by Theater Editor Michael Portantiere
Theater is thriving in the U.S. and all over the world, despite the fact that the imminent death of the art form has been proclaimed time and time again. Although today’s audiences have myriad entertainment options, from television to a seemingly endless stream of blockbuster movies to countless forms of diversion on the Internet, people continue to flock to theaters throughout the country in order to experience the incomparable thrill of live performance.
New York remains the theatrical capital of the world, with dozens of Broadway shows running at any one time, plus scores of productions Off- and Off-Broadway. But the theatrical terrain in the city has changed drastically. Once, plays by the likes of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee could open and thrive on Broadway. But over the past two decades or so, the local NYC audience has dwindled while the percentage of tourists filling seats in Broadway theaters has exploded. This plus a huge rise in ticket prices over the years has had a major impact on the types of shows that are produced: People who are on holiday and are spending well over $100 for a single ticket don’t tend to want “serious” fare, not do they want to take the slightest chance of being disappointed at those prices, so they go for revivals and/or shows that have at least one major star in them. For the same reason, “jukebox musicals” and shows based on popular films such as Legally Blonde and Shrek have proliferated on Broadway and are being sent out to tour the country, sometimes for years.
Meanwhile, the Off-Broadway landscape has shifted due to a huge jump in ticket prices. Commercial Off-Broadway is a shadow of its former self — long runners like The Fantasticks, Little Shop of Horrors, Steel Magnolias, et al. are now few and far between — and the shows that now transfer to Broadway tend to come from the Off-Broadway venues of institutional theaters such as the Roundabout, Lincoln Center Theater, and Manhattan Theater Club. Because of the fearsome economics of New York theater in the 21st century, the vast majority of shows that now reach what used to be called “the Main Stem” get there after previous productions in London, Off-Broadway, or in other U.S. cities. What all of this means is that audiences with a yen for good, substantial, non-mass-market farer have an excellent chance of catching it in their own backyard before it reaches New York. A very short list of recent Broadway hits that were originally staged in the regions includes Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, August Wilson’s Radio Golf, and Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics.
Great theater abounds throughout the United States: comedies, dramas, musicals, interactive shows, and so on. Something for every taste. The top theater cities outside of New York are generally conceded to be Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston, not necessarily in that order. Others places with exciting theater are Atlanta, Minneapolis, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington DC. But even some cities and towns that don’t have an especially large or active year-round theater scene are noteworthy for festivals and other events; one famous example is Louisville, Kentucky, where the Actors Theatre of Louisville hosts the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.
To those intrepid ticket buyers who don’t want to limit their theatergoing to touring productions of Broadway blockbusters, we at ArtsAmerica say: Bravo! But how can you minimize the risk of disappointment when choosing among unknown commodities? One excellent general guideline is to seek out the new work of playwrights, composers, directors, and actors whose past work you have enjoyed and/or whose efforts have received praise from the critics and the public. Whenever you can, support productions that employ members of the various theatrical unions, as these organizations are essential to the health and quality of the art form.
Finally, make it a point to avoid shows that minimize the “live” aspect of theater through such means as overly elaborate design elements, aggressive sound amplification, and the replacement of musicians with synthesizers and recorded tracks. And when you go to the theater, be sure to turn off your cell phones and whatnot. There’s nothing comparable to the thrill of direct communication between in-the-flesh performers and the audience, without tons of modern technology getting in the way of the experience.
Top Theater Cities in America
Top Theater Festivals
Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Montgomery, AL
American Players Theatre, Spring Green, WI
American Shakespeare Center, Staunton, VA
Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, OR
Shakespeare in the Park, New York, NY
Shaw Festival, Niagara-On-The-Lake, ON
Stratford Festival of Canada, Stratford, ON
Utah Shakespearean Festival, Cedar City, UT
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
Plus the more than two dozen Summer Theater Festivals scattered across America
Books—Although written more than 40 years ago, The Season by William Goldman is still relevant—and extremely entertaining. Not Since Carrie by Ken Mandelbaum and Second Act Trouble by Steven Suskin offer insightful and funny discussions of famous musical bombs. For a real memory lane trip, pick up a copy of a Theater World, an annual publication that has come out every year since 1945, or for more recent seasons, Playbill Broadway Yearbook. Finally, Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time has great pictures and interesting stories and looks good on the coffee table.
CDs—David Timson’s The History of Theater is an informative introduction to drama, especially as read by Derek Jacobi.
Websites—For news, check out playbill.com; for gossip and blogs, go to broadwayworld.com and talkinbroadway.com/allthatchat; for a roundup of links to theater-related articles and interviews, plus blogs and a weekly theater podcast, go to broadwaystars.com; and for history, visit the Internet Broadway Database.