of the two versions)

The shows that were fashioned for those Metropolitan Theatre Fans were the best musicals ever, in part, because the writers could count upon, and knew intimately, those New York theatre audiences who possessed a common body of knowledge, a certain level of education, and shared cultural backgrounds.  Nowadays, Broadway musicals can’t find that crowd amidst the stampede of wide-eyed out-of-towners.


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