The Broadway revival of the beloved West Side Story opened for previews in New York last week, and the numbers show the people were pleased: the musical made $1,042,713 in its week of preview performances, coming in first place at the Broadway box office. In September 2008, Brittany Petruzzi explained why people go to see musicals despite the lousy cost-benefit analysis. Her original article is reprinted below.
WHETHER OR not they’ve seen it on Broadway, just about everyone knows West Side Story; like The Sound of Music, it has seeped so deeply into the American consciousness that nearly everyone has “seen the movie” at some point. But like many a classic show before it, lovers of the theater have longed for its return—live and in the flesh—to the city that inspired it. They need wait no longer: the Broadway revival of West Side Story, directed by co-creator Arthur Laurents, is slated to open March 19, 2009, at a Nederlander theater to be determined.
But the odds are stacked heavily against theater these days. Thirty-nine Broadway houses are scattered across forty-four square blocks in midtown Manhattan, and each show charges up to $118 a ticket to fill a limited number of seats eight times a week. For the same price, I can go to Walmart and buy a decent enough T.V. to watch The Office for free every Thursday night, along with millions of other Americans, or drop just ten bucks for the Academy-Award winning West Side Story on DVD. Working in the theater industry doesn’t break down much better: stage actors make less money than film actors, theatrical producers rarely recoup their investments, and fame only really comes to the Broadway stars who get a lucky break in Hollywood.
Yet, in the last three years I’ve scrounged up enough money to make several trips to New York for the specific purpose of seeing Broadway shows—some of them last minute and most of them spanning less than two days. And despite the bleak cost-benefit analysis, my friends and I got it into our heads that starting a production company as full time college students would be a swell idea. Something keeps the public filling theater seats when they could spend far less money on an action flick that even has exploding helicopters. And that’s because a movie can’t give you Madame Rose having a mental breakdown literally five feet from your face, and make it different every time. And she couldn’t do that if she didn’t have an audience. Theater has two things movies and television never will: it’s live and it’s temporary.
The presence of an audience makes each experience unique. All of a sudden every performance is different. The combination of a cast that loves to explore the characters and the changeability of the audience can bring a palpable excitement and explosive energy (or lack thereof). I’ve seen the current Broadway production of Gypsy more times than I’m willing to admit. At one old lady matinee, it almost seemed that the audience begrudged their own applause, but at the performance following a Tony Award sweep by the principal actors, the audience literally stopped the show several times with the fervency of its applause. Even the presence of one heckler in the mezzanine during Gypsy’s strip sequence changes the entire dynamic of the show. My stomach lurched as it became disgustingly clear just how blind or unfeeling Madame Rose must be to drive her daughter to sell herself for attention.
This only goes to show that though the audience is a collective, we shouldn’t forget that it is made up of individuals. As Tony Award-winning actress Laura Benanti puts it, “In this age of reality T.V., what is more real than watching a real person—with real talent—singing their heart out, or acting their heart out, or dancing—only for you? You paid [for] a ticket. You’re sitting there and we’re performing for you. To me, that is the ultimate human collaboration. And that’s what’s missing when it’s just a camera in your face and you have to cry.”
Because theater is live and usually unrecorded, it is also temporary. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We have no photo or film record for some of the most memorable moments of our lives, but that doesn’t make them any less special. I don’t mean your wedding day or the birth of your first child, I mean smaller moments: that instant you realized you were an adult or the discovery that you were actually in love. Freak accidents not withstanding, no one recorded those moments, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t change your life forever. Truly excellent theater has the capacity to contain one of these moments because it takes one of the many threads from the Play of life, examines it, expounds on it, and explores it. It snatches characters from swathes of humanity and exaggerates archetypes for our entertainment and edification. It puts the magnifying glass to God’s playwrighting and causes us to wonder at it.
It’s not only theatergoers who are so affected by this process, but the actors as well. Acting is the craft of being real; a constant striving to make every stage action an action with a purpose. The excellent actor strives to make every performance more real. Each new audience brings a new set of temporary circumstances and always adds to this process, often causing an actor to realize new things. It’s something you can’t get with film or television. However accessible they may be, they are still static—the result of a process, and not the process itself. As Broadway actress Sherie Rene Scott once put it, “In theater, the process of it is the experience. Everyone goes through the process, and everyone has the experience together. It doesn’t last—only in people’s memories and in their hearts. That’s the beauty and sadness of it. But that’s life—beauty and the sadness. And that is why theater is life.”
It’s why the upcoming Broadway revival of West Side Story will make its Oscar-winning film version pale in comparison, why the final three minutes of August: Osage County’s second act cause its audience to scream in rapture, and why people like me will continue to flock to the theater in years to come, regardless of the supposed advantages of film and television.
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