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  • It's happened to all of us at one time or another: You read a headline of a news story, and you simply know that the story it's attached to will infuriate you. I had that experience yesterday, courtesy of The New York Times, which emblazoned across the top of its theatre page this headline: "Old Shows, Stripped Down So They Shine."

    Oh no, I thought. The Times is running an entire story about the presently popular canard that a musical can't be both big and emotionally acute. We've all heard it countless times by now: Big orchestras and sets get in the way too much; clearly, the real point of theatre is that we have as little of that as possible and just focus on the people you can't ever see if there's a set onstage or a musician in the pit. Surely the Times wouldn't give serious airing to this idiotic line of thinking, would it? Or, if it did, it would certainly bring something new to table, right?

    Of course it would. And of course it wouldn't. This is one of those issues that makes a good sound bite but rarely makes a good story, because it doesn't stand up to the tiniest shred of scrutiny. Regardless, let's have a look at the Times's take.

    After six paragraphs, five of which are about how budgeting works for Artistic Director David Babani at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, writer Patrick Healy finally arrives at the closest thing to a theme statement he provides: "For Mr. Babani the goal of the Chocolate Factory...is to remove the distractions of epic-size production numbers, which can consume money and rehearsal time, so the creators and cast can focus on realizing a show's essence."

    Production numbers are distractions. Expensive distractions that contribute nothing except "consum[ing] money and rehearsal time." And if you have them, the poor, stupid people in the audience can't glean what a show means. So musicals are better off for dumping them. Got that?

    There's more, in the next paragraph: "'We start by focusing on the story and making it actor-led, rather than scenery-led or orchestra-led,' said Mr. Babani." Babani isn't even implying that other musicals put their scenery or orchestras first—he's saying it flat-out. How many shows can you name that begin, from their earliest conceptions, with concerns about the sets and the orchestrations? (E-mail me your lists, please.) I, myself, have hung around dozens, if not hundreds, of composers and lyricists and bookwriters who, during the drafting process, come to literal blows over whether the orchestrations should have two clarinets or three. (What, none of those people usually write the orchestrations? That's not the point. David Babani says it and the Times reports it, so it must be so.)

    A bit later, after a discussion of the new musical Paradise Found ("'If anything, the show was overdesigned for the space, with perhaps more scenery and furniture and costumes than the building could handle'"), Trevor Nunn weighs in. Nunn, who directed the original production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love and the recent Chocolate Factory revival, said of his original production, "I can't really recall the precise moment when the original went from small scale to big scale...But I felt the story got swallowed up with those 17 or so musicians and the massive design." Well, sure, with an orchestra that crowded—17 whole pieces? If only Wagner had dared to marshal such forces!—it's easy to see how that happen. Frank Rich, in his must-read Times review of the original Broadway mounting, quoted some lyrics—"Love changes everything, hands and faces, earth and sky"; "Life goes on, love goes free"; "There is more to love than simply making love"—that make one wonder whether it was really the mammoth orchestra or something else that was to blame for the show's failure on these shores.

    Healy continues: "The simplified revival, which has an 8-musician, 12-instrument band, has allowed Mr. Nunn to spend time working with his cast on the show's emotional arc." I guess we're not supposed to ask why Nunn ignored the show's emotional arc the first time around? Is it possible—just possible—that if he had given it its due, it may have succeeded, despite the impossibly swelling ranks exploding out of the orchestra pit?

    Actor Michael Arden is the next interviewee, weighing in with what must truly be one of the most trenchant acting comments of our time. "Arden...said the feel of the Chocolate Factory forces actors 'to be completely truthful with the material rather than try to emotionally project, because there's no balcony to play to....The people are the driving forces of the shows here, not a crashing chandelier, not a turntable, not characters flying in the air.'" Funny, I've seen The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Peter Pan in gigantic theaters, and it's the characters and stories I always think of first. Let's forget, for the moment, Arden's insinuation that projection and truthfulness are mutually exclusive qualities, when actors have for millennia been able to do both simultaneously. (I wonder if this means that Nunn's Aspects uses no microphones. Anyone taking bets?)

    The article closes with yet another comment from Babani: "What I think is more worthy of attention...is the bravery by our directors and team in rethinking shows in a way that cuts against people's memories and expectations. La Cage was a grandly produced show before here. So was Night Music. So was Aspects. What I like to think we give people, instead of all that grandeur, are great stories." Once again, the insinuation is that forgoing a show's physical production is "bravery," and that sets and costumes never aid in telling a story. No one I know who saw the original La Cage aux Folles or A Little Night Music has ever complained that their sets prevented assimilation of the show; and though I don't really know anyone who especially liked Nunn's first Aspects of Love, its scenic design and Metropolitan Opera–sized instrument count have never been cited as reasons.

    One word, and one alone, seems apt to describe the outlook that Babani and Nunn are proffering, and that Healy so willingly gobbles up: "sophistry." It was taken for granted for decades, if not centuries, that a show is a holistic organism that flourishes when all its elements work in concert. Suddenly this viewpoint has become a lie? Thousands of theatre practitioners in every country on Earth throughout all of human history got it wrong, but today's directors finally get it? I don't think so. Far more likely is that it's a line being spouted for convenience and publicity rather than for anything about it that's actually accurate.

    If a musical has a strong book with complex, believable characters, and a score that supports the spoken text and (hopefully) is enjoyable to listen to, the show will succeed artistically—regardless of whether its physical production is small or big. This is why classics are often done, and so successfully, at community, school, and college theatres with budgets far smaller than anything the Chocolate Factory could imagine. I have seen Carousels with truckloads of scenery and with almost none at all; the Everyman tragedy and redemption of Billy Bigelow has come through every time. People still speak in reverent tones about the original production of Follies because of how tightly coordinated the meaning of the show was with the way it looked. Nunn and Babani would have us believe that seeing an actual merry-go-round onstage or a gorgeous chorus girl wearing an expensive, elaborate gown in front of resplendent Loveland scenery somehow renders its audience incapable of making intellectual or emotional judgments about what's happening onstage.

    In truth, scenery and costumes become "distractions" only when it can be used for publicity purposes. But if the right people are working behind the scenes, you can get both—and it's the truly visionary directors, who understand how to elicit the most from what a show says and how it looks, that are most missing today. One of the most frequently named showstoppers of the past 30 years is Grand Hotel's "We'll Take a Glass Together," which utilized much of the cast, but succeeded because director-choreographer Tommy Tune knew it was about the Baron and Kringelein's evolving relationship—it was a moment that was both epic-size and essential. David Cromer has directed several shows in New York over the last decade, and given each one of a very different scenic philosophy that's always seemed right because the dramatic and emotional underpinnings are sound. And yet all of these shows has also looked good. That's not an accident.

    In my experience, shows are more likely to stumble when they try to deny the spectacle that some shows requires merely to stay upright. The recent Broadway revival of Ragtime is a prime example—the show requires a firm design concept, and in the interests of saving money didn't get one, and therefore didn't connect with audiences. (It worked better at the Kennedy Center, where it was pushing boundaries a bit rather than shrinking within them.) Nunn's currently running A Little Night Music lacks the romantic sweep that a larger orchestra allows the songs to evoke; what the characters are singing about onstage demands more than eight thin pieces. The same was certainly true of the Chocolate Factory revival of Sunday in the Park with George a couple of years ago that used less than half the original complement of musicians and sounded awful—in a musical, is repudiating the music really a good way to get at the meat of the story? John Doyle made his versions of Sweeney Todd and Company about actors playing musical instruments, whereas every other production of either that I had seen—of any size—dealt instead with the people and their problems.

    Changing that isn't visionary; it's destructive. It can be done intelligently—the new Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles, also from the Chocolate Factory, shows that. Yes, it has a smaller orchestra, but the orchestrations have been adjusted to still sound big. And it has a real, full scenic design—if a generally simple one—that don't try to pretend all of Paris can somehow be captured in a single bland unit set as Night Music and Sunday both have. Add in the keenly realized characters, and you have a complete, cohesive production.

    At the other end of the scale, Bartlett Sher's South Pacific at Lincoln Center—despite a full-size orchestra (30 pieces, Mr. Nunn, 30 pieces), lots of real sets, and a cast of nearly 40—explores every possible nuance of the work, and is equally satisfying visually, aurally, and emotionally, in ways that almost no scaled-down revival ever is. The scope is what South Pacific needs—any director who tries to pretend it can subsist on less, and claims that he is in fact bringing more to the experience, is not being honest with himself or his patrons.

    That, perhaps, is what bothers me most about attitudes like those expressed in the Times story. I understand that many small companies, especially in economic times as tough as the ones we're currently enduring, simply cannot employ the full-size orchestras or sets that many classical musicals require, and thus must downsize simply in order to have shows to do. If these companies would make that argument, who could dispute it? It's honest and it's believable, and people would give them the benefit of the doubt provided they tried and made the best of what they had. What is much harder to swallow is today's prevailing notion that the most talented, gifted, and forward-thinking musical makers of the Golden Age of Broadway harmed their shows by insisting they actually looked and sounded like the stories they told. One suspects that Rouben Mamoulian, Jerome Robbins, George Abbott, and others of their illustrious ilk knew how to balance soul and spectacle. Perhaps that is a skill Babani and Nunn should learn, rather than boasting that ignoring half the equation is really solving the problem.

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