An Investment Worth Notating
Whenever we discuss investments in musical theatre, our brains are usually drawn to one of two options: the investment of time from all the artists involved or the investment of funds in order to make a potential production/workshop/living room reading/etc… possible. But lately my mind has been drawn to the investment that an audience makes before each and every theatrical experience they encounter. I do not necessarily mean the price of admission or the duration of a play. But rather I am looking to explore the emotional investment of any witness to musical theatre.
A few weeks ago I attended Manhattan Concert Production’s presentation of Titanic at Avery Fisher Hall. Before I continue I must confess a significant disclaimer. Titanic has been and will most likely continue to be one of my personal favorite musicals of all time. Seeing the original Broadway cast in 1998 was a momentous event for me and the recording is an album that I have always held near and dear to my heart. That being said, I do not have many friends that share a similar passion or affection for the show quite like I did (I knew others must exist considering the show won several Tony awards and won over quite a handful of critics).
I bought myself a ticket for the last seat in the last row of Avery Fisher Hall in eager anticipation of the concert. I had already planned on my own enthusiasm, but I had absolutely no preparation for the company I was keeping. The sold-out concert housed an audience that was explosively expressing its enthusiasm and affection for the piece in a way that’s hardly predictable. During intermission, an acquaintance of mine who also happened to be attending made the observation, “I have never in my life heard a crowd response quite like this.” To put it simply, the room was electrifying with many diehard fans of the show, and it was experienced as a beautiful collaboration between the orchestra, the 250 person choir, the original cast, and the audience in order to create a memorable and emotional evening. Titanic is obviously not alone when it comes to musicals with a highly populated following. But clearly multiple people in the audience arrived with not only an agenda to recreate the experience of hearing/seeing the original cast in their respective roles, but with a solid investment in a piece that has been scarcely performed in the New York City area.
But what of musicals that are performed more frequently, or commemorated more often? As time goes on, they only seem to gain more and more traction when it comes to creating a fan base. I recently attended a performance of the latest revival of Les Miserables at the Imperial Theatre. Talk about a show with a highly populated following, Les Miserables has seeped into the minds of audiences literally around the entire globe. And the audience at the Imperial seemed to reflect that personal investment. The moment the initial downbeat was struck, the audience vocally responded akin to being at a rock concert. If Les Miz was a new work, the audience would most likely not be prepared to express such vocal enthusiasm as they’d be hesitant to jump right into the pool instead of dipping their feet into the water. But the audience was ready and eager to express their committed investment to the show. And they wanted others to be aware of it.
With revivals, it can be easier to gauge an audience’s personal and emotional commitment to a musical. You have history on your side. But we’re not here on shop19.newmusicaltheatre.com to look at how successful revivals plan on being successful. The fact of the matter is, the audience has a personal investment in ANY musical theatre piece, whether it’s the 257th revival of Gypsy or if it’s the world premiere production of Gaby Alter’s Nobody Loves You. Form and content already tap a preexisting thought or feeling in any audience member.
I remember overhearing someone outside the Winter Garden say to their friend, “Oh my God. If they don’t sing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ I’m going to be so upset!” What are writers such as Ahrens and Flaherty supposed to do in a situation such as this? If they don’t include some of the signature elements of the Rocky film into their score, will they be disappointing a heavy portion of their expected audiences? Clearly they can write, say, and do whatever they damn well please (and that beautiful liberation is what makes them artists in the first place), but will they need to include musical moments such as “Eye of the Tiger” in order to serve a higher purpose? Even audience members that entered Second Stage or the Booth Theater to see Next to Normal might have a preexisting awareness that the piece that they are about to experience will contain a heavy discussion of mental illness. And I suspect much of their audiences already had formulated opinions about the science of mental illness in an overly medicated world.
Thus we have a challenge, as writers, to express ourselves with the utmost integrity while also trying to plan and coordinate how an audience walks into the theater. Nostalgia and foundation can be an artist’s biggest asset (i.e. Aladdin) or its biggest obstacle (i.e. any upcoming musical celebrating the work of any Tea Party candidate). Rodgers and Hammerstein were well aware that South Pacific would be opening only four years after World War II had ended. And Adam Gwon was well aware that Ordinary Days would be opening less than seven years after 9/11. Musical theatre writers are by no means obligated to keep in mind the mentality of their audience. But it can be infinitely beneficial to be prepared for any audience that’s about to experience the work you have written. And that knowledge is a tool worth investing in.