Monday, January 21, 2008

Every Little Thing

I was interviewing a theater fan today--an elderly, affluent woman--and she said something interesting to me. She said that she generally doesn't go to Broadway shows and attends very few off-Broadway shows, tending to focus more on off-off-Broadway because "more good shows happen there."

Is that true? More theater certainly happens off-off-Broadway than on Broadway and so, yes, I suppose it probably is true that more good theater quantity-wise happens there. But if we were to base it on percentage—would it be true? I think not.

Though, of course, this gets into who is judging what a good show is. Certainly, this is in the eye of the beholder. Some people think Cyrano was brilliant—I was bored by the pretty, lifeless production. So I wouldn’t put it in my “good” slot, but others (Ben Brantley) might. This woman may have thought THOM PAIN (Based on Nothing) was the best play ever, then there is me.

That being said, if we took a critical tally of all reviews and gave each production a final letter grade based on the tally, we’d find out that percentage-wise, off-off-Broadway does not beat Broadway in terms of quality. Of course this undertaking would require more effort than anyone would want to commit unless they were getting paid for it.

There are many variables that might lead me to be wrong—for instance, critics and audience members tend to be kinder to things which have a lower budget and require people to pay less. Yet, still I have the feeling that percentage-wise better theater does not happen in miniscule places.

I anticipate that one response to this is to say that Broadway is burdened by commercialism and thus must necessarily be worse than off-off-Broadway, as plays that premiere in a 10-seat theater below a church likely remains truer to its creator’s original vision throughout development. Here is the reason I think that is crap: a creator’s original vision is often sucky. So, yeah, I believe in not compromising due to ticket sales. I couldn’t believe when Dracula made the decision to cut out nudity in order to attract school groups. But just because you’re not burdened by such pedestrian concerns doesn’t necessarily mean your final product will be good.

Now, off-Broadway (with only one “off”) is an interesting issue. In the commercialism light, it is important to note that off-Broadway is not a middle ground—sure it has less commercialism concerns than Broadway, but a hell of a lot more than off-off because of the substantially increased production costs. Additionally, production values generally take a huge step up when dropping one “off.” Therefore while off-Broadway is wedged between these two other large groups, it cannot really be seen as a perfect compromise between them. In terms of quality of shows, I’m really not sure what we’d fine percentage-wise. Again, its lower budget and ticket cost means people tend to be kinder, but ticket costs for major off-Broadway are dangerously close to reaching Broadway range, so how much that has an influence in this case is iffy. There is indeed more off-Broadway than Broadway and so quantity-wise maybe more good shows. But I’m genuinely not sure what we’d find percentage-wise between Broadway and off-Broadway. That being said, between off-Broadway and off-off, I think the former fares better. After all, there is such a gluttony of off-off that it brings the quality percentage number down. Sure, you might be able to get 10 people to watch your Hamlet told backwards in an insane asylum with singing sock puppets, but you’re likely bringing down the off-off-Broadway quality percentage figure.

And now I’m off. I have about 12 emails asking me when I think Color Purple will close to make room for Shrek. How dare these people talk about closing so soon after Chaka Khan makes her Broadway debut? It’s shameful really.


RLewis said...

Cara, Cara, Cara, such a Broadway Babe. And I say that in the most loving, positive way. But is it even possible to define "better", "quality", etc. when comparing you're apples and oranges and pears? I may prefer experimental theater (even when it's bad, it's good - you might not get that), but I don't look down my nose at Broadway glitz - I love good glitz.

OOB, OB, B - we're all in this together - each have their trash and treasure, so why the competitiveness? The Farmer and the Cowman should be Friends! I assure you, no one is doing Hamlet backward (but if they do, I want to be there). Why denigrate one community over the others with harsher descriptions?

I have my reasons, but some who don't want to strain their eyes to see a show, don’t want headsets to hear, and it costs a fraction of the major ticket prices, well, those fans might consider that deal to be "more good".

ps. did I miss your Lil' Mermaid appraisal post?

One NYC StageHand said...

Cara, you see many more productions than I. Like many of us in the business, I tend to see one production very up close and the rest are all in the background, some further away than others. Not better or worse, just further away. My question is this. I've spent a fair amount of time Off-Bway, know most of the houses pretty well. What is there in the production values of recent Off-Bway productions that would cause costs to go up so much more than Off-Off-Bway. Few moving pieces, no fly space, no flying cars and typically shows load in through the front aisle. There is no exponential difference in loading in a show at the Cherry Lane than there is at the Minetta Lane. I've done both. I know it's not the labor as that's just barely kept pace with inflation. Rental? Advertising? Rate of return on investment? What am I missing?