The Memory of Media: Pop Culture and The Season’s Best New Theatre (Part 1)

Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns at Playwrights Horizons

Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns at Playwrights Horizons

When I think of pop culture’s relationship with the American stage, I naturally think first of the many shows based upon movies or discographies that crowd commercial Broadway. New musical theatre, once a source of popular music for the entire country, has not been a relevant presence on the radio since the 1960s. In some respects, this can be attributed to the growing specificity and complexity of the very best new musicals. But the equation has been entirely reversed with the rise of the “Jukebox” show, a genre that has become so exhaustively prolific that producers are now forced to reach past the Shirelles for unused song catalogues. With few notable exceptions, these are numbingly familiar, barely-narrative tribute shows aimed squarely at the boomers who can actually afford to buy a Broadway ticket. Even more discouraging, most recent stage adaptations of major films are almost depressingly literal. They are the “movie in permanent long shot,” as Billy Wilder observed when his Sunset Boulevard was given a clunky treatment by Andrew Lloyd Webber two decades ago.

These shows make it to the Broadway stage, of course, because they are based upon known commodities. But producers who think that a recognizable title alone is certain to increase a lousy show’s chances of success are foolish, or cynical, or just haven’t been paying very much attention. The “commodity” show operates under the assumption that when another media’s hit property is translated to the stage, it becomes theatrical (and thus worthy of astronomical ticket prices) simply by virtue of being presented “in person.” In the worst cases, theatricality becomes totally submissive to the expectations associated with any property that it imports.

But the stage, as a uniquely humanistic medium, has a potential artistic advantage in any transaction with popular media. The intimacy of live performance, and the abstraction of reality that a theatre audience is willing to accept, is an ideal way to reflect on the profound but amorphous effect that the consumption of mass culture has had on us as people. With wit, intuition, and prescience, some exciting off-Broadway theatre is beginning to explore the ways in which popular culture and naked humanity interact. Continue reading

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Proscenium as Panel, Condescension as Kryptonite: A History of Onstage Superheroes

Bob Holiday as Superman, 1966

Bob Holiday as Superman at the stage door of Broadway’s Alvin Theater, 1966

I once witnessed a Mexican revue that consisted entirely of tributes to famous Hollywood movies. Somewhere along its path toward committing copyright infringement against every major film studio, this show incorporated a sequence that condensed all three of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies into about five minutes of dance-based violence. A crudely painted backdrop of the New York skyline loomed behind a few platforms that were dressed to look like office buildings. As Danny Elfman’s Spider-Man theme shook the tinny speakers on either side of the stage, Spidey himself (or, rather, a slightly paunchy dancer in an off-the-rack Halloween costume) fought his way through an array of villains. Doctor Octopus emerged from the shadows, his stationary robotic tentacles hanging limply. Venom appeared next, sporting a spider emblem made from white duct tape. Our fearless hero quickly dispensed with these criminals, occasionally lurching at them through the courtesy of a creaking cable flying system. The climax of this spectacle came when Spider-Man cornered the Green Goblin at the edge of a building, dropkicked him, and appeared to rip his head clean off. Spider-Man lifted the Goblin’s severed, grinning skull into the air, brandishing it triumphantly towards the audience to the sound of drunken cheers.

If my account of this surreal performance sounds a little snarky, allow me to clear the air. It is, to this day, the most joyful and exciting theatrical representation of a superhero that I have ever seen. This was in the winter of 2008. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark had already been announced for Broadway, and The Lion King‘s Julie Taymor seemed like the right director for the job. (In retrospect, maybe this was just because the image of Spider-Man holding the Goblin’s head over the side of a building reminded me so much of Rafiki presenting baby Simba at the top of Pride Rock.)

I’m aware that the very notion of a superhero musical sounds pretty laughable. But I don’t believe that it is inherently ridiculous. In an age when every recognizable pop commodity winds up in the commercial theatre, shouldn’t these iconic characters be in line ahead of, say, Shrek and Billy Joel? Isn’t the idea of a man who dresses up like a giant bat in order to exact revenge upon the evil that destroyed his family just, like, really fucking theatrical? If not downright operatic? Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s my rare position as a dork who loves Sondheim and Superman, Batman and Broadway, in equal measure. After all, history hasn’t been kind. As Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark prepares to swing into the sunset at an estimated $60 million loss, I’d like to take a thorough look at the short but shockingly tangled saga of comic book heroes onstage. It’s a rough trip, true believers. One that’s filled with great power…and greater irresponsibility. Continue reading