Posted on November 15, 1999 at 12:00 pm
InTheater asked a distinguished group of artists, producers, and critics to share their thoughts on theater at the turn of the millennium. Parade’s Harold Prince and Jason Robert Brown were among them.
HAROLD PRINCE: Producing Results
The Chelsea Theatre Center’s alliance with my office in producing the revised Candide in Brooklyn in 1973 was among the first successful marriages of not-for-profit and commercial theater. It was followed soon after by A Chorus Line. What was amazing in those days was how cynically such a marriage was viewed, particularly by the National Endowment for the Arts and the not-for-profit community. Times have changed. Most recently, Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk and Side Man are two first-rate examples of a successful marriage.
There are few creative producers functioning in the Broadway theater anymore, and I put that down to two reasons. One: financial considerations. The cost of producing musicals has so escalated that a producer’s primary function has become fundraising. Two: I regret that producing on Broadway doesn’t have the artistic cachet it used to; indeed, live theater doesn’t.
Reinterpreting a classic musical doesn’t require the same kind of creativity, taste, or acumen that presenting a new work does. In principle, I have no objection to radical reinterpretations of classic musicals. But isn’t it fair to ask that they be as good as, if not better than, the originals? Too few of them have been.
The recent success of Show Boat supports the contention that audiences are open to more traditional book musicals. What’s missing today is expertise. However, the young artists exist and await opportunities — not only to show their stuff, but to grow. What they lack is appropriate nurturing and full-scale productions.
What, in general, can I say about the state of the theater as we approach the millennium? There is no denying the corrosive effect of entertainment on art. Currently, we are entertaining ourselves silly. It can only get worse.
Before it gets better?
JASON ROBERT BROWN: Musical Family Values
The forum of musicals has changed over the last 40 years in the same way that the forum of everything has changed; it’s a lot more open. There’s a much wider variety in what you can see in commercial musical theater. At the same time, there’s less commercial musical theater to be seen. A lot of stuff has retreated to the margins, which is something you didn’t have in the ’50s. That’s tricky and, at times, it can be dispiriting. I certainly, and a lot of the people I know who went into musical theater, imagined that it was still the golden age. It’s kind of not what I had in mind.
It’s easy to say that there’s been a "dumbing down" of the audience, but I don’t think that’s true. People want to take the challenge; it’s just that it’s a harder job for a producer to sell a show like that. There’s generally this assumption that people aren’t going to like Greek drama or Shakespeare or other challenging things, but they’re all still around. Every once in a while, something is a hit, and everyone says "Oh! Maybe the audience isn’t as dumb as we thought." It’s a cheap argument to say, "My show was a flop because the audience was too dumb to appreciate it." It’s more appropriate to say that people are less willing to take risks, to plunk down what is now an enormous amount of money to see something that’s an unknown quantity. I don’t think that’s dumb; I think it’s prudent.
I’ve spent the last couple of years of my life around Hal Prince. He tends to rub off on you, and his major complaint about theater today — which I’ve come to really agree with — is that there’s such a lack of generosity: a feeling of, "If he gets it, there’s not enough room for me." That’s truly the most exhausting thing about the work I do — trying to combat not only the cattiness and bitchiness which is kind of inherent, but this scrambling desperation that surrounds people who are working in the theater now. I don’t think it’s true that there’s not enough for everybody. I don’t know who’s feeding that idea, or what it’s about. I have to say that the really talented writers I know are making it; they’re not sitting at home with their thumbs up their asses. But we tend to retreat to our own separate corners at the end of the day, instead of making the theater what we all want it to be. Wouldn’t it be nice if this felt like a community?