Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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STRANGE AND POWERFUL

One of the highlights (if not the highlight) of Sunday evening's Tony Awards, was Ben Platt's acceptance for his pitch-perfect performance in Dear Evan Hansen, beautifully conveying all he was feeling in that exhilarating moment. This twenty-three year old's spirit soared, and he delivered his speech at such an intense and breakneck pace, it felt as if at any moment he might levitate—defying gravity.

Ben Platt in the title role of Dear Evan Hansen (2016)

It reflected his joy, but also his commitment to those young people he represents through his portrayal of the musical's title role: outsiders looking in, waving through a window. It's no wonder that the play connects in profound ways; speaking to an entire generation finding it difficult to pave their path in these confusing times, aided and abetted by a constantly shifting technology that is uplifting and depressing on alternate days.

But author Steven Levenson, and composer and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are speaking to more than just millennials. How else could Dear Evan Hansen have been honored with six Tonys, winning the hearts of 846 voters whose average age is at least a decade or two beyond that of a twenty-year-old? There's enormous power in the story's message, with a potency at its center that propels the unusual journey of the teenaged Evan. I certainly relate to it—and I'm sixty. After all, who wasn't at one time or another an awkward young person. And Platt's shout out as he wrapped up his rapid-fire speech, spoke to my heart, and thousands of other like-minded souls, when he offered a piece of advice to artists everywhere, but particularly to young people: "Don't waste any time trying to be like anybody but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful."

When I began going to the theatre as a child, inspired to do so out of a certain loneliness and longing, there was nothing aimed at my demographic. I mean, zero. (Did you know that the Broadway musical of Peter Pan, which starred Mary Martin and was produced in 1954, ran just four months on Broadway? Its fame is due entirely to it being televised). Disney, with a catalogue full of famous titles to adapt dating back to 1937, ignored the stage for decades. It wasn't until the mid-1990s, when then-New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich, wrote in his round-up of the 1990-91 season that the best Broadway score that year had been conceived for a film—Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Beauty and the Beast. Suddenly a lightbulb went off over a group of collective heads at the film studio, who wisely conceived a stage musical of the property that resulted in an 11-year Broadway run. Thus began the avalanche of mostly successful Disney musicals that have dominated the Broadway box office for a quarter-of-a-century.The Lion King (still grossing over a million dollars a week for twenty years) and Aladdin, doing great business well into its fourth. And Disney's coffers are certain to be filled to overflowing with Frozen scheduled to open next Spring at the St. James Theatre, potentially occupying it for many seasons to come.

I'm happy now, thanks to Disney, there will always be musicals directly aimed at kids for their parents and relatives to take them to. In the early 1970s, when I began my regular theatregoing, I was alone in searching for shows that might address some of the issues I was concerned with as a young person. Unfortunately, that didn't overlap with the adult plays I was seeing. Edward Albee wasn't directly speaking to teenagers in his writing, nor was Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, all of whom offered new works that I saw in their premieres. The only access I got was almost exclusively through the plays of David Rabe, whose early works revolved around the war in Vietnam (The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones and Streamers), which left me stunned by their passion and yes, despair. And that was about it on Broadway in those days.

Now, providing that a teenager can even get in to see Dear Evan Hansen (and afford it), or for that matter still snag a still-tough ticket to Hamilton, they are going to be exposed to voices, in both words and music, that speak to them in ways few Broadway musicals ever have. In the last few seasons, it has not gone unnoticed that Robert Askins' Hand to God, Steve Karam's The Humans and Simon Stephens' adaptation of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, all benefited from the perspective of young people as leading characters. This marks a very recent sea change in the theatre for writers, producers and marketers (the Holy Trinity) that are essential to driving any show to success.

As a veteran of having seen plays in New York for close to fifty years since the age of ten, this thrills me no end. Finding young people (who will grow into old people who will support the arts in their retirement) is essential for the survival of the theatre. Many senior citizens do this, not only in New York, but around the country, but need to be nurtured from a young age. How else will they ever discover the passion? People settle into their ways over time and I would imagine it would be hard to create a die-hard theatre goer out of someone later in life. Although, perhaps the timeless and ageless quality of a show like Hamilton has the capacity to inspire both a young person attending a musical for the first time as well as someone in their seventies? I sure would love to know if that has happened to anybody out there. Lin-Manuel Miranda's achievement as writer and composer would have to be the same eye-opening experience for anybody being exposed to such a well-told story in a live performance setting, don't you think?

Cheers to all things strange and powerful.

Thanks for reading and feel free to email me at Ron@ronfassler.org with any comments or questions.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-Historical-Broadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book

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