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