Results tagged “Broadway” from critical difference
Over dinner last night, a reporter I know, who covers real estate, was lamenting credulous reporting on his beat: articles that reflexively link individual homeowners' woes to the real estate crisis, when a closer look would disprove the assumption. This morning on WNYC, the closing of a Broadway show got similarly unexamined treatment.
The story, by political reporter Bob Hennelly, is about what Democrats have to do about the economy if they want to win this fall's elections in New York state. Broadway being big business, it's not surprising that its health is one of the vital signs to be checked. That's why Rudy Giuliani, after the Sept. 11 attacks, implored the world to come back to New York and see a show.
They're still coming. However star-driven Broadway has become, it's doing well, reporting a record-breaking gross of $1 billion at the box office in 2009.
So how is it that Hennelly uses yesterday's closing of "Ragtime" to illustrate his point that the issue facing Democrats in New York is "jobs, jobs, jobs"? Here's how he frames it:
"A fabulous show. Great reviews. Forty actors, 20 musicians, out of work because the bottom line is -- you know, downtown Wall Street, they may be doing fine, figuring out should it be six figures or eight figures or 12 figures in terms of bonuses -- bottom line is, pain is being felt all over, and unless Democrats in the White House and in the Senate and the House come up with some kind of jobs program for the arts, nonprofits and for the broader economy, there is gonna be some problems come November."
That may be perfectly astute political analysis, and there's certainly nothing wrong with pushing for jobs-creation programs targeting the arts and nonprofits. But the vaporization of jobs on Broadway simply comes with the territory -- even when a show is terrific -- and the people involved know the risks. Shuttering a show can't be assumed to be a reverberation of trouble in the broader economy. It's normal, just as it will be normal, and not a sign of boom times, when another show creates jobs by opening.
A political reporter can't necessarily be expected to understand the mechanics of commercial theater (that's what arts journalists are for), but WNYC is savvier than that. It's a little bit shocking that this slipped through the cracks.
Just in time for the World Series, WNYC has a seriously fascinating report on the effect the new Yankee Stadium is having on its Bronx neighborhood. With the team having built what one fan approvingly describes as a mall, brimming with pricey dining and shopping options, there's correspondingly less economic benefit to area restaurants and stores -- though local impact is always a significant part of the argument when a sports team, or any other organization, is seeking incentives and concessions from municipal or state officials. Nationwide, reporter Ailsa Chang says, that's the trend: New athletic facilities are designed to get and keep visitors inside, spending money on concessions there.
To a lesser extent, in-house dining and shopping have been the trend in arts facilities as well. But it would be a rare theater, concert hall or museum that could meet the needs of every visitor who wants to pair a cultural outing with lunch or dinner, coffee or a drink. The actual numbers can be squishy in the extreme, but arts patrons really do flock to neighboring establishments before and after they get their culture fix. Even die-hard Yankee fan (and opera buff) Rudy Giuliani acknowledged as much in the weeks and months after the September 11 attacks, when he begged tourists to come back to Broadway not just for the shows but for the sake of the surrounding businesses.
The self-sufficient new Yankee Stadium, then, is both ammunition, in that it appears to provide another argument against sports teams in the battle for government funding, and a cautionary tale -- albeit maybe not for the Yankees, who have an annoying habit of getting whatever they want the instant they want it, and throwing a tantrum otherwise. But arts organizations have to tread more lightly. For them, the lesson is this: If, with the help of public dollars, you engineer things so that the rising tide helps only your boat, people might get the idea that their aid, next time, might better be directed elsewhere.
Much as I agree with Judith H. Dobrzynski that consuming art requires a more focused attention than many other activities, I can't say that I believe etiquette is worsening at New York theaters -- not even on Broadway, as Ellen Gamerman's Wall Street Journal piece would have one believe. In my experience as a several-times-a-week theatergoer, cell phones ring far less often than they did even a year or two ago. With a legal ban in place, regulars are accustomed to turning them off, and theaters are not shy about reminding the audience (via any means necessary: Playbill inserts, recorded announcements, a word from an usher, a curtain speech) to do so.
The other examples of outrageous audience behavior Gamerman cites are simply gross aberrations from the norm, not evidence that theatergoers have lost their bearings, or that tourists and bargain hunters are lowering the bar for us all.
American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus, on the other hand, absolutely is lowering that bar with a plan to let people keep their phones on at ART this summer. It is, as she tells Gamerman, a radical idea -- but, embracing as it does the self-centeredness that's corroding so much of contemporary life, it may not have the effect she desires. Can human beings be so different in Cambridge, Mass., than in New York City? Even if what she intends to do there were legal here, it simply would not fly -- with actors or audiences.
On Saturday, I went to Ethan Coen's trio of one-acts, "Offices," at Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea. To my right was a guy in his 20s or 30s. At some point deep in the performance, the phone in his left pants pocket went off: a few notes of quiet, almost gentle electronic melody. Shooting upward in his seat as if he'd been electrocuted, he whispered, "Oh my God," swiftly grabbed the phone, and silenced it faster than I'd ever heard anyone silence a phone. His mortification was palpable, the distraction brief.
That was the first time in a long time that I'd heard a phone ring at the theater, off-Broadway or on. Maybe I've just been enjoying an unusual streak of good luck, and audiences elsewhere are running rampant. But I don't think so. Most of them, I believe, are more like the guy next to me at "Offices": eager to be present in the moment, and trying their best not to ruin that moment for anyone else.
There are several different ways to crunch the 2009 Tony Awards numbers, but each of them strongly suggests that Broadway remains a man's world.
If you look at last night's winners in all 31 categories, including the special noncompetitive Tonys bestowed by the Tony Awards Administration Committee, women won 25.8 percent of the time. Wretched, yes, but things get worse from there.
If you consider only the 27 competitive categories in which Tony voters cast their ballots -- and if you figure, for the purposes of this number-crunching, that it was Liza Minnelli ("Liza's at The Palace") rather than her producers who won the award for special theatrical event -- the figure goes down to 22.2 percent.
And what if you take out the gender-designated categories, the ones in which actors are pitted against actors and actresses against actresses? That's when it gets very ugly indeed. Of the 19 competitive categories that aren't restricted by gender, women won two: a paltry 10.5 percent. That's with Liza still in the equation. (Whenever someone asks whether we still need separate awards for actors and actresses, my head quietly explodes. This is not the only reason, but it's one of them.)
A cynic would say the Tonys don't matter, but that ignores both the impetus for and the effect of the awards: money. It's not an artistic notion; it's a realistic one. Those statuettes translate into jobs, which matter quite a lot to people trying to make a living in the theater. Last night's winners suddenly have loads of people lined up wanting to work with them. And those winners are, by and large, men.
Yasmina Reza walked away with one of the evening's biggest plums, the best-play award for "God of Carnage," but she was the only female playwright among the nominees, and one of the very few female playwrights on Broadway this season. Nominated plays in the best-revival category were all penned by men.
In the eight design categories, women won nothing -- not a huge surprise, given that costume designers Jane Greenwood ("Waiting for Godot") and Nicky Gillibrand ("Billy Elliot") were the only females among the 33 nominees, making up a whopping 6 percent of the field.
Women fared better as nominees in the directing categories, which is a measure of some progress, even though they didn't win: Phyllida Lloyd ("Mary Stuart"), in her second Broadway outing, snagged one of the four play-directing nods, while Broadway newcomers Kristin Hanggi ("Rock of Ages") and Diane Paulus ("Hair") got two of the four nominations for best direction of a musical.
Elsewhere, Karole Armitage ("Hair") filled one of the four choreography slots, while Dolly Parton ("9 to 5") and Jeanine Tesori ("Shrek") were nominated for original score.
Is the rarity of women among the nominees and winners reflective of an absence of talent, a lack of desire to work on Broadway, or a scarcity of women graduating from the playwriting, directing, design or composition programs in American conservatories? Of course not. But compare the credits in a Broadway Playbill with the credits in a program for an off-Broadway, regional or off-off-Broadway show. Chances are you'll see more women where the pay and prestige are lower.
Yesterday afternoon, for example, I went to Ensemble Studio Theatre's annual marathon of one-act plays. EST is a famous incubator of talent, both established and emerging, and it's a valuable credit in an artist's bio. But it's hardly lucrative work. Six of the 10 plays in this year's marathon are written by women (among them Kia Corthron and Leslie Ayvazian); seven of the 10 directors are women. Of 37 roles, 22 -- 59 percent -- are played by women. The two costume designers, the set designer and one of the two lighting designers are all female.
Numbers like those simply aren't seen on Broadway, as a stroll through the Internet Broadway Database readily illustrates. It's no wonder that women win so few Tonys, given how little high-profile, high-paying work they're hired to do.
Those figures won't improve until women get more Broadway gigs in the first place. As always, however, the deck is stacked in favor of Tony winners and people with Broadway shows already on their CVs. Credits beget credits, and when awards are won, work is sure to follow. Which makes it a whole lot easier to earn a living -- a privilege that shouldn't be disproportionately reserved, even inadvertently, for the guys.
Starting Monday, Broadway box office and attendance figures should be looking considerably brighter, whether or not there's any real boost to sales or audience size. That's because, as Variety reports, the Broadway League this week adopted a new method of tallying those numbers: one that, barring a substantial decline, will put them in a rosy light.
Sales figures will represent "gross gross" sales as opposed to net gross, which subtracts credit card transaction fees from the total. Attendance will be reported as total attendance rather than paid attendance, which does not count comped ducats.
The League takes over as sole disseminator of those numbers, which used to come from theater owners as well.
The new method of calculation nearly ensures that the 2009-10 season's sales totals will dwarf those from 2008-09, though there's no true parallel between the two sets of numbers. Even more pointless would be any comparison between total-attendance figures in 2009-10 and paid-attendance figures, which the League reported in 2008-09 and previous years. As the industry group well knows, it's far more pleasant to say that a play is packing them in than to admit that a healthy-looking house is heavily papered -- not exactly a rarity on Broadway, where paid attendance has been declining. Given that, it would seem to be in the League's interest to muddle the accounting.
Much of the theatrical press, accustomed to juxtaposing a given week's Broadway totals with the numbers from the same week a year before, probably can be counted on to keep doing exactly what they've been doing. In the process, they'll likely report increases that may or may not be borne out by the facts. The same goes for stories on season-to-season figures.
"Making the switch to gross gross and total attendance would put the Broadway numbers more in line with tallies from the film industry, according to [the League's] Charlotte St. Martin," Variety explains.
That's the same film industry that benefits from a credulous press' faithful weekly reports of ever-bigger box-office earnings -- numbers that are highly likely to grow as long as the industry keeps raising ticket prices, and as long as the population keeps expanding.
But no matter what the film industry does, this switch is a cynical move on the part of Broadway, especially coming off a season whose debatable financial success the League spun so brilliantly. In a tough financial climate that doesn't promise to get easier anytime soon, and at a moment when even the biggest media outlets are devoting ever fewer resources to real reporting, let alone arts reporting, Broadway has made its robustness vastly harder to evaluate. Should the industry fall into trouble, the kind of trouble about which one might wish to alert the media, it may come to regret this brand of obfuscation.
Forty-three shows opened on Broadway this season, nearly 20 percent more than last season, yet paid attendance was down from 2007-08. That would be the glass-half-empty way of looking at the numbers for this year, and a perfectly legitimate one. But the way much of the media reported the news, one would think the glass was not just full but overflowing.
"Broadway Breaks Box Office Record for 2008-09 Season," reads the New York Times headline on a blog item that mentions the paid-attendance downturn in the eighth paragraph.
A Fox News blog post is positively breathless, trumpeting "some long-awaited positive economic news" under the headline "Broadway's Record-Breaking Year!" Though that item does quickly mention the 1 percent drop in paid attendance -- a decrease substantially larger than the .6 percent increase in gross revenues -- it then skates ahead to Broadway League executive director Charlotte St. Martin's contention that, in the reporter's paraphrase, "other industries could learn some money-making tips from Broadway." (No, St. Martin's advice isn't to make lots more product, keep hiking your prices, and attract fewer paying customers. It's to stay "in touch with what the consumer really wants.")
"Broadway theatres defy recession," a BBC headline announces. That they wouldn't defy it was, of course, the industry's giant, lurking fear, exacerbated by the still-painful memory of tourists scattering in the fall of 2001. So there is understandable relief that, in the words of The Associated Press, "Even during a recession, Broadway managed to hold its own." That's newsworthy.
But did so much of the coverage occasioned by the Broadway League's release of 2008-09's official figures -- grosses of $943.3 million, up from $937.5 million in 2007-08, and paid attendance of 12.15 million, down from 12.27 million last season -- have to follow the lead of that industry group? Did so many journalists have to quote St. Martin so unquestioningly? Are reporters and editors really as math-averse as this would suggest? (Well, yes, they are. Most of them, anyway.)
As Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard notes with his customary savvy, "The increase in sales represents higher average ticket prices, while the drop in paid attendance suggests that the tightening economy did frighten away some theatergoers. The attendance figures are especially notable because in the 2007-08 season, much of Broadway was shut down during a 19-day strike by unionized stagehands."
That season, unsurprisingly, paid attendance fell .2 percent, from 12.3 million the season before. So 2008-09 continued a downward trend.
Context is everything. When journalists take their cue from a press release, when they don't look hard at the numbers, when they mistake hype for reality, illuminating context has a nasty tendency to be missing in action.
Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the director and choreographer of the Kennedy Center's hit revival of "Ragtime," is the hook for Peter Marks' feature in today's Washington Post, but the story's true subject is the paucity of female directors in big-budget musical theater. Dodge -- who, at 54, had been flying beneath the radar for decades before her D.C. breakthrough this spring -- is an excellent case in point. As Marks notes, "She happens to be the first woman to direct a major musical produced by the Kennedy Center." (It opened for business in 1971.)
It might be surprising that in 2009, women are still having to grope their way to the power seat in an artistic field such as theater. And the helm of a musical, with its complex and expensive working parts, is perhaps the most difficult and challenging position the theater has to offer. Yet for all the successes of a Julie Taymor ("The Lion King") or a Susan Stroman ("The Producers"), women even today only occasionally receive the assignment to direct a big-budget, big-showcase musical.
The irony is stark: In the rest of the culture, almost nothing is perceived as being girlier than musicals. But, again, that women seldom get the high-profile musical directing jobs is only surprising to those who haven't been paying attention. It was just 1998 when Julie Taymor became the first woman to win a best-director Tony Award for a musical ("The Lion King") -- minutes after Garry Hynes became the first woman to win a best-director Tony of any kind, triumphing in the play category, for "The Beauty Queen of Leenane." As The New York Times put it in its next-day coverage, "It took more than half a century for the Tonys to present its first directing award to a woman. It took five minutes to present the second one." (Bizarrely, this news was mentioned in the tenth paragraph.)
The floodgates have not exactly burst open since then. Producer Rocco Landesman, President Obama's surprising nominee to head the National Endowment for the Arts, explained in the Times in 2005, "On Broadway, progress is slow." He added:
But change is coming, however slowly. We'll get used to their styles (Watching Susan Stroman direct ''The Producers'' was a revelation; talk about velvet glove, iron fist!) and certainly, their successes. Nothing changes perceptions like a hit. The women directors I know have proved that they can get everything they want while still being decent to people. The famously bullying Jerome Robbins is just not the role model for them and the Broadway theater is better for it.
Change will come faster if more women are allowed into the directing pipeline, making their presence at the helm of a production less of an aberration, thus nudging producers and artists to envision them there when the list of collaborators is being drawn up. The more work they do, the more work they'll get. And with any luck, the most talented among them won't have to spend decades, like Dodge, building their résumés in relative obscurity.