Broadway: Less Spectacle is Actually More

by Jordan Coughenour
Special to iVoryTowerz

Broadway's reputation has always been synonymous with the glitziest, gaudiest and most over the top production values known to the stages of this country. Especially in this age of the Blockbuster Musical (of which I have previously written), in which an Addams Family and Spiderman musicals are planning to invade by spring of 2010, audiences on the Great White Way expect their ears, mind and eyes to be blown away by the spectacle. So, it is particularly notable when, in this era, shows that work magic with the most basic accessories in sound and set are successful enough to draw the attention of both theatre buff locals and curious tourists.

Last season's Passing Strange, written by and starring Los Angeles rocker Stew*, was one of the most perfectly formed examples of minimalism in modern musicals. With only a few black chairs, and an exuberant light wall, the show managed to bring both vitality and urgency foreign to contemporary musicals. Even though it was far surpassed in statues by In the Heights at the 2008 Tony Awards, Passing Strange stripped away the glitter of Broadway and instead simply told a compelling story with a cast as energetic as any seen since the first months of RENT. Although Passing Strange closed prematurely, Spike Lee took interest in the play’s depiction of the black artistic experience, and filmed the show over the course of two evenings. The film will air in 2010 on the public television network’s Great Performances.

It seems to be a surfacing trend that one or two musicals each season will have the guts (and possibly lack of funding) to mount a spectacle-less production. The short-lived, Off-Broadway originated [title of show] played for just around three months last summer, to little success except among a die-hard community of theatre aficionados. The real subdued star of the 08-09 year is the first major revival of the 1970’s free-love musical, Hair. The show, which until the second act remains essentially without a plot, could easily be transferred to the New York streets where the action onstage is meant to take place. Without set changes, and costumes that could easily have been purchased at the nearest vintage store, Hair functions similarly to Passing Strange, and even [title of show] by relying on the energy and passion that the cast passes to the audience, in the place of visual décor. The most affecting moment of Hair was one that could hardly be controlled, though was not at all unexpected by the cast. During the curtain call reprise of the well-known, and somewhat generation-defining number “Let the Sunshine In,” the co-stars of the show invited audience members to come onstage. While this action usually results in flamboyant high school drama queens and hesitant children strutting their wares, during this particular opportunity, the stage was instead rushed by white haired baby boomers, who hip swiveled along with the cast, and belted out the entirety of the lyrics as if it were still hip to wear bell bottoms and flowers in your hair. The shameless enthusiasm and youthful vitality of what moments ago, were merely onlookers, echoed the infectious power of theatre without the constraints of elaborate overproduction.

*Stew is the abbreviated name of singer-songwriter Mark Stewart.

(The promotional poster is for Passing Strange. To see a video preview of Passing Strange, please check the clip below.)

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BobsViews said...

Hair is the only show that I’ve ever seen that felt like an experience. The cast aka The Tribe is excellent, the production is fantastic and the songs sound better then ever. The shows themes (Sex, War, Drugs, Race) are as relevant today as they were forty years ago. The best part is the bond that the Tribe forms with the audience. It resonates with everyone long after they’ve left the theater. I urge all theatergoers to order tickets, participate in the show and dance in the finale. You will never forget the Hair experience.

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