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LONG-RUNS: THE DOWN SIDE : Problems With Productions That Have Been Around Forever

Having a super-hit is what theater is all about, isn’t it? No. Today’s Calendar report on long-running shows across the country (Page 32) indicates what a boon it is to a theater that has just been scraping along to finally come in with a real gusher--a show that will pay all the back bills and help to buy a new building. Every theater deserves to have its “Angry Housewives” or its “Bleacher Bums.”

But just one. Because there’s something fundamentally opposed to the theatrical impulse in the show that runs for years and years and years, like “The Mousetrap.” (Or “The Drunkard,” which played here from 1933 to 1959.)

For one thing, these exhibits don’t usually add up to much as theater. A show that pleases all of the people all of the time is bound to be a confection, the theatrical equivalent of a Hostess cupcake. Who can get mad at a Hostess cupcake? Who, on the other hand, can get involved with a Hostess cupcake?

The best of these box-office champs acknowledge their silliness and invite the audience simply to have a ball, as with San Francisco’s charming “Beach Blanket Babylon” series. (Boston’s “Shear Madness” sounds like that kind of evening.) The worst of them is--well, to be specific--"Oh! Calcutta!,” which is still running on Broadway, to the delight of visiting businessmen from abroad.

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We are not talking high art here. Would anyone call “The Fantasticks” a great musical? At best it’s a nice musical. Would anyone call “The Mousetrap” even a good thriller? A 7-year-old can figure out who did it by intermission. But of course people don’t go to see “The Mousetrap” for the plot, but because it’s an institution, like Madame Tussaud’s.

Not a bad comparison, because the figures at Madame Tussaud’s aren’t alive: they’re only life-like. Which is the sense you get from all shows that have been around too long. The moves are there, but the impulse behind them has evaporated. Five, six, seven, eight and don’t ask questions.

The classic example in our day was the Gilbert and Sullivan productions of the D’Oyly Carte Company. These followed the original “business” of W. S. Gilbert. To see young performers trying to adjust their physiques and temperaments to these rusted sight-gags was to know that the D’Oyly Carte had to be put out of its misery, if Gilbert and Sullivan were to live. Mercifully, the deed was done.

But the same principle applies to a Broadway show which has run so long that, as Henry Fonda once put it, “they’ve stopped listening to each other.” After you’ve heard the line 900 times, you don’t want to hear it again. Actors stuck too long in a show have been known to dream that they were giving a performance, and awake to find it true.

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We chide today’s stars for not committing themselves to a play for more than a few months. But they’re right to be wary of becoming trapped in a hit. The horrible example here is James O’Neill, Eugene’s father. He toured in “The Count of Monte Cristo” for so many years that eventually audiences wouldn’t accept him in anything else.

A socko hit can also be a trap for a theater company. It’s fantastic to have the phone in the box office ringing off the hook. But now the company must decide whether to go on with its other projects, or to put all its energy behind the breakout show, or to try to do it all. Chicago’s Organic Theatre virtually went on hold during its recent long run of “E/R.” It couldn’t have been easy to rebuild its momentum.

A paradox: Theater is the art of doing it night after night, but too much repetition is toxic. One doesn’t, therefore, wish Carol Channing another “Hello, Dolly!” You wish her something else . One doesn’t want “Cats” to be “now and forever,” as in its Broadway ads. You want it, in time--no rush--to make way for another musical as imaginative.

If we could clone the performance of the greatest Hamlet who ever lived, wouldn’t it be wonderful? No, it would be horrible. The text of “Hamlet” is outside of time, but a production of “Hamlet” lives in the moment, like a flower or an animal or a great ball game. And then the moment ends.

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That’s why there’s something spooky about productions that go on well beyond their moment. It’s why we shouldn’t take them as the goal for which every show should shoot. Theater lives, because theater dies. Its symbol is the phoenix. Its business is to strike the set and get started on the next show.


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