Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It's Never Too Late

Last weekend I attended the Commercial Theater Institute 3 day program for Broadway wannabe producers. (I have always been passionate about the theater and however it happened, I took the road less traveled and wound up in politics). In the sessions we were introduced to a number of theater professionals who talked about how you get a show financed and mounted. The talent and information were vast. And mostly, people were open to exchanging e-mails and tips beyond the sessions. It was a wonderful opportunity to think about what I can be when I grow up. It’s my feeling that if you aren’t going to be a doctor, lawyer or photographer you can have as many careers as your imagination and energy will allow. My favorite speaker was the producer who made the decision not to comp anyone to see a show—not even the press, because he felt they would treat it with more value if they had to pay a small amount to see it. What I realized, at the end of the three days, was that I should have been an entertainment lawyer – but for years I wasted my time thinking I wanted to be Perry Mason, (he was a television courtroom personality who never lost a case and additionally always found out who the real murderer was. If you’re lucky you can catch him on Sleuth TV at 3 am.) OK so even though I got into Harvard Law, I didn’t go for too many boring reasons to explain in this limited space—what I mean is that I’m not telling.

So, after three days of intense study, what do I want to do? (It shouldn’t take more than three days to figure out what you will love for all the rest of the time you can still walk and breathe). What I know is that I have all the skills necessary to produce a Broadway show, but do I want to spend the time fundraising – which if you do nothing else, is absolutely required for success—even if the show is going to be a failure. The other thing I learned is that with the changing technology, the power to “make or break” a production is moving from the traditional media to the internet—theater blogs et al.
Having never been the kind of person to turn down an opportunity to be powerful, and being an insightful articulate writer (there’s that modesty again), I have decided to try my hand at being a theater critic. But I’m not going to talk about only the show, I’m going to talk about the marketing as well. So here goes, my first venture into the world of theater, with an unconventional view of “Billy Elliott”.

You don’t necessarily get what you pay for in this theatrical version of the simple but elegant film “Billy Elliott.” On the billboards around New York, the play is positioned as “Simply the best play you will ever see”. It is simply not true or maybe it depends on which Billy Elliott you actually get to see. But since the ticket is priced at $126.00 and the only discount available is student rush, the rest of us could be out of luck.

In my CTI class every producer talked about how mean, insensitive, power hungry and ignorant the theater critics were. I don’t want to be mean or insensitive, because I love the theater and respect the hard work it takes to make a show a success. So, let me start by saying that there are a great many talented people on stage in “Billy Elliott.” Gregory Jbara as the Dad, Carole Shelley as Grandma, and Hayden Gwynne as Mrs. Wilkinson are all exceptional in their roles. I was moved by their relationships with Billy and the pain they experienced in dealing with the reality of their lives. The Billy Elliott we saw, David Alvarez was remarkably fit. I would kill for those legs. He dance proficiency was extraordinary. Every movement and step was perfect, but it lacked “heart”. There is an unexpected and welcomed amount of tap in this notable ballet story, but his was without any soul. Dance without heart and soul is simply not interesting or for that matter enjoyable. But David was not the only problem. The play or book, doesn’t move with the pace of the dance. Maybe it’s a British thing, (I’m no longer caught up in British cache), or maybe it’s just an attempt to try to give people their money’s worth, but there was no need to sit and watch the repetition of themes; workers on strike get screwed and young boy struggles with economic adversity and ignorance to live his dream, for three hours. There were dance numbers and scenes that could have been eliminated without any problem. And lastly, the simplicity of the Billy Elliott story is part of its beauty and attraction. This production was so bloviated with mechanical enhancements that it screamed “I know I must try to be Wicked to be good” (the show, not the personality type). I thought if the elevated bedroom went up and down one more time, I would have to take a sledge hammer to it. Then there was a moment when, during a ballet number, Billy, like Elphaba, is flown around the stage. It was not only a distraction, it seemed to be without a purpose.

While it is true that people who go to the theater and pay big bucks for seats expect to be wowed by what they see on the stage, (sets, scenery, toys), they also expect to be entertained. I was distracted by the bigness, annoyed by the pace and disappointed by the lack of connection with the subject. Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?

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