My mind is capable of doing a couple of things at once. Therefore, while watching Shirley MacLaine Live! at the Jackie Gleason Theater, my thoughts drifted to the current sorry state of the modern musical and the dramatic arts in general -- but that is not a negative comment on the veteran actress-singer-dancer's considerable talents. What follows, however, is a commentary more focused on the bigger picture than on the formidable Ms. MacLaine herself.
It is somehow fitting that Shirley, the first celebrity metaphysician, would inspire lofty thoughts and searing questions in the mind of this audience member. Her show was simple enough to understand. At this point in her career, she can sing a little, dance even less, but can still deliver lines and interpret lyrics with the skill of a consummate actress and a divinely gifted entertainer. Even her silly self-deprecating jokes about the Gleason theater being the best one she'd seen "in a few thousand years" landed with perfect timing. She's wider in girth, more diminished in energy, but she's also something else that is fast disappearing from the stage: a true star.
Finally, while watching Shirley, I knew what was missing from recent productions of The Who's Tommy, Crazy for You, and scores of other carefully crafted new musical productions. Years ago, there seemed to be a tacit agreement among those who produced theater and those who attended it. Producers would, by and large, only support shows penned by truly gifted writers and composers; audiences would only attend in great numbers such shows enhanced by memorable performers. And great performing for the musical stage did not consist of perfect singing and dancing. In fact, many stars could barely bark out a tune and kick up a few steps. But they were genuine actors, exciting in their roles, even making outrageous characters like Auntie Mame come vividly alive. Carol Channing was no operatic diva in Hello, Dolly!, but she was a brilliant comedic actress filled with charisma.
This combination of inspired writing and rare performing talent is what kept audiences laughing, singing along, and buying tickets. People may blame the dwindling numbers of people attending theater on the video age, on rising crime, and on high prices, but I don't agree. Certainly those factors figure in to some extent, but they don't explain why theater is definitely heading the way of the dinosaur, becoming an art that might in a few hundred years be as alien to a future population as the travelling balladeer is to us today.
No one wants to blame the product. As marvelous as The Phantom of the Opera is, without the star quality of Michael Crawford it descended from miracle to simply entertainment. In the recent production of Crazy for You, stars James Brennan and Karen Ziemba could surely sing well, but memorable is not a title I would award to either one. And The Who's Tommy? Even those people who loved the special effects, the musical arrangements, and the fabulous spectacle better than I did would no doubt agree when I state that the lead actor will never garner enough interest to warrant a one-man show called Steve Isaacs Live!
The Broadway casts are no better than the road show personnel, either. Most "stars" today are excellent vocalists and hoofers with no true feeling for the art of acting. They possess oodles of technical skill, but no heart.
Some smart producers see this problem and are trying frantically to reinsert that magical "it" of star quality into their musicals. Glenn Close was selected by Andrew Lloyd Webber for his new mega-show, Sunset Boulevard, and the Cassidy brothers -- Shaun and David -- do a fine job in Broadway's Blood Brothers. But Close is a film star and the Cassidys are onetime pop idols, and to a great degree their names (certainly in the former case) are being used to sell tickets rather than to polish the show. Tyne Daly did a superb job in Gypsy, but most people went to see her more because of her work in Cagney & Lacey, the television series, than her stage experience.
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Unfortunately, television has a baleful influence, as well. Which brings us to the writers. In the musical forum, some productions have abandoned altogether the notion of a script: Starlight Express, Will Rogers Follies, and The Who's Tommy, among scores of others. And as I have said before, too many new playwrights seem unduly influenced by television and movies. Jon Robin Baitz, author of such dramas as The Substance of Fire, is certainly one of these; there are numerous other less famous examples, but there's no point in boring you with the lengthy list. The art of skillfully crafted dialogue also appears to be disappearing from the stage, and with it, the strategic difference between writing for the theater and writing for the screen. And if the two are the same, why not rent a movie, which is certainly cheaper and a whole lot safer to view in the confines of your own warm, secure home? Perhaps the dearth of great playwrights is due to a simple economic fact. When I taught at New World School of the Arts, most of my young writing students knew already that a writer for the stage usually makes about as much money as a poet, or a supermarket bag-boy.
With such a shortage of great writing, a performer of star magnitude becomes even more valuable. At times the Shirley MacLaine musical revue grew boring, at other times her voice painfully reached for notes that eluded her, and her breathlessness after some simple dance steps was evident. But oddly enough, in spite of all this, I found myself tapping my feet, humming along, and smiling a lot more than I did during Tommy, with all its grand choral and special effects. Instead of watching a carefully packaged, seamlessly planned extravaganza, with Shirley I was treated to that rare gift of true talent. It's terrifying to think that my students at New World and even worse, their children, might not even recognize art when they see it, being brought up with so much artifice.
To bring people back into the theater, producers should realize that the public is not as stupid or gullible as they seem to think. They should try to find and encourage quality scripts and stunning performers who, above all, know how to make that script shine with great acting and appeal, rather than just singing, dancing, and smiling their way through two carefully packaged hours that are scarcely more inspired than the new Pepsi ad campaign.