What makes a show a hit? Why did A Chorus Line run forever, while Chicago, in many ways a better show, opened two weeks later and was only a mild success -- until its 1996 revival, which is still running. Timing is everything and much depends on what current audiences are hungering for.
Spring Awakening was at the Barbara B. Mann, last week. When it opened, it also created a major stir and swept the Tony awards. Why? The characters are stick figures. The choreography is unappealing, the plot is cheap, the music unmemorable and the shock value contrived. There is simulated masturbation and copulation, a song that features (incessantly) the “f” word and - gasp - a bare tush. The theater - not to mention the movies - has been going a lot farther for decades and to better purpose. The theme, of youth nobly rebelling against a sexually repressive society, surely cannot speak to today’s youth, who hardly seem repressed.
Here’s my theory. There is a central theatrical device used here that is sometimes not even discussed in reviews of the show. The story is based on a 19th century German play and set in that time and place. When performing the actual plot, the actors generally use overripe and careful diction, no doubt to suggest German. When one of the young characters needs to express angst, which is often, the action freezes, the boy or girl loses the accent and delivers a number straight to the audience in American Broadway/rock style. Almost all the songs are presented in this way.
This technique, showing the contrast between the stiff old-world means of expression and the emotionality of the music, taps into the potent myth of America’s creative naturalness (as compared to those stuffy Europeans). This old-hat notion, rather than anything supposedly innovative, is probably the factor that made this musical such a success. No one ever lost money underestimating the extent to which you can flatter an American audience.
Full disclosure - the audience at the Mann seemed to eat it up. I know I am exposing myself to charges of crankiness. If Spring Awakening comes around again, go see for yourself and make your own judgment. I may be wrong about all of this (but I don’t think so).
There’s lots more honest - and cheaper - entertainment out there at this time of year. The Empty Bowls event, held last Saturday, is a truly innovative community event, providing a friendly atmosphere and a nice lunch, while raising some money and conveying the message of the Harry Chapin Food Bank. The Naples Concert Band performed for free. This group makes no pretense to being avant garde, but plays well and the concert makes for a pleasant afternoon. They had a guest pianist and pretty much nailed Rhapsody in Blue.
Finally, for real innovation - I finally got my Blu-Ray hooked up and played with Pandora all weekend. How do they do that? If you have been living in a cave like me and haven’t tried it, you really have to.