Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Crisis in the West End? Where New York's Michael Billington?

I'm finally catching up with some posts I've been meaning to put out there. Mind you, I should be working on the book, the whole book, and nothing but the book tonight, but even nose-to-the-grindstoners like me have to take a break now and then, and I really feel like my desk is just about overflowing with things I want to take care of, so...ugh, does that sound defensive? Yeah, guess it does.

Anyway, at the beginning of this month this article by Michael Billington in the Guardian really caught my eye. It's long but worth a read because, among other things, it's beautifully written and, in certain respects, terribly insightful, and it also, perhaps most important, permits those of us who are stateside an opportunity for a little bit of reflection on the state of our own West End and beyond.

You can get the upshot by skipping the needlessly alarmist headline ("Crisis in the West End") and focus instead on the uncommonly long dek ("Theatreland is in dire straits. Second-rate musicals rule, new drama is dying, and the venues are falling apart. The time has come for a revolution...").

I'm not going to (re)print the entire piece here, but there are a number of sentences and graphs that really stand out for me. For example, Billington writes, "Never in my lifetime has London's West End theatre looked so narrow in its range of choices or so out of touch with contemporary reality." When I first read this sentence, I thought, Gee, he could just as soon be referring to the commercial theatre in New York. Indeed, Billington's follow up sentence reads, "And it is high time the crisis was confronted and a debate launched abouot what we expect of commercial theatre." Among other things, it struck me as extraordinary that a critic, in this day and age, would presume that there are any expectations to be had of the commercial theatre, let alone the idea that we might choose to publicly assail them or debate them. It seems to me that here in New York we have become so utterly inured to the inevitability of commercial theatre's divorcement from assured quality (and often reality, though not if you're a Grease fan reality TV) that the whole notion of debating its usefulness is almost quaint.

From there, Billington lays out his argument, suggesting that while West End statistics are all happiness and light -- record attendance of 12 million, or roughly the same as Broadway; about $400 million in grossess and $800 million in economic benefits (adjusting pounds to dollars) -- it is without "any dynamic creative initiative."

If Billington's definition of "dynamic creative initiative" is one to be admired and one by which to measure our own (I'd say yes to both), it is also one quite capable of injecting a note of profound gloom into how we evaluate our own commercial scene. "At this moment," he writes, "there are 26 musicals in the West End but only seven straight plays and three comedies." In New York, the last time the genre of the straight play was viewed as something of an autonomous entity from the genre of the comedy I do believe Lunt and Fontanne, or maybe David Belasco, were still in their infancies.

It is curious to me that when Billington drills down further, when he examines "the provenance of the shows currently playing," he turns the default position of us Yankees -- that we're forever being overrun with British imports -- into a case study in agonizing irony: "...12 derive either from films or TV programmes or are compilation shows drawn from back catalogues. That leaves 14 shows that might loosely be described as 'original,' even if many of them are adapted from novels."

To get to my point, many of the musicals he cites originated outside of the West End -- Wicked and Avenue Q from the US; The Drowsy Chaperone from the US by way of Canada; The Lord of the Rings direct from its lame tryout last year in Toronto. In other words, we're fond of the argument that Broadway is full of British transfers, but Billington is saying that the West End is full of American transfers.

Later, a couple of paragraphs down, he warns that "if the West End musical relies parasitically on American imports, the straight play as a commercial proposition seems to be in an even more parlous state." Oh, irony, irony! I thought that Broadway as a whole was relying parasitically on the West End. Or is it? Or was it? Or will it be again?

Billington then writes about some things that I think we might well find wildly redolent to our own parlous (love the word) theatrical situation(s). After discussing the straight plays currently running and ruefully comparing the West End's fallow fare to the embarrassment of riches he encountered upon first becoming a critic in 1971, he writes, "The audience for plays basically goes to subsidized theatres. They will only pay West End prices if offered a bona fide star." I'd argue that not only is this true, but perhaps that it is just as well, frankly. Indeed, perhaps what our equivalent -- the nonprofit business model -- is ultimately the best at is the preservation, development and perpetuation of drama, including new drama; and engaging in this preserving, developing and perpetuating without, at least initially, the pressures of commoditization. I know, I know: nonprofits that enter into development deals and enhancement funds with for-profit commercial producers can be accused to putting the profitization cart before the aesthetic horse, but that's a subject for another day -- most nonprofits fostering new plays aren't operating with enhancement money for every project. In sum, I don't know that Billington's lament that plays are no longer viable or far less viable in the commercial sphere is necessarily a bad thing in the end. I almost think it could be seen as a necessary check on the crassness of commercialization.

Billington, I should add, discusses the physical plant of the West End skillfully and with smart detail; I don't know that Broadway theatres have quite the same issue, what with extra ticket charges supposedly going to renovation and preservation of the buildings themselves. I had to laugh, though, when I read that "60% of West End theatres had seats from which the stage was not fully visible, and that 48% had inadequate foyers and bars." What exactly, I wonder, constitutes "fully visible." And heaven knows an unstocked Broadway bar is reason to riot.

Much of this carping and winge-ing is not without suggestions for change. Billington refers to the "urgent need" for "dynamic young producers to succeed the senior generation" currently ruling the commercial roost; he fears "the relative scarcity of applicants who think in broad commercial terms: reared in the ethos of Fringe theatre, they largely come armed with small-scale projects." Here, again, I'm not so sure something has been lost...I think that to the extent that the fringe (and Fringe) mentality in New York has been fiscally unable to think in broad commercial terms for at least a generation, it seems to me that the work has, of necessity, been able to blossom beautifully in its diversity, intelligence, daring, wizardry, dynamism, hope and swagger. I think if you properly subsidized artists, if you considered producers of conscience and taste to be among them (and they're out there), you'd find no lack whatsoever of people thinking in terms of large-scale projects. The problem is one of accessibility, of practicality, not of vision. And I don't think, unlike Billington, that the commercial theatre is -- or should be -- the only or the primary forum from which large-scale projects might be tackled.

Finally, two things. First, I absolutely loved the fervor and ferment in Billington's final graph. Check this out:

"I'd like to see Sunday openings, lottery money for the rotting fabric, more imaginative use of the buildings themselves: in particular, pre-show talks, jazz and poetry recitals, stand-up comics in the dead hours before the 7:30pm opening. If the commercial theatre can't bear the subsidized sector, it should, in effect, join it: not only by adopting its practices but by employing its personnel. ...[W]hat it needs are director-managers, or even dramatist-impresarios, of proven vision."
There, for once, is something concrete to chew on, if you'll allow me to mix metaphors.

Meanwhile, the second thing actually takes me back to my discovery of the article itself, when Billington raged red-faced and waxed rhetorical about the disconnection between theatre of substance and meaning and what theatregoers are currently being presented with in the West End commercial marketplace. Being a story on the Web, the Guardian naturally runs ads smack in the middle of the story; in this case it was an advertisement that I think really sums up the whole problem. Here, direct from YouTube, is the ad:

Does that just say it all?

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