Monday, May 22, 2017

Time To Banish 'Small' From The Great White Way?

As a general rule, we don't like small musicals.
Because "small" and "Broadway" just don't seem to go well together.
To begin with a Broadway theater must have 500 seats or more. Otherwise, it simply doesn't qualify as Broadway. Most Broadway theaters accommodate 800 to 1500 or more theatergoers.
To succeed in a larger house, you usually need a bigger show. Even when a show that originates off-Broadway moves to Broadway, its staging usually has to grow larger to adapt to the change. Often, that also means more musicians and other changes in scenery, lighting and maybe even cast size to make it a real "Broadway" production. Sadly, it doesn't always happen this way.
For us, a Broadway musical is naturally big with a large musical accompaniment, significant production numbers, perhaps some name stars and, finally, scenery, costumes and staging to match. Also, the show usually has a distinct Broadway sound. The unique Broadway sound is often referred to as “Tin Pan Alley,” a musical structure that was pioneered by songwriters such as  Irving Berlin, George Gershwin,  Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and many others. Tin Pan Alley got its name from a Manhattan street full of music publishers who hired composers and lyricists to write songs that eventually came to define American popular music. These songs constituted pop music up till the time of rock 'n roll and they are now enshrined in what is known as The Great American Songbook. Much of the songbook's sound originated on Broadway.
But every now and then (and seemingly now more so than ever) Broadway strays from its rich legacy and attempts to hand us a smaller, more intimate musical -- something the creators deem more accessible. Usually, these musicals have a cast of characters numbering in single digits and musical accompaniment on the same small scale. Sets are minimal (perhaps with little or no variation) and costumes are also kept simple. And frequently, there is no "Broadway sound" to speak (or sing) of. Instead, the show may borrow from folk music, ethnic music, rock, rap, hip-hop, soul or other traditions. Once recent small musical was performed entirely acapella.
Somewhere between the little musical and the Really Big Broadway Shows (such as Chicago, Phantom of the Opera, Hello Dolly and Wicked) we have the little-bit-bigger-than-small musical -- shows that seem to fall in between. These are wanna-be-big musicals that don't quite make it. And now, these not-quite-big-musicals are starting to steal the show. You know what we're talking about. We're referring to musicals like Next To Normal, Fun Home, Falsettos, Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen.
Sure, these kinds of shows have been around awhile. Even the quintessential Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (trained by Oscar Hammerstein himself) has dipped into the smaller format once or twice with shows like Assassins and, to some extent, Passion. But now, some of these small and midsize shows seem to be gaining attention and honors that may be all out of proportion to their actual worth. Just look at Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away if you're not convinced of that. True, these shows purport to take on important and au courant themes and issues. But that alone does not qualify them for significant status.
For our tastes, we go to Broadway for the razzle-dazzle -- the rich orchestrations, the booming voices, the inspiring sets, the  costumes, the stars, even the special effects. After all, Irving Berlin's anthem to big entertainment begins with "the costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props" in reminding us why "there's no business like show business."
If you want to see a "little" show, then maybe you should spend your time supporting little theater. Because maybe size and spectacle and sound just don't matter to you.
But of you're going to spend the sort of bucks it takes to patronage a theater run by Shubert, Nederlander or Jujamcyn, then you have a right to expect a whole lot more.

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