Conversations with Manny: 1/9/10

16 01 2010

As I wrote in an earlier entry, Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg was my professor for a course on “Contemporary Theater in Production” at Duke in spring 2007.  I met Manny briefly in fall 2006 during the Duke in NY Arts program (he was a guest speaker for class, and I re-introduced myself at the NYMF Gala).  I suppose Manny remembered me, because on the first day of class, he randomly picked me as his assistant; I would keep the gradebook and organize his Thursday night dinners and Friday morning breakfasts with a few students, before he flew back to NYC each week.  These meals with Manny were as much a part of the class experience as the seminar itself, and – because I made the reservations and made sure every student had the chance to go out with Manny at least once – I attended almost all of these extra outings.  I grew pretty close to Manny over the semester, and – for some reason – he latched onto me, too.  Manny likes to have a sense of continuity with his students; he always ends up keeping in touch with and mentoring a student or two each year, and by some inexplicable twist of fate, I am one of those few.  Dan Karslake (producer and filmmaker), Aaron Lazar (actor), and Preston Whiteway (executive director of the O’Neill) are all grads of Manny’s “life education” course; I suppose my friends Chelsea, Heather, Stephanie, and I are among the latest batch of Manny’s kids.  Manny has almost a frightening amount of faith in us, probably more faith than we have in ourselves.  Beyond any sort of professional promise, all of Manny’s kids whom I have met are just good-hearted people who try to strike that all-important Stoppardian balance in their lives: “Happiness is equilibrium.  Shift your weight.”

Manny’s wonderful wife Lani had arranged the Ragtime tickets for my visit, and fortunately, Manny was in the city and available for breakfast before the Saturday matinee.  We met up at a diner in midtown Manhattan to catch up.  Things are exciting on my end in LA; I am enjoying PhD classes, TA’ing for the first time, and finishing a children’s musical that should premiere in Santa Monica this year.  I have an apartment by the beach, great roommates and friends, a church family … and I have decided to stay in LA this summer because I actually feel at home.

On Manny’s end, however, fall 2009 – winter 2010 has been one of the biggest financial failures of his career, with the early demise of the Neil Simon Plays (Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound) and Ragtime. For Manny, the artistic success and financial failure of these shows points to a fundamental shift in Broadway over the years, corresponding to rising ticket prices.  Broadway theater has become an “event” rather than a pastime, a one-time-only spectacle for tourists rather than a regular outing for native New Yorkers.  When a good show premiered on Broadway, word of mouth used to ensure an audience of locals within a few weeks’ time; now, advance marketing must reach out to a broader array of incoming tourists.  Generally speaking, tourists will only invest $100+ on a ticket to a long-running, “guaranteed” hit (Phantom of the OperaWicked) or a show with some degree of familiarity, whether it be a jukebox musical with some of their favorite songs (Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia!), a musical based on a favorite movie (The Lion King, Shrek), or a show starring a film/TV celebrity (A Little Night Music, A Steady Rain).  Oftentimes, these categories overlap; Phantom and Mamma Mia! have become incredibly popular movie musicals, for instance, and Chicago draws in crowds as much for its 2002 hit film as its celebrity stars (Ashlee Simpson-Wentz most recently).

Economically and artistically, Broadway is cracking; some would say it is already broken.  As an aspiring musical theater composer myself, the dream has always been “The Great White Way.”  But the more I see and experience, the more I remember that Broadway is not a quality of theater.  Broadway is a piece of real estate where theater happens, and its mythic status as the pinnacle of theatrical success is shifting.  Sadly, Broadway no longer sustains careers.  Instead of producing a stunning new musical once every two years like Rodgers and Hammerstein, creators are lucky if they have a new musical on Broadway once every decade or so – because they often have to maintain a different full-time career to fund their theatrical endeavors.  Some creators are subsumed into brands (Disney and Dreamworks).  Other creators start regionally or in festivals (like NYMF, NAMT, and the Festival of New American Musicals), hoping that something will click, word will spread, and their show will one day transfer to Broadway.  Yet oftentimes, creators just want that satisfaction of having produced a show that audiences enjoy, whether it ever “advances” to the Great White Way or not.

As a result, regional theaters and festivals are where the excitement in new musical theater is really happening.  In these smaller venues, new musicals may not always receive the full productions that they deserve.  However, this decentralization of theater is also strangely promising – especially for a composer living in LA until at least 2012!  My next two posts will look at Next to Normal, a NYMF success story that slipped through the cracks and made it to Broadway, and Adam Gwon’s new musical Ordinary Days at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.

As Michael John LaChiusa suggested during a recent master class at UCLA, musical theater is not dead.  It just needs to find a new home – or a new multiplicity of homes.

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