It’s common that after the holidays Broadway shows that aren’t selling well decide to close up shop, especially as the tourist-light winter doldrums approach. This year is no exception, with an astonishing 18 shows ending their runs before February 2011. With about 50 Broadway houses, one third will be dark (at least briefly) this winter before new productions open. Spring seems rather promising (thoughts of South Park’s The Book of Mormon make me giddy already) and the rest of this season looks to have some theatrical depth, like the dark comedy A Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. And such is the nature of a Broadway season.
Evocative of the state of commercial theatre in America, shows with substance don’t equal best sellers. Audiences seems to prefer to spend their hard-earned money on familiar titles that entertain rather than enlighten. Producers understand, and artistic endeavors are applauded for the efforts, even if they can’t recoup their costs. This is, no doubt, why the new musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is closing on January 2nd. I’d be lying if I overly effused, because I don’t think BBAJ is the best show of the season, but I do think it has merit both for both its intellectual and comedic intentions. Like a prolonged SNL parody (maybe that’s the problem right there), it satirizes an important part of American history that is often forgotten and left to the history books. It’s an exciting new musical with a political context (and major comparisons to today’s political landscape). But who wants to see that when a block away at Phantom of the Opera a chandelier falls on stage!! Seriously, how is that still exciting theatre when it’s been happening 8 shows a week for a million years? Yet it continues to sell. Audiences deserve better, even if they can’t recognize it themselves.
The most depressing closing is The Scottsboro Boys, which ends its abbreviated run on December 12th. This new musical by Kander and Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret) and directed by Susan Stroman (The Producers) exhibits everything that is wonderful about musical theatre. It uses its form to detail an event rife with emotional value and factual import, and it communicates its message with gleeful songs and moving performances. If you remove The Scottsboro Boys from its context and look at it within the framework of its genre, it’s clearly an accomplished piece of theatre. But you can’t take it out of its context — which happens to be a racial conflict in the segregated South of the 1930s. The cast is all black, except for the interlocuter who is essentially their master, and the style is minstrelsy. Yep, it’s jarring. It’s a taboo subject, told through an inherently racist form, and it’s making people seriously uncomfortable. Hence, it’s closing after two months. I am willing to play the age card on this one, because that seems to be the clear distinction between haters and fans. From the critical response and the audience response I’ve observed, younger people take less offense with the show. That’s not an unequivocal statement, but I think it has some merit. Maybe it’s that older generations have closer associations with the civil rights movements than myself and my peers happen to. Guilt is a word I hear frequently when this show is being discussed, but it is usually from someone over fifty. That’s not to say that I don’t feel guilty for slavery, segregation, and the (still-occurring) racism that penetrates America (and I’m not just talking black/white here), but that doesn’t supersede the value of The Scottsboro Boys. If anything, it adds to it.
Here are the shows closing soon. The links will take you to their reviews on Theatre Is Easy (theasy.com). Several of these shows had intentionally limited runs and are closing as expected.
December 12: The Scottsboro Boys
January 8: Colin Quinn: Long Story Short
January 16: Next to Normal
January 23: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
January 29: Driving Miss Daisy