Guest column by Charles Isherwood
The rap on Broadway in recent years is that it’s increasingly become a department store offering the same limited number of brands, or, with Disney’s steady presence, a theme park offering a very specific kind of ride.Small wonder, then, that large segments of the twenty- and thirtysomething generations don’t give it a thought. I’m always dismayed to find that young Gotham hipsters who march off, lemming-like, to see the latest weekend movie release — despite tepid or even excoriating reviews — hardly ever think about taking in a Broadway show. They usually point to the cost, but let’s be honest: With a movie ticket, a tub of popcorn and one of those disturbingly large Cokes totaling almost what you’d pay for a Broadway ticket at the half-price booth, that isn’t really the decisive factor. There are innumerable ways of seeing shows on the cheap — as producers are inclined to lament. It’s simply that for large numbers of Generations X and Y, Broadway isn’t really on the entertainment radar screen. It’s considered to be glitzy, hokey, hopelessly uncool. And to a certain degree, Broadway has earned that reputation, I suppose, by amply stocking seasons with revivals — and revivals of revivals (here comes “Man of La Mancha” once again, not long after the Don last tilted at a windmill in Times Square). As Baz Luhrmann, the maverick moviemaker who displayed his affection for another supposedly outmoded form of entertainment, the movie musical, in last year’s “Moulin Rouge,” delicately put it in an interview with Daily Variety, most people think Broadway offers only “a certain kind of experience” — one they’re not interested in. “There’s a Broadway club like there’s an opera club,” he added. In other words, Broadway, for many people, is a parochial arm of the entertainment industry. But take a closer look at the fall season and you find some surprises: Far from acting like the hidebound, stick-in-the-mud creature it’s expected to be, Broadway is stretching itself in interesting new directions. Not all of the experiments will necessarily be successful — indeed one, the Michel Legrand operetta “Amour,” has already flopped out. But the mere fact that producers are continuing to experiment in the high-stakes arena of commercial theater — where you can lose $10 million on a new musical in a matter of weeks, with no possibility of recouping your investment on video or DVD — is an encouraging sign that, far from sticking to the tried and true, Broadway is actively searching for the innovative. The season’s biggest hit, “Hairspray,” does hark back to the classic ’60s musicals, and serves up the kind of entertainment associated with Broadway. It’s also the latest example of the industry’s hottest trend — it’s based on a movie. But in this case it’s a John Waters movie, not a mass-market title like a Disney cartoon or “Footloose” or “The Full Monty.” “Hairspray” has at least stretched the boundaries of what kinds of movies are eligible for stage treatment. Even more adventurous is a new show, “Movin’ Out,” that has its basis in more populist material — the songbook of pop-rock troubadour Billy Joel. But it approaches the songs in a manner wholly different from the Abba megahit “Mamma Mia!,” which shoehorns 20 tunes into a traditional musical-comedy story about a young bride. “Movin’ Out” is in fact a ballet, and an extraordinarily ambitious one at that. If Billy Joel is a surprising name to find on a Broadway marquee, Russell Simmons is more startling still. But, yes, the record producer, hip-hop impresario and creator of MTV’s “Def Comedy Jam” has set up shop at the Longacre Theater this fall, presenting an evening of verse, yet, with his “Def Poetry Jam” — three words that are not likely to mean much to Broadway’s matinee ladies, to be sure, but will strike a chord with an entirely new audience. Most intriguing of all, that enterprising Aussie Luhrmann is himself bringing Broadway an innovative Christmas present: He’s wrapping the oldest form of musical theater, opera, in chic new paper with his new staging of Puccini’s “La Boheme.” The lure of Luhrmann, it is to be hoped, will likewise draw interest from the kind of young hipsters who usually make little time for Broadway — to say nothing of opera. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but it’s hard not to believe that the convergence on Broadway this fall of such diverse talents as Tharp, Simmons and Luhrmann is a healthy sign that theater continues to hold allure for some of the brightest talents in other media. And the best news is that both “Movin’ Out” and “Def Poetry Jam” are effective, exciting shows that bring new kinds of energy into the Broadway spectrum. “La Boheme” doesn’t open until December, but it wowed critics and audiences in San Francisco in a tryout this fall, and is already basking in the kind of media hype that usually signals success. The kind of cross-pollenization in the popular arts that these shows represent may be just what Broadway needs to remain healthy at a time when consumers are inclined to be more circumspect about spending. Let’s hope they keep coming. Then again, there are limits to the advantages of thinking outside the proverbial box on Broadway, of course. The prospect of “Jackass: Live!” is not something I particularly relish.