Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Automat is Gone And So is Brando - Does That Really Mean That Broadway Is Dead?

If you are a fan of theater or of acting, Broadway The Golden Age is a not-to-be-missed love song to the Broadway of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. It consists of reminiscences of many people of the theater - Ben Gazzara, Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Mary Rodgers, Lanie Kazan, Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Ashley, Maureen Stapleton, Anne Margaret, Martin Landau, Kaye Ballard, Uta Hagen, Frank Langella, Gena Rowlands, John Raitt, Barbara Cook, Elaine Stritch - I could go on and on.

The anecdotes are marvelous and, as usual, I wish there had been more actual footage to accompany them - although there are some gems - Brando in Streetcar on sound recording, footage of Kim Stanley in Bus Stop and a short moment from Lee Strassberg's production of Three Sisters with Stanley, Geraldine Page, and Sandy Dennis (Stanely's reaction to Vershinin leaving in the last act is one of the most devastating things I have ever watched), and a Hollywood screen test of the legendary Laurette Taylor, most remembered for creating the role of Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. Her performance in that play and in Outward Bound have had such profound impact on those that saw them that the shock waves still seem to ripple down Broadway. I somehow feel I can get close to what that must have been like just by watching Ben Gazzara, and Maureen Stapleton tear-up as they remembered the multiple times they returned to the theater to watch her. Although it made me almost fiercely jealous too. I wanted to be there. I recalled as I watched it some of the memorable performances I have seen - John Raitt in Carousel (even in the 1960s, he was still fantastic in the revival), Maureen Stapleton as Birdie in Little Foxes, Roger Rees as Hamlet, Angela Lansbury in Sweeny Todd (wow), I'll even say Liev Shreiber in Betrayal, and of course the great Geraldine Page in everything I saw her in, on stage that included Agnes of God, Clarence, Viva Vivat Regina, and The Madwoman of Chaillot.

I found myself agreeing with some of the film's outlook - the golden age is dead, it will never come again, Broadway is all hype and helicopters now, it's impersonal, it's too expensive, the theater is not an integrated part of our culture any more, microphones ruin all the music. Yes it's all true. I mourn it. Miss Saigon is not West Side Story. Just the little clips we got of the golden oldies had me in tears sometimes with their immediacy, the guts that seemed to pour off the television screen, but it made me kind of resentful too - are there any great theatrical experiences out there? I've seen some, although I tend to see them off-Broadway now or in Europe. There was a part of the nostalgia of the film maker - a kid who was hoping to find 1940s Broadway when he came to New York from Indiana in the 1980s - that just struck me as whiny. Alright, coffee cost a nickel - I get it already. There are no more automats - I liked them too. Times change. We still drink coffee. We still like it. We can never see Brando as Stanley - is the theater really dead?

Anyway, what is marvelous about the film are the stories and the clips, so if you love the theater - I recommend it.


Anonymous said...

How about how everyone - 50 years after the fact - still talk about Laurette Taylor's performance??

I've been corresponding with Rick McKay - the guy who did the documentary - he's also a huuuuuuuge Fay Wray fanatic - and was instrumental in putting together the Fay Wray fest that was happened this past winter at the film forum.

Wonderful documentary. It does make you yearn for the golden age. Of course there was a lot of crap then too (wasn't that what the Group tried to define themselves against??) ... but when I see stuff like Grease - with audience-voted stars as the leads - on Broadway - I have to think: Wow. The stage is dead. At least in New York it is.

Thankfully, regionally - it is not!!

Ted said...

S - To answer my own question - I think 'Broadway' is dead but theater is not. There is off-Broadway and, thankfully, regional, as you say. I don't think a Broadway of that sort is likely to rise once again unless it really is from ashes. Fourth avenue print shops and a real estate economy where almost everyone RENTED apartments - where there was actually a middle class - are dead too. There were always fancy shops and there was always Wall Street, but now we're an economy, not a culture. The value of everything is what it looks like, what it can trade for, human interaction be damned, I'm listening to my ipod, don't bother me.
It's interesting we're so up in arms about autism - people not looking each other in the face and not being able to communicate - it seems to be an accurate description of us all, and there is no place that is more evident than on the Broadway stage. As Mary Testa says in the film - there should be rooom for every kind of theater but Broadway has closed down the range of work it is willing to produce. Even regional (and New York regional like Roundabout and MTC) seem for the most part to do plays with sets and stars.
The thing is though, Broadway rarely nurtured plays and actors in the way our rosy stories of the Golden Age would like to tell. Producers fought over money, they played out of town to give themselves the best chance at a hit. Laurette Taylor was not nurtured in The Glass Menagerie, the producers wanted to can her ass because she was so scared and her creative process so weird.
I think it's Tovah Felshuh in the film who looks at Beauty and the Beast and says that when you stick someone inside a 20 lb foam teapot costume, and mike their voice - that you don't leave the audience anything to imagine any more. You can't even tell who is in that costume and you can't hear the real sound of their voice. There is little of the individual human being left. There was always spectacle on Broadway, but at least you heard the sound of the real human voice.
And yet, you can see Audra MacDonald in 110 in the Shade and Billy Cruddup in Arcadia and Tony Kushner's Angels in America - so something can still happen sometimes, even on Broadway.

Anonymous said...

Right, right - if you read stories about the so-called Golden Age - it sounds like same ol' same ol' to me - same fearful money-men, resistant to something that might fail. Broadway always has been, after all, a business.

And now - with ticket prices being what they are - nobody wants to spend 200 bucks on 2 tickets to a show that might fail, or be somehow unsatisfying. I sure as hell don't want to.

It's a consumer-driven market.

And it seems to me that audiences need to be dominated today - meaning: they have to be told repeatedly to sit down, shut up, and succumb. This is not about YOU.

One of the most exhilarating productions I've seen in recent years was Kathleen Turner in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That script requires a lot of concentration for the audience - it's tough - it's long - it goes up, it goes down - you are laughing hysterically one minute, and then in the next, you get slapped across the face.

I felt that Turner and the rest of the wonderful cast were SO good at grabbing hold of the audience - many of whom seemed restless - or - who only wanted to laugh - you know, they seem to feel obligated to see everything like a sitcom, and would get nervous when things got too serious (you know how you can SENSE that in an audience?)

And so the cast - without making a big deal of it - DEMANDED that we succumb. That we ride the wave WITH them. They were like conductors, Ted. And yet they also seemed totally lost in the world of the play.

It was awesome!

Ted said...

I think though that the kind of theater being produced creates the kind of audience that needs, as you say, to be dominated. A strong narrative hand is not a negative thing, nor do I imagine it was lacking from the stage productions of 50 years ago. Audiences are frequently at the end of some active verb or other by the creators of the production, but the more we create the need for domination, the more we'll justify ourselves by saying it's always needed. People generally respond with interest to good theater, though not always for the same reasons we do.
I saw that Who's Afraid production as well. It was marvelous, Turner and Bill Irwin both. It's a tough play and the audience was really interested in staying with it. They were in Proof too - even though in that case it is second-rate writing and was an unimaginative, TV-oriented production, the themes were still deep, disturbing human ones, and there was the setting of a university and complex mathematics, and a full house of Broadway theater goers wanted to be involved in that experience.
Interestingly, on the night I saw the Albee play, a woman in front of us started getting very disturbed by the play in the 2nd half and had to leave with her friends before the end. We saw her later on the street and she was sobbing uncontrollably between her two friends who kept saying "it's a play, Kathy. It's just a play."

Anonymous said...

Ted - I remember you telling me that story about the crying woman after the play!!! Amazing.

I totally agree - that if it's good and involving - an audience will go with it.

Anonymous said...

For some reason I am thinking of the incident from a couple years ago when Kevin Spacey (an actor I don't like) was doing Iceman Cometh, I believe - and someone's cell phone rang in the audience - and he broke out of the play and said to the person out in the dark, "Tell them you're busy."

Now I am ENRAGED when people do not turn their cell phones off, even though they are repeatedly reminded to,

But to have an actor - whose concentration is so shallow - whose ego is so enormous - that he would break the wall of the play and address the audience like that ... I was furious when I heard it. I'm sure I was furious because I already think he is hugely over-praised and that incident tells me why. That's an amateur, as far as I'm concerned. That's someone who is more concerned with SELF than with the play.

Again, it's not to excuse the cell phone moron - but I would have asked for my money back if I had been in the audience that night.

That's the deal with live theatre, Spacey. People cough. People don't do what you expect them to do. People whisper. People come in late.

Deal with it. It's not about YOU. Keep going. You are a disgrace to the profession.

It goes along with a certain feeling in the theatre - that it should somehow be "like a movie". That's what I think Spacey was doing there - if he's on a movie set, then everyone is HUSHED when he's having his big (over-praised) moment. He gets to feel the crinkle/adrenaliine of his own power in a direct manner.

But having (a boo hoo) an actual unpredictable audience there - was, to him, an annoyance.

God, even just thinking about it makes me angry.

Ted said...

That's a great story! Kevin Spacey sure is the Emporer's old clothes, isn't he? I've seen him on stage. But, what's amazing is that being disturbed by the present does not always have to be indicative of shallow concentration. The whole fascination for me about live theater is how the actors' and audience's present intrude upon whatever they're creating. It's a shame when it's only ego intruded upon, or the misplaced notion that "this moment could be perfect if only it weren't for you - intruder!" But sometimes actors take such an intrusion and make it their present and it's even MORE real - and yet those two reactions are so nearly similar.
Geraldine Paige always seemed to take the interruption of her present reality and weave into whatever she was creating - it almost seemed a full half of her skein and yet she never broke concentration that WAS her concentration. An amazing artist who was eternally interrupted, moved, disturbed, sensitive to every subtle shift of the present and yet never out of the moment of her creation. They were one and the same.

Anonymous said...

//the misplaced notion that "this moment could be perfect if only it weren't for you - intruder!"//

Yes!!! That perfectly captures what I find so disgusting about Spacey's behavior in that moment.

He totally pulled the entire audience out of the world of the play because HIS concentration was blown. Selfish selfish selfish.

Whatever is going on: Use it. use whatever happens.

Acting 101.

I can't remember where I read the story about Geraldine Paige - maybe you told it to me - that she was really afraid of the audience, and the fear got so bad during Sweet Bird of Youth that she was unable to play the part. She sort of cringed away from being "seen". And was it Kazan who directed that?? Anyway, I think he basically just said to her, "ATTACK the audience. You're afraid of them? That's fine. ATTACK them back. Don't let them 'get' you."

And boy were those the magic words. That is something to DO with your 'feelings' about those intruders out there - something that helps you play the part.


Ted said...

I love it when directors find the something that's useful for both the play and the actor, that's when you know you're doing your job. Not that you can just suggest a way out of self-consciousness but an action that frees the actor to really do her job better than before.