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by Michael Portantiere

I Resolve


    With a new year just beginning, here are some humble suggestions of resolutions for actors, producers, directors, and other theater professionals, as well as for audience members. This may seem like a nervy thing to do -- but I'm including a resolution for critics, so I hope it's allowable. Let me know what you think!


    For actors: "I resolve not to miss performances unless I absolutely have to."
    No one should ever feel obligated to perform if he or she is genuinely too ill to do so, or if there's some other good reason not to go on, such as a family emergency. But it seems that there's a much higher degree of absenteeism now than there was in the old days, and that not all of these absences are fully justified. How unfortunate, for example, that Fantasia's triumph as Celie in The Color Purple was marred by her having missed so many shows. Until someone figures out a way for Broadway to make economic sense with fewer than eight performances a week, the ability to keep to that admittedly demanding schedule is an essential requirement of an actor's job.

    For producers: "I resolve to avoid using reality TV shows to cast Broadway musicals."
    The consensus of opinion within the Broadway community seems to be that the two performers who were "chosen by America" to star in the current revisal of Grease during the course of an NBC-TV "reality" series are adequate at best. I'm not saying that the idea of casting a Broadway musical via a televised talent competition should be rejected outright; in fact, I think this method could work very well for a revival of West Side Story, since it might otherwise be very difficult to find performers who are both young enough and sufficiently talented to play Tony, Maria, Riff, Anita, et al. But the Grease TV show was so appalling, and the results so questionable, as to demonstrate that this is not the way to go in the vast majority of cases.

    For directors: "I resolve, when directing a revival, not to play the subtext of the piece on the top and not to come up with an off-the-wall production concept just for the sake of calling attention to my work."
    Some people, when they get their hands on a classic, try to "make it their own" by ramping up the sex and violence, setting the action on the planet Mars, or whatever. The irony is that more traditional productions tend to go over better with critics and audiences than the wilder, crazier efforts. This is not meant to discourage bold experiments like John Doyle's Sweeney Todd and Company, but few directors have Doyle's ability to radically reimagine a piece while staying true to its spirit, so they should proceed with care when entrusted with a well-known property.

    For composers, lyricists, and book writers: "I resolve to write from the heart rather than to create a musical with the primary goal of making a financial killing."
    What's the lesson to be learned from the success of Spring Awakening and the failure of Tarzan? There's little point in trying to give the public what you think they want, because chances are you'll be wrong and then you won't have anything to show for your efforts, least of all the ability to state honestly that you did your best and retained your artistic integrity. Two related suggestions: (1) Please stop rewriting classic stage musicals when reviving them, and (2) Please stop giving us ham-handed stage adaptations of beloved film musicals just to exploit the marquee value of the titles.

    For sound designers: "I resolve not to set an ear-splitting volume level for musicals."
    In the old days, shows used to draw people in; now, most of them are so loud that to attend is to feel like you're being aurally assaulted. Of the current crop of musicals, count Spring Awakening, Avenue Q, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee among the listenable, with The Color Purple and Legally Blonde among those that would benefit greatly from having their volume level turned way down.

    For critics: "I resolve to give my completely honest reaction to the shows I review, rather than being swayed by hype or other extenuating factors."
    Most critics are very good about this. But, once in a blue moon, we all bow to peer pressure, and 2007 brought us two prime examples. I'm convinced that the raves received by Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia were largely due to the "event" marketing of the three-part, nine-hour marathon, not to mention the "emperor's new clothes" effect -- i.e., few reviewers had the courage to risk being perceived as stupid for failing to appreciate a trilogy that was billed as catnip for intellectuals. (Time will tell us the true quality of Stoppard's work, but please note that The Coast of Utopia was far less well received when produced in London, where snob hits are few and far between.) Of course, this works both ways: I'll bet that if Young Frankenstein had come to Broadway before The Producers, and hadn't received so much negative publicity for its $450 top ticket price and for not reporting grosses, the show's reviews would have been much better.

    For publicists: "I resolve to avoid sending press releases about shows breaking box-office records."
    Yes, I know that the P.R. folk are only doing what the producers want. Still, I wish that everyone concerned would realize the pointlessness of issuing releases that read, "Such-and-such show broke the house record at such-and-such theater for the third week in a row." You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the main reason why these records continue to fall like dominoes: Ticket prices have increased by hundreds of percent over the decades. I strongly suspect that, in the same way that Gone With the Wind (1939) remains the all-time domestic box-office champion among U.S. films when adjustments are made for inflation, the stats for the original productions of Oklahoma!, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, et al. would be higher than those of most current shows if calculations were based on the number of tickets sold during a particular week, rather than the amount of money taken in.

    For audiences: "I resolve not to behave in any way that would infringe upon my fellow theatergoers' enjoyment of the show."
    (1) Make sure your cell phone ringer is turned off, and don't send or receive text messages during the performance; the light emanating from your phone or PDA can be highly distracting to those around you, even if no sound is involved. (2) Don't switch seats just as the house lights are going down; it's likely that the people who hold tickets for those seats will show up eventually, and there'll be an annoying disruption of the performance as the ushers try to sort things out. (3) Don't arrive late to a show if you can possibly avoid it. (4) Don't leave your seat during a performance except in the case of emergency. (5) Eat before the show, not during, and don't talk or sing along!

    Published on Friday, January 4, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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