Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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FIFTY

With today's column, I will have written 50 essays since beginning this blog on June 12th (a date I did not pick arbitrarily, as it's my daughter's birthday). Getting out these pieces six days a week has been both a challenge and a pleasure.

I thought about how to salute the number 50 and the first thing that came to mind was the year 1950. Before my time (thank you very much), but a year that perfectly defines Broadway's "Golden Age." For starters, check out what shows were available by these titles listed in The New York Times theatre ABC's in April of that year:

As You Like It (starring Katharine Hepburn)

Come Back, Little Sheba (starring Shirley Booth)

Death of a Salesman (starring Gene Lockhart)

Detective Story (starring Ralph Bellamy)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (starring Carol Channing)

Kiss Me, Kate (starring Alfred Drake and Patricia Morrison)

Lost in the Stars (starring Todd Duncan)

Mister Roberts (starring Henry Fonda)

South Pacific (starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza)

The Cocktail Party (starring Alec Guinness)

The Member of the Wedding (starring Julie Harris and Ethel Waters)

Where's Charley? (starring Ray Bolger)

And that's only a partial listing. Also appearing at the time in lesser vehicles were such Broadway luminaries as Helen Hayes, Nanette Fabray, Pearl Bailey and the inimitable husband and wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. By the end of 1950, eight months later, an entirely new crop of equally praise-worthy shows had opened:

An Enemy of the People (starring Fredric March)

Bell, Book and Candle (starring Rex Harrison)

Call Me Madam (starring Ethel Merman)

Hilda Crane (starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn)

King Lear (starring Louis Calhern)

Peter Pan (starring Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff)

The Country Girl (starring Uta Hagen)

The Lady's Not For Burning (starring John Gielgud)

Twentieth Century (starring Gloria Swanson and Jose Ferrer)

Boris Karloff as Captain Hook (1950)

And for one last bonus, how about Guys and Dolls? Not to mention being able to see Guys and Dolls for a top ticket price of $6.60. Too expensive? The last row (the cheap seats) were going for $1.20. Playing at the same theatre today is Hamilton where the cheap seats—if you can get them—go for $139.

Oh, for the proverbial time machine, right?

The main thing to remember about the theatre during this time was that it was part of the culture and an essential way of life for an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers. With that kind of affordability, nearly everyone could go to theatre. Producers didn't have to rely upon tourists to support it. Today it's the complete opposite. Shows that have opened in the last thirty-five years such as Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King and the revival of Chicago are now among the longest running in Broadway history due entirely to the tourist trade—especially foreigners. They are all easily accessible because of their familiar stories, hardly making English necessary as a prerequisite.

This is not the best thing for the overall health of the theatre, even if it's been a financial bonanza for those producers fortunate enough to find shows like these that park themselves in a theatre and stay there as if elected Pope of Broadway: infallible, with turnover only coming after a long reign—and death.

The original Streetcar Named Desire, one of the best reviewed and game changing plays of this era ran on Broadway for a tidy two years, enough to easily pay back all its investors and make a nice profit for all concerned. And the most successful musical of 1950, Kiss Me, Kate, ran for two and a half years, achieving the same result. Pre-1950, the shows that today would be called blockbusters could be counted on one hand: Life With Father, Tobacco Road, Oklahoma!, Harvey and Born Yesterday... surprisingly, only one of which was a musical. Now big musicals are the gold standard and straight plays the ugly stepchildren (for proof of this, just see how the Tony Awards rank them in importance on its yearly broadcast). All of which forces the majority of producers to swing for the fences—only home runs will do. And investors don't seem to mind that it can take a year to pay off the initial cost of producing large-scale musicals. They will patiently wait in hopes of another Wicked or a Mamma Mia! to slide pass home plate and score.

A baseball analogy is awfully appropriate. Have you paid for a ticket to see a Mets or Yankees game lately? Are you getting a lot more for your buck, or less? Do the cheap seats even exist anymore for someone with a love for the game and a craving to be in the stadium at a reasonable cost simply for the thrill of it all?

That time machine gets more attractive every day, sure. But I'm not fleeing anywhere anytime soon—I'll stick around; here to stay. Of course, if one ride was offered, maybe I'd push the lever forward instead of backward. After all, what comes next is what's always kept things interesting for me.

So... next?

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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