Something that bothers me way more than it should, I know, is when people think they’ve seen a musical but they haven’t seen it live; they’ve merely seen a video.
Now, it’s true there are some aspects of musicals that an accurate video can convey. The writing is one. One could, I suppose, come up with a reasonable assessment of a show’s book, music and lyrics by watching a video. But, of course, the writers were creating words and music for the specific purpose of having them heard by a live audience in a theatre. And it’s all of a piece: writers’ work succeeds (or doesn’t) in conjunction with staging, design and performances.
This topic recently sent me into a reverie about a theatre-going experience from my youth. And it’s possible the haze of memory has distorted the truth. But picture, if you will:
Much-younger-me was excited to be seeing a musical at the Orpheum on Second Avenue for this intimate hall, I knew, had been part of the Yiddish Theatre’s heyday early in the 20thCentury. The following year, I would have a musical produced on the same thoroughfare, but, that night, traveling down St. Mark’s Place and turning to see an old-fashioned marquis was a big part of my enjoyment.
The sound of the leading lady’s voice was very sexy, clearly a rock singer’s voice. Now, I’ve not attended many live rock concerts in my life, but there was a similar thrill going on here: an almost-but-not-quite damaged sound, a voice stretched over barbed wire. The composer – someone I expected would go on to be very successful – made particularly good use of her unique quality. And I’m describing this in such detail because hearing that voice, live, was an important element in a night of many positives.
The leading man sang very well, too, beneath his mop-top, which, at a key moment, was yanked off to surprise the audience with his baldness.
The show had a prop like you’d see in any show: a totally ordinary one. But then, it moved suddenly, causing everyone to laugh. Not the plain property we’d assumed it was, but a puppet, operated, seemingly, by someone hidden under a table.
Another shock ran through the audience when the thing spoke. Very amusingly, it had the voice of a big, sardonic soul singer, a basso profundo that literally rattled the floorboards. Remember, this was an old theatre, and this was a big sound that came from speakers in all corners of the theatre, a quadraphonic effect, like we were in his mouth!
I was also impressed with the utility man, a versatile actor who utterly transformed himself as he came back again and again to play several minor characters in the show. You looked forward to seeing him return, but you could never quite guess when he would, or what he’d look like.
Once they pulled off the trick of fooling us into believing the puppet was just a prop, they couldn’t surprise us any more, could they? Well, they did with a huge puppet that contained several cast members: you could see them singing from different mesh areas. By the finale, the scenic design had spilled out into the audience area, as green shoots sprung forth from the walls – this being a small theatre, no wall was very far away from anyone.
One other aspect of the experience is something I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past: an energy flowing both ways across the footlights. I was part of a sold-out, very demonstrative audience. We laughed, loudly and often, and the talented players responded to us, adjusting their timing and delivery to maximize the comedy. We all had a good time that night, and I mean the cast, too.
Now picture the poor fool who’s sitting in front of a TV screen or computer monitor, watching a video of this show. He’s probably at home, perhaps wearing ratty underwear; he’s certainly not in a historic East Village theatre. The rock chick’s voice would hit his ears through tiny speakers, not providing the palpable electricity that whisky-burnt vocals can only bring live. Pulling off the man’s toupee wouldn’t amuse much if, on camera, we could tell it was a rug. The “special effect” of the prop moving would hardly seem special on media such as television, where we’re used to seeing Superman take off and fly or Samantha twitch her nose. The loud bass wouldn’t rattle any part of an apartment, and would emanate from just one place. The quick changes of the actor-of-a-thousand-faces would seem unremarkable. The big puppet containing most of the cast would likely look cumbersome. And certainly there’d be no equivalent to suddenly realizing that the walls on either side of you were embracing you like the tentacles of a giant green squid.
Every June, it seems, I encounter people who’ve developed some opinion on some musical they haven’t seen, usually based on a snippet on the Tony broadcast. I grin and bear it, but, on some level, I’m upset a work of art is being judged by an often false simulacrum that appears on a tiny tube.