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November 28, 2005

Mambo Bomb-o

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back when Broadway was Broadway, new productions were "tried out" "on the road."

The first stop often was New Haven (remember the phrase "we bombed in New Haven" -- seems to me that eventually a show actually had that name), and if the show left there alive it would likely move to Philadelphia for further refinement before hitting The Great White Way.

In recent decades other tryout cities have been used: Washington comes to mind. San Francisco was the site of a musical's tryout last June and The Fiancée and I went to see it.

The musical was "The Mambo Kings," based on the 1989 book "The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love" by Oscar Hijuelos and the movie "The Mambo Kings." Here is some background information.

Reviewers were not kind, as can be seen here and here. So "doctors" were brought in, but to no avail: the scheduled August / rescheduled September Broadway opening never happened.

What did I think of The Mambo Kings? My problem dealing with that question is the nub of this posting.

You see, I'm pretty much a naïf when it comes to theatre, music, dancing, stagecraft -- you name it: Terry Teachout or Mark Steyn I ain't.

I've got a pile of degrees from pretty good schools including Dear Old Penn, not to mention [ahem] being a Certified Cultural Blowhard. Yet when it comes to performing arts I'm probably a less-competent, more-inhibited judge than the proverbial hayseed visiting New York for the first time. That hayseed has a sense of what he likes. As for me, I seriously lack experience as a theatergoer, yet I've read enough reviews and other theatre information over the years that I have some vague notion that there are things I'm supposed to like.

Regarding The Mambo Kings, I found the up-tempo Cuban music fine. The dancing seemed energetic and the female dancers were attractive. Because my hearing is sub-par and I've always had trouble with accented speech, I might have missed important bits of dialogue. Nevertheless, the Cuban introductory scene included some critical (for the later, New York, part of the show) mayhem that happened so quickly I failed to grasp its meaning. Because of that and probably for other reasons, I never really understood or sympathized with the main characters. So when the tragedy of the ending came and went, my attitude was "So what?"

All of this brings to mind the matter of musicals that I've liked and why I liked them. But sadly, I've seen so few and many of them were seen so many years ago that I've forgotten much of what they were about, not to mention my reactions. Seems to me I liked "Guys and Dolls" and I liked Carol Channing in a 1973-ish revival of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." I liked "The Producers" mostly because of its premise and the comedy. I saw a "Pajama Game" revival in London a few years ago that was okay. Other London productions I've seen over the years include "The Lion King," "Cats," "Starlight Express," "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Buddy Holly Story."

And you know what? I liked "Buddy Holly" best of the London lot. Because of the music.

Okay, that nails it: I'm a sub-hayseed.

I suspect a lot of readers fall into the same bag as me. How do you deal with musicals? Especially, how do you deal with musicals that are so new you haven't yet seen the reviews as was the case with me for The Mambo Kings? And just how do reviews affect your perception of a show?



posted by Donald at November 28, 2005


New Haven's Shubert Theater served for decades as the main try-out venue for Broadway. Downtown New Haven went into a major decline starting in the 1950's-60's, a process that probably would have begun in any event but which was helped along by some ill-advised urban renewal projects. By the 1970's the downtown area was in very sorry shape, full of vacant storefronts and undesirable characters; Yale University provided some degree of stability, but only in the immediate campus area. The Shubert was not immune to the city's decline, closing in the late 1970's and coming very close to demolition. Fortunately, it reopened under nonprofit auspices a few years after closing and has been in operation ever since, and even hosts a Broadway tryout every now and then.

Posted by: Peter on November 28, 2005 11:11 PM

Just to add an anecdote about the decline of New Haven. I worked in one of the city's suburbs for about six months in late 1982 - early 1983. My employer asked me to research some business issue - I no longer remember what - and I found out that the necessary materials were in the New Haven Public Library.* It was difficult to find time to do the research, however, as due to budget cuts the library was open fewer than 20 hours per week! And keep in mind this was *after* the city had begun to rise from the depths of its slump and after the Shubert had reopened. Sorry if this is getting a little far afield from your posting :)

* = the materials probably were in the Yale library as well, but it is far easier for an al-Qaeda leader to get unescorted access to the White House than it is for persons unaffiliated with Yale to get research privileges at it library.

Posted by: Peter on November 28, 2005 11:22 PM

There's obviously much to be learned, as well as many good yarns to be enjoyed, about New Haven's ups and downs. Here's an interesting (if mucho lefty) short article. Interesting passage:

{In New Haven, it wasn't] a storm but rather a federal interstate highway project that did the trick. The intersection of I-95 and I-91 was constructed in the 1950s in the center of New Haven's densest residential neighborhoods (composed then mostly of white working-class people). Some 30,000 people (out of a total population of 150,000) were thrown out of neighborhoods they had lived in for generations and to which they could not and did not ever return. Had the intersection of I-95 and I-91 been constructed 2-3 miles east or west, only a few dairy cows would have been displaced. Instead, the highway construction -- paid for by regressive taxation -- accomplished mass displacement and gentrification to suit the New Haven power elite, namely Yale University. Indeed, Yale officials proceeded to draw ever more federal money to "rebuild" and "renew" New Haven to suit Yale (hyped as a "model" urban renewal for the whole US).

Musicals and theater generally are interesting to ponder, aren't they? I had the chance to go to a lot of theater for around ten years -- expense account and freebie tickets meant that I could see anything I wanted, as long as I saw it ahead of opening night. So there The Wife and I were in the expensive seats. Fun!

Well, actually often a chore. I like performers and the performing arts a whole lot. But high-end theater isn't generally my favorite way to enjoy 'em. I like cheaper, grottier, more catch-as-catch-can productions -- revues, off-off-Broadway, small theater stuff, etc. The big shows on Broadway and in the respectable houses are occasionally good -- very occasionally, as far as I'm concerned. But they're often a drag. Overproduced, anxious to impress the rubes from the stix who buy many of the tickets, often sub-TV and sub-Hollywood.

I didn't love love love the process either, the process of going out to big theaters on a regular basis. (I wasn't going as often as theater reviewers do, but I was going much more often than most theatergoers do.) The crowds, the stuffiness, the tiny seats, the high hopes ... I found the ritual exhausting. I kept at it for a long time (with many breaks) because, well, when else was I going to get the chance to see all this stuff that, generally speaking, I can't afford?

Seeing it for free made a big diff in terms of attitude. If the show wasn't working, we'd leave at intermission, even if we had $100 seats. And seeing shows on a regular basis makes a diff too. You know you'll be seeing something again soon, so you're free to take the act of theatergoing for granted, which most of the people in the audience probably can't do. They're probably having themselves a special night out, and are dying for something special. Where you're pretty happy to encounter a show that's merely pretty good, they're probably a combo of all-revved-up (spent all that money! got a babysitter! hoping the wife loves it!) and disappointed? (Where' the sizzle?)

Although it was a treat, I was very happy when that stretch came to an end. I went back to paying for my own tix, which in practice means that The Wife and I now see a quarter as much theater -- but an entirely different set of productions too. We rarely go see the expensive big productions. Too few of 'em work out well. But we love spending 8 bucks for an evening of po-mo burlesque, or 20 bucks for an offbeat musical revue with friends in it. The small scale, the low-budgets, the scrappiness -- there's much more happiness in the air, I find, at shows like these. They're more casual, and often more sparky and likable. It also doesn't matter if they aren't great, because you haven't spent hundreds, they don't last for three hours, and because you aren't sitting in a crowd of 800. You've spent maybe 20 bucks, you're among 80 people, and maybe you know someone on stage. And you know that the people onstage all have day jobs, and that the whole production cost $500. So you cut the whole thing a lot of slack. And often the productions are just bursting with energy and talent (and goodwill). Genuine fun!

But I wonder how people who come to the big city rarely, or who don't see much theater would respond to these small, scrappy shows. They'd probably find the neighborhoods where they're put on scary. They might not understand what's so wonderful about them. They probably go to Broadway and are thrilled by the latest Andrew Lloyd Weber. It works for some, I guess.

It's a whole set of good point you've raised, that I'd love to see people wrangle with: how does going to the theater often change the experience of seeing a new play? How does not paying for the ticket affect it? And -- in the case of reviewers -- how does going there knowing that your'e going to have to judge the prodution and write about affect the experience? I suspect that good critics and reviewers are able to take all these factors into account. I hope so, anyway.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 29, 2005 12:04 AM

Here's an online slideshow about urban renewal in New Haven ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 29, 2005 12:08 AM

Tourists do seem to account for a big percentage of Broadway's business. More so for musicals, less so for straight plays. Foreign tourists especially gravitate toward musicals because they can be enjoyed by people with less-than-perfect knowledge of English.
I suppose from a purely financial standpoint there's nothing wrong with dependency on tourists, they're money is just as good as a residents. From a creativity standpoint, it might be a different matter.
Highway construction indeed cut a large piece out of New Haven, but that city's experience is nothing compared to what happened 30 miles to the north, in the city of New Britain. Construction of a limited-access highway in the early 1970's - state route 72, not even an Interstate - basically eviscerated New Britain, taking about a third of the downtown area and several whole neighborhoods. I vividly recall driving through the city with my mother when the highway project was in the land-clearance stage. There were blocks after blocks with streets running past lots full of demolition debris and the occasional building in the process of being torn down. On other blocks, the houses had been vacated but demolition hadn't begun, giving a truly creepy sense of abandonment. Even though I was a child, I somehow knew that all this wholesale demolition couldn't be good for the city.
Fortunately, New Britain, with a population about two-thirds of New Haven's weathered the highway "massacre" reasonably well, thanks to a fairly strong industrial base (it's the home of Stanley Works) and some decent residential neighborhoods.

Posted by: Peter on November 29, 2005 12:48 AM

Mr. Pittenger:

I beg your pardon! Buddy Holly music is for sub-hayseeds! Harrumph! This cannot be permitted to stand, and will not, as long as I have plenty of exclamation points in my arsenal! I demand a retraction! Or something!

Or let me put it another way, without exclamation points. If I had to choose between being a Buddy Holly-esque hayseed and many other, ostensibly sophisticated things, I'll stick with old Buddy. A truly sweet sweet-heart of a man.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 29, 2005 1:05 AM

Allow me to state that these are my opinions alone, so flame at me if this offends you, not the blowhards and crew. That said...

Back in the day I used to love theatre (though not musicals so much). I even subscribed to a book club that I think was called "fireside theater" where you could order playbooks of all the hot Broadway stuff. It was great for a while. The play "The Elephant Man" was simply stunning on the page; I still would love to see a production of it.

But something started to happen. Slowly, well over half the plays started centering on gay life and issues. This was before AIDs, btw. Now, on the face of it, there's nothing wrong with it, of course, but it did start to make things kind of monochromatic. Kind of like summer blockbuster season where things are all CGI effects, explosions, and catch phrases.

Then AIDs hit, suddenly there was a cause, and you couldn't swing the chord of a klieg light without hitting a gay play. "Angels in America", "Bent" and so on.

It was like summer blockbuster season had taken over the whole year. You had to hunt to find something that wasn't about being gay. Especially musicals. I resigned from the club.

So now, when a new musical is made into a movie, I kinda search out a plot summary to see if it continues in that vein.

I can't wait to see "Wicked." Didn't like "Chigaco", even though I liked the other Fosse stuff I've seen - it just seemed like too much of an excuse for grand musical numbers and nothing else (but I'll see anything with Rene Zellweger in it, yum). My taste in musicals is admittedly strict. I liked "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Hair", but beyond that they leave me lukewarm.

"Rent" looked interesting until the plot summaries pointed out that pretty much all the characters are cliched Broadway musical archetypes from the age where everything went gay. In this case, the reviews have definitely put it on my "never" list. (From the reviews, it seems there's only one significant character who isn't gay.)

So, if it's a bit daring and out of the norm for Broadway, like "Wicked", I'm intrigued. But, if it's theatah people playing theatah people, well, I just don't want to hold on for another bumpy night.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 29, 2005 9:38 AM

Friedrich -- Holly was one of my favorite rock 'n' rollers, and I still remember being shocked when the news of the plane crash came over the radio at the frat house.

The entire second half of the musical is a sorta recreation of that last concert by Buddy, Valens and the Big Bopper. No plot, no character development, jes' a rockin' good time. Actually the biographical first half didn't have much plot or character development either, but did have nothin' but Buddy's music.

Which is why I thought it beat out "Cats" which, come to think of it, also had no plot or character development.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 29, 2005 9:56 AM

I grew to like musicals less and less the older I got. I remember a revival of "My Fair Lady"---with Rex Harrison for goodness sake---in the early 80's, and just being astonished at how small and rickety it seemed after the big Hollywood movie, or even my imaginings from the soundtrack. I also saw "42nd Street" on Braodway, and same thing. Didn't really follow the plot, it was just OK. And it won a bunch of Tonys.

But as a kid, I saw "Pippen" (in New York) and "Annie"---national tour. I liked 'em, then.

Part of the problem with "42nd Street" was the acoustics in the theater---they are either way too loud, or unintelligible. I sat through a production of "MacBeth" at the Winter Garden in New York, with Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson, which I thought would be great, and the acoustics were so awful and Jackson and Plummer spoke so rapidly (true English Shakespeareans) I couldn't understand more than about every 4th sentence. Try following "MacBeth" that way! What's with that? Why wouldn't Braodway have the best acoustics in the world?

Posted by: annette on November 29, 2005 10:40 AM

Annette -
Many of the Broadway theaters are very old, built at a time when people didn't know as much about acoustics. Now, that begs the question of why there hasn't been a large-scale move into new theaters; my impression is that many theatergoers somehow *like* the creaky old auditoriums, as they (supposedly) add to the "experience."

Posted by: Peter on November 29, 2005 11:24 AM

Interesting questions: "How do you deal with musicals? Especially, how do you deal with musicals that are so new you haven't yet seen the reviews as was the case with me for “The Mambo Kings”? And just how do reviews affect your perception of a show?"


In the late 1950s, when I was in grade school, I was given a few "original cast albums" ("Peter Pan," "The Sound of Music" and . . . "The Music Man"[?] . . . or "Bye Bye Birdie"[?]), and I became a BIG fan of Broadway musicals and live theater.

At about the same time, for some strange reason, my father (who was a taxi cab driver) brought me home an issue of [weekly] "Variety," and reading "Variety" (e.g., the weekly grosses of Broadway musicals, etc.) became an important part of this teenage "hobby" of mine. Also, when new musicals opened up, I'd buy the seven or eight daily New York City newspapers that had theater critics (including, in those days, I believe the "Daily Racing Form"!) in order to read the opening night reviews.

Eventually, (in sixth grade?) I got to see my first Broadway show (the original production of "Bye, Bye Birdie," which was then playing at the Shubert Theater), and thereafter I got tickets as birthday or Christmas presents, etc. I’d also save up my lunch money and, using “twofers,” would buy half-price tickets for shows (on a number of occasions for the very last matinee before a show closed). Plus, my junior high school participated in some kind of special NYC Board of Ed program whereby you could see a Broadway show (selected plays or musicals) on the least popular “off-nights” (Monday or Tuesday evening?) for only $1.00 (which was then the price of an adult ticket to a neighborhood movie house). (It appears from the posts on NYC nostalgia boards that I read, that this may not have been a city-wide program, and I wonder if our school got into the program because one of our students had a father who was a Broadway conductor -- and probably notified the school about the program.) Along the way, I got to see the original productions of "My Fair Lady," "The Sound of Music," "Camelot," "Unsinkable Molly Brown," “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” "She Loves Me," "Hello Dolly," "Funny Girl," etc., (I kick myself for not getting to see the original productions of "Music Man" and "Gypsy" that were still playing at the time.)

Usually, but not always, the musicals that I saw were already very well known to me -- actually so much so that differences between record albums and the live performances (e.g., different tempos, etc.) were somewhat jarring to me.

As the 60s wore on, I fell "out of love" with musicals, and I saw them only very sporadically (in the late 1960s, I saw the original production of Sondheim's "Company" in previews) -- until the mid- to late-1970s. Then I had the very interesting experience of working as a tour group manager/tourguide, and I would get to see the top Broadway shows, sometimes early in their run, for free -- and usually from the most expensive seats in the house! Oftentimes, I'd also get to see the same hit show more than once over the course of its run. (I saw "Annie" about four or five times?; "Chorus Line" about four or five times; "Sweeney Todd" three times; etc.) For certain shows that I'd seen a number of times, I'd specifically choose for myself an aisle seat at the back of the orchestra (I usually had a block of about 50 or so tickets that I would be distributing to the group) so that I could unobtrusively scoot out and then scoot back in to see my favorite scenes.

Although a number of the shows I saw at this time were already well known to me, some were not -- especially since I no longer bought original cast albums. (Actually, I didn’t even have a “stereo”, TV or radio for much of that time.)


I once read a quote from, perhaps, Jules Styne (the composer of the music for “Gypsy”) or Cy Coleman (composer of the music for “Sweet Charity”) that the reason people say that musicals are no longer what they once were is because people no longer go INTO the theater humming the songs. I hope I haven’t mis-remembered this quote, but I think the point was that once Broadway musicals were no longer mainstream (e.g., “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Standing on the Corner, Watching All the Girls Go By,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” etc.) -- “pop” music having been displaced by rock -- and they no longer got radio air time, etc. it became harder to write a ”successful” Broadway score that was appropriately appreciated. (In part, because of a kind of a vicious cycle.) People were no longer getting enough of an opportunity to hear the songs beforehand in order to fully enjoy them when they experienced them in the context of the show.

I think there is a good deal of truth to this since, for instance, even in the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, very successful song writers (like Irving Berlin) employed song plugers (sp?) to make their songs successful. And even in the rock world, record companies would go so far as to bribe radio stations to give air time to their music in order to familiarize the public with it and “get it into their brain” (“payola”). Plus, when you read the review of many great Broadway shows, with undisputed great scores, you see that even at the time the sophisticated theater critics who were fans of these composers didn’t properly appreciate the music in these shows the first time around, when they were brand new and unfamiliar. (For example, when “Annie Get Your Gun” and the “King and I” first opened the songs got only a mild critical reception with some otherwise astute critics!)

But I also have to say that I think Broadway musicals have become less popular too because the music itself has changed as Broadway composers themselves have moved away from being “satisfied” by writing good solid pop songs and instead have opted to aim for more meaningful “art” music instead. (While I think this especially applies to Stephen Sondheim, I think it also applies to Broadway composers in general, to a lesser degree.)

The proliferation of CDs (cheap music) and the consequent availability of a lot of “lost” (at least to me) Broadway music confirms in my mind the validity of much of what either Styne or Coleman had to say, though. In the last three years I’ve bought a lot of “old” Broadway music (e.g., Cole Porter, etc.) that was unfamiliar to me and, almost invariably, I’ve never really been crazy about those songs that I would later become crazy about until after a number of listens. (Of course there are also scores that are just not to my taste, scores that I will never ever like, I suppose, no matter how many times I listen to them. It seems to me that Stephen Sondheim’s score to “A Funny Think Happened on the Way to the Forum” is one of them.)

Thinking back to my experience of seeing Cy Coleman’s “On the Twentieth Century” (three or so times!) during the late 1970s also seems to confirm the validity of the Styne/Coleman observation. Even after seeing the show three times, I was not keen on the score -- but now that I have the CD I love it! “Chicago” is another show I didn’t particularly care for when I first saw it (the original production with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach), but now like very much.

I don’t think reviews have been that much of a factor for me -- except in the rare case where a show may have been genuinely innovative. In that case, I think a reading a sympathetic review beforehand might have paved the way towards greater appreciation. For instance, I think had I read the “right” review of “Company” (and heard the cast album about 10 times beforehand), I would have enjoyed it more. Perhaps the same holds true for “Chicago.” But there are other shows where I don’t see sympathetic reviews making any difference. Despite all the plaudits, I don’t think I will ever truly like “Sweeney Todd” (the music is too esoteric and the dramaturgy [?] too pretentious).

Having the experience of seeing some Broadway shows three, four, five times, etc., it seems to me that other things are really more important in terms of how I perceive new, unfamiliar ones. I think it helps to be in a right mood in the first place, to be in the right mood for that kind of show (e.g., wacky, touching, thought provoking, etc.) to have the right audience around you, to have the right cast and to have the cast be “on” that night. I also find it difficult to appreciate some of the witty lines, funny song lyrics and great dance routines the first time around because things are just going by too fast for me.

Some examples:

When I saw, “They’re Playing Our Song” the first time I had trouble getting into it. I was with a group of senior citizens from Florida and I thought they’d hate the show (too “contemporary”) so I was worried throughout the show about their reaction. (Actually, they loved it.). PLUS the evening started out as a disaster as the bus never showed up at the hotel to pick the group up(!), and I had to frantically scurry around to arrange for cabs to get this group of 50 or so senior citizens to a restaurant and then to the theater! (A slightly different example: I also oftentimes like to sit through movies more than once, and on occasion I’ve been surprised at how much more I’ve liked a movie because of a different audience and different audience reaction.)

“Annie” usually was terrific, but one time the cast was just “off” that night and the show wasn’t as much fun for me or, so it seemed to me, to my group.

Sometimes a great show can be ruined because you were really expecting it to be something else. I think this was the case, to a degree, with “Chicago” and “Company” as I was really in the mood for an old-fashioned “book” musical (one that is focused on a story line) and was thus unprepared to enjoy what I was seeing.

Also great seats can make a big difference! In my opinion, one of the problems with “On the Twentieth Century” for instance, was that the theater was too big (and a good part of the audience was too far away and too high up) to appreciate some of its more subtle touches.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 29, 2005 2:40 PM

Ticket prices have a lot to do with it; it makes your tastes more conservative, less willing to take a chance on something new.

The Houston theatre scene has some nice surprises, and at the university theatres I can usually find some remarkable performances (and some awful ones too).

A friend of mine in Portland likes Les Miserables so much that he and his family check out a website to find out what schools/churches/ universities are putting on productions in their state, and then they regularly take weekend trips to whatever place happens to be doing it next.

Musical theatre, like classical music, is such a competitive field that even if the show is mediocre you can be sure that the professional singing talent will shine.

Anecdote: I once saw a "broadway style musical" in a medium-sized city in Ukraine. My Russian skills were subpar, but the actors had captured the Broadway musical spirit so perfectly that I had a grand old time (I was the only American in the crowd and had the chance to personally congratulate them later on). Sadly, although the troupe did a great job at this play and others, the performances were usually deserted. I had originally thought it had to do with the economic upheavals Ukrainians were facing at the time (1998), but the ticket prices were trivial; Ukrainians just felt more comfortable with MTV, American superhero movies and disco clubs. That is called progress.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on November 29, 2005 3:33 PM

Musicals. Meh. Never understood the appeal of the art form, at all.

(Being in a musical I can understand. But watching one? No, thank you.)

Posted by: David Fleck on November 29, 2005 8:55 PM

Yahmdallah: I noticed that PBS also went "all gay all the time" in the early nineties. Like you say, it got to be a bit monochrome.

It seems like an agency effect - that's when the people doing something do what they want instead of what their clients/customers/audience want. When producers don't follow the market, it's usually a government policy at fault. I wonder what policy is behind this shift? (If any.)

That said, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is very funny in its louche way, though the story drifts a little and there's perhaps a tad too much man-ass.

Posted by: Brian on November 29, 2005 10:34 PM

Annette wrote:

Why wouldn't Broadway have the best acoustics in the world?

My comment:

Actually, I think Broadway theaters do, generally speaking, probably have the best acoustics in the world. Here's the answer that I think a Broadway professional (which I am not) would give to you. (A answer that I am inclined to agree with, however.)

The Broadway theaters that are in existence today were generally built in the first quarter of the 20th Century when probably hundreds of new theaters were being built across the country -- and dozens upon dozens in the NYC area alone. For instance, when one looks at the chronlogical table of contents of a great Dover picture paperback by William Morrison, "Broadway Theaters," you see that at least four Broadway theaters were built in 1911; four in 1912, five in 1913, etc. During most years of the following years, at least one or two theaters a year opened on Broadway, and in 1927, during the boom boom years of the late 1920s, Broadway actually saw the opening of seven new theaters (at least) in one year.

So, in other words, theater architects and builders had a lot of theaters to practice on and those architects and builders would have wound up owning white elephants if the theaters had bad sight lines or bad acoustics.

Plus, although the science of acoustics was more primitive in those years, the common architectural and building practices of the time, happened to be favorable towards good acoustics. It was only with the advent of highly theoretical modern architecture that theatre acoustics began to go astray. (Ornamentation and traditional materials like wood and plaster tend to be good for acoustics; bare walls and modern materials tend to be bad. (For these reasons, and the plentiful opportunities for trial and error, the best concert halls tend to be those that were built before people knew much "scientifically" about acoustics.)

Beginning with the Great Depression, many Broadway theaters were demolished because there was a gross oversupply. While some theaters were probably demolished because they were in a bad locations, one would think that those that proved to be the least satisfactory in terms of sight lines and acoustics would also be the least likely to be rented out and the most likely ones to be demolished. ("Survival of the fittest.")

So why are acoustics so bad (and I am inclined to agree with you that there is a problem)?

These theaters were designed for unamplified speach and song (as most concert halls and opera houses are designed for unamplified music and singing). When they were first built, actors and singers were trained (or got the training through work experience) to project in an unamplified theater; playwrights and song writers wrote songs that were geared to being performed in unamplified theaters and theater audiences themselves were not yet used to hearing amplified speach or song. (Remember, talking movies didn't happen until about 1929[?] or so.)

But these days the necessary kind of training is no longer widespread among actors and singers; writers are no longer careful about writing plays and songs that can be clearly heard in unamplified theaters and even if actors were trained differently and writers wrote differently, audiences are not used to listening to unamplified speach or song. (They too are no longer properly trained.)

As a result, shows are generally "miked" these days, and this opens up another whole can of worms in terms of getting the sound right.

Why not build new theaters designed for amplified sound? First of all, legitimate theaters are a very inefficient ways to use real estate. They have to, more or less, have a small seating capacity of between 900 and 1,800 (you can't have people sitting too far away from the stage) yet they take up a lot of space and can only generate revenue -- when they've booked a hit show -- about eight times a week.

Plus, even if one had the land and wanted to spend the money, I tend to doubt that with the modern day science of accoustics once could design a small, 800-1,800 theater with appreciably better acoustics for amplified performances. The problem is most likely not with the shape of the auditorium or its ornamentation (both of which are probably as good as you're going to get) but with the amplification equipment itself. (One thing that building a modern theater from scratch probably would do, though, is hide the equipment better.)

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Annette wrote:

I grew to like musicals less and less the older I got.

My comment:

So did I.

I think for me, it was because I became more and more aliented from the material that was being written and the way it was being performed. Among other things, musicals seemed to me to become too mechanical and to lean too heavily on empty razamatzz and scenic effects.

Interestingly, I think different generations tends to think of Broadway musicals in very different terms. (In other words, the phrase "Broadway musical" means different things to different generations.)

It seems to me that to people younger than myself, Broadway musicals mean shows containing shallow songs being belted out at top voice, meaningless razamatazz choreography and humorless melodramatic lyrics and plots. This is what younger people have in mind, I think, when they think of Broadway musicals.

When I think of Broadway musicals, I think of preternaturally talented (and unforced) performers singing songs that are hip, clever limericks put to beautiful music (e.g., Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, Sondheim & Bernstein, etc.) I see the best shows as being unpretentiously wise yet solidly entertaining because they reflect their authors who seem to me to be uncommonly intelligent, good-natured and filled with tons of life experience and common sense.

When I think of Broadway musicals, I tend to think pre-1965. Quite naturally when others think of Broadway musicals they think post-1965 (or post 1975, or post 1985, etc.). Generally speaking, I don't like these later musicals either.

Bascially, to touch upon another theme I've seen mentioned on 2 Blowhards -- general interest "middle brow" entertainment like Readers Digest, Saturday Review, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Book of the Month Club, etc. -- I think during their heyday, Broadway musicals were similar to things like "Life" magazine, the major TV networks, etc. and that over time the marketplace just became more and more segmented into specialized niches -- so any given Broadway show/musical was less likely to find a broad-based audience.

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Annette wrote:

I remember a revival of "My Fair Lady" -- with Rex Harrison for goodness sake -- in the early 80's, and just being astonished at how small and rickety it seemed after the big Hollywood movie, or even my imaginings from the soundtrack.

My comment:

This seems to me to be one of those interesting "generational" things.

I think most people who are older, like myself, also prefer one version over the other -- but my generation is more likely to find the movie version of a musical to be overblown and ponderous!

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Annette wrote:

I also saw "42nd Street" on Braodway, and same thing. Didn't really follow the plot, it was just OK. And it won a bunch of Tonys.

My comment:

I also saw "42nd Street" during its original run and was also very disappointed. The first three scenes or so seemed to start out just great, but then the show suddenly seemed to lose it. I too was mystified why it was so popular.

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Annette wrote:

But as a kid, I saw "Pippen" (in New York) and "Annie" -- national tour. I liked 'em, then.

My comment:

I loved "Annie" also (see above), but I didn't get "Pippen" at all. It is probably the very least favorite show I've ever seen. I also have the cassette, and I've more or less given up trying to like it.

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Annette wrote:

Part of the problem with "42nd Street" was the acoustics in the theater -- they are either way too loud, or unintelligible.

My comment:

To give the creators of "42nd Street" some credit, perhaps part of the reason I didn't care for the show too much was because every so often the heating pipes in the theater would give off a tremendous (and frightening) series of "knocks"! Of course, this really destroyed the show for me (and I suspect for much of the audience) -- and for the actors too.

One criticism of the Broadway theaters that I do think is (or at least was) accurate at one time, is that some of these old plants (theaters) have not been maintained as well as they should have been. BUT this is largely because of money, and if one had the money to build a brand new theater, one would have had the money to fix the knocking pipes.

I also have to mention that this happened in the mid-1980s, when Broadway seemed more down at the heels than it has in recent years. It seems to me that a lot of the Broadway theaters were neglected in the 1960s, and 1970s, but that more money has been poured into their upkeep and refurbishment in recent times.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 29, 2005 10:35 PM

Wow. Lotsa nice, meaty comments everybody. So far not much on how reviews affect perceptions, but that means I can reload and fire that off again some other time.

Peter -- Interesting stuff about New Haven. I breezed through when a high school kid in '56 but didn't get back and seriously visit the town until the mid-60s when urban renewal was working its "magic." Actually, I never actually noticed the Shubert, being distracted by the Green and Yale.

I haven't been to an on-Broadway (theater district) show in more than 30 years, but thanks to having to please female traveling companions, I have been to a number of London theatres in recent years. And most of them seemed pretty old, having cramped seating and iffy sight-lines. One exception was the theatre where "Cats" played -- it was a theatre-in-the-almost-round, retooled for that production.

Michael -- Thanks for reminding us that that there's a lot more to NYC theater life than Broadway. I've lost track of how many years I've been reading about the death of Broadway, yet Off-Broadway has been around since the late 50s and probably much, much longer while Off-Off-Broadway came on the scene (according to the media) in the 60s, if I remember right. An example is the original Provincetown group in the 20s. But the death of Broadway theme has merit. I recall from high school days checking out from the library picture books on Broadway shows (mostly dramas & comedies as best I recall) and was struck by the number of important original productions launched each season. Not happening these days.

Question: Have you seen many / any Off or Off-Off productions that are likely to have "lasting" merit, to be capable of being revived or roaded? Or does the really good stuff have to eventually hit the Great White Way to become historically important?

Annette -- Now that you mention it, I did see "Annie" when it passed through Seattle. It was nice. (Evil thought: Why didn't they try to duplicate the totally-white eyeballs that were in the comic strip drawings?)

Benjamin -- Really, really nice memoir. I had you pegged as an urbanist / architecture guy and it turns out do /did tour directing: what a blast!

That observation from Jule Styne (or whoever) was especially interesting. Speaking of Styne, check out Mark Steyn's book "Broadway Babies Say Goodnight" -- especially Chapter viii, "The Take-home Tune" where Steyn reports an inteview with Styne on "standards" that originated in shows. Heck, just read the whole book if you haven't done so already.

I have little doubt that "take-home" hits did a lot to fill theaters back in the pre-rock glory days; they pre-sold the musicals to many folks in Oregon and Iowa planning a NYC vacation.

Robert -- The price factor is important because it reflects the hellishly high cost of mounting and operating a show. High costs tend to breed caution, tempered only by the fear of competition. Many people blame this for the "death" of innovation on B'way. So maybe there's caution on both sides of the footlights.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 29, 2005 10:54 PM

Could it be that the sentimentality of most musicals is more offputting as one gets older?

Posted by: ricpic on November 30, 2005 11:15 AM

I don't think it's sentimentality, I think it's the artificiality.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 30, 2005 2:17 PM

I live very near New Haven, and can tell you that it's become noticeably better in the last ten years. When I look at the huge gouges that urban renewal cut through it, though, I have to wonder what it would have been if left alone.

"We Bombed In New Haven" is indeed real, and was written by Joseph Heller. I don't think it's a musical, though - I have it in my mind as a Vietnam-era protest play, of a piece with "Catch-22".

As for musicals in general, I like selected examples, but my wife has an aversion to just about all of them. Too artificial, I think - there are many people who didn't grow up with entertainments where songs suddenly showed up in the middle of the acting, and to them the whole idea seems a bit odd.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on November 30, 2005 3:20 PM

In a way, it seems to me that "artificiality" is a red herring (even though, musicals are, indeed, obviously, artifical -- as are plays in general, really, when you think about it).

Is the world of rock music (as a whole) really any less artificial or mannered? I'm thinking primarily of the performing styles of a number of rock acts (Presley, Jagger, Kiss, etc.) and the entertainment form of the arena rock concert as it has evolved over the years. How different, really, are MTV videos from musicals (or from movie musicals) in terms of reality / artificiality?

At first glance, "sentimentality" seems to come closer to it, but then again there is nothing inherently sentimental about the musical play (or its cousin, opera), and there have been quite a number of musicals over the years that don't seem to be what most people have in mind when they use the word "sentimental." Just to list some of the more successful ones: Pal Joey, Gypsy, West Side Story, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Chicago, Producers, etc.

I think the gap -- or alienation -- that many feel towards Broadway musicals is primarily economic, geographic and generational (sensibility).

1) Economic: other less "craft" oriented forms of entertainment are far more financially lucrative and thus become magnets for each new generation's best and brightest talents (e.g., songwriters, performers, etc.). Also, for the audience, the other more "economic" forms of entertainment give off just as much -- or more -- bang for a given buck.

2) Geographic: theater (plays or musicals) is basically a "city" form of entertainment (while TV, records/cassettes/CDs/downloads, arena rock, videos, etc. can thrive just as well -- and perhaps even more so -- in suburban / exurban areas).

3) Generational: Each generation (at least in recent history) seems to want to make its own mark and have its very own sub-culture. The world of theater (plays/musicals/classical music/opera/ballet) is your father's (or grandfather's) subculture and has a different sensibility from the sub-culture of subsequent generations. So, in this context perhaps, "sensiblity" (what people define as "good" and/or interesting) comes closer to the mark than "sentimentality."

- - - - - -

Along similar lines, I'm also interested in why certain sports have grown in popularity while others have declined: football surpasing baseball; the rise of stock car racing and the decline of open wheel [?] racing (and horse racing); the decline of boxing; etc.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 30, 2005 6:40 PM

Well, no, for me it's the artificiality.

Music has been part of the human experience since we've been human. The performance of it has always included dancing around, gesturing, etc.

But, I've yet to see a group of strangers spontaneously burst into song and dance togther, everyone knowing the words and the choreography. The closest I've seen to that is everyone singing along drunkenly to a song on the jukebox.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 1, 2005 10:00 AM

"Could it be that the sentimentality of most musicals is more offputting as one gets older?" . . . "I don't think it's sentimentality, I think it's the artificiality."

Of course everyone is entitled to their own personal likes and dislikes. My comment, however, was directed more towards why people in general might be turned off to musicals, and I don't think that artificiality is so much the reason as those factors that I've listed above.

It seems to me that each each "generation" . . . "subculture" . . . "tribe" has its own criteria and definition of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptible "artifice" (or, similarly, what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable performance conventions, mannerisms, etc.).

When I was a kid (and I assume kids do this today, too), we used to ridicule all those silly "artificial" conventions of opera -- old, fat people playing athletic young lovers; people who are dying from tuberculosis singing at top voice; singers displaying their virtuosity by hitting all those weird unecessaray extra notes of nonsense syllables; etc.). But, of course, the rock world has its own weird conventions too including, these days, singers displaying their virtuosity by hitting all those weird unnecessary extra notes of nonsense syllables. And which "silliness" one is willing to accept depends, so it seems to me, more on which kind of music is the music that you like, and which subculture you identify with, rather than on which musical world, "objectively speaking," has the silliest conventions.

I see it as an interesting sociological ("ethnomethodological"?) question.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 1, 2005 4:04 PM

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