Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Corruption of Culture

Occasionally we have a theatrical experience that allows us to get caught up in the phenomenon associated with a particular show. When we are sitting in the seats and sharing in the emotion put forth by a live actor, combined with the setting and lights, sometimes the music, and the laughter, sobs, or gasps that we make as a collective audience, we know we are caught up in something bigger than ourselves.

The same cannot always be said about movies. That's not to say movies can not be wonderful, because some are. That's not to say that we can't be moved by a movie, because we can. But there is just something about seeing a live person actually practice his or her craft, knowing that they have to nail it on this try. There is no director yelling "cut," there are no "multiple takes." The excitement that can be brought forth by a well produced live show can be an unforgettable experience. Granted theater is not for everyone, but if you give yourself to it, and allow the story that is being presented consume you, you can experience catharsis.

So you'll indulge me while I consider what film has done for theater. Most film adaptations of stage plays must often times take dramatic license, which is ironic to me, because a film is not always considered a drama, but rather...a film. Scenes are mixed and mashed, added or deleted, to make a better "movie," while sometimes sacrificing the heart and soul of the original script. This is not always so, but it happens. It's just the way things are.

Take Rent. Rent the musical, by Jonathon Larson is...well I don't have to mince words about how amazing a show it is. I shall simply call it amazing. To see it live is a heartwarming, life altering experience. Yet when translated to the screen it loses something. Even though most of the principle actors starred in both the show and the film, there is a difference. There's a lack of energy or urgency. In the film, "Christmas Bells," has been cut, which is perhaps the best song, that hits you so hard when you are in the theater, you need a moment to catch your breath. Angel's death does not seem quite as moving or...angelic. The movie is still pretty good all things considered, but it doesn't hit you like it does when done right on the stage.

Then take Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. A musical about a barber so bent on revenge he kills people while his accomplice uses their dead bodies to make meat pies. It's phenomenal; perhaps the best musical ever written. Even the Tim Burton film can attribute to it's greatness, even though during the song "God That's Good," the words "God That's Good," have been cut. Even Johnny Depp, who admits to having little professional vocal training turns in a wonderful performance.

But here is where all this starts to come together. Johnny Depp, through no fault of his own, has created a stigma now associated with this show. When you ask people, "have you ever seen Sweeney Todd?" They respond, "yeah, that was a great movie." Or, "yeah it was a good story, but why did they have to have songs?" Or "oh my God I love Johnny Depp." If you type "Sweeney Todd" into google, the first hit to come up is the film's official site.

So gone are most intellectual discussions of who was the better Sweeney: Len Cariou, George Hearn, or Michael Cerveris? Which Mrs. Lovett would you like if you casted the show: Angela Lansbury or Patti LuPone? If all of these names are foreign to you, please look them up.

So you'll understand my frustration, when on Valentine's Day, I went to see Broadway's Traveling League's performance of the Revival of Sweeney Todd, and lo what was that before my eyes? Young girls who looked too young to have known about the show through a natural exposure to theater. Perhaps...because it's they think this is musical based on the Johnny Depp movie.

And perhaps one of the two most sickening sites to befall my eyes...a girl...who looked abouts the age of twelve...with an i-phone (what does a 12 year old need an i-phone for?) waiting for the doors to open holding a copy of Twilight. This single image almost made me want to rip out my eyes and cry out, "oh the horrors theses walls have seen."

A quick aside...nobody should ever ever ever read the Twilight series. It is sloppy over indulgent dribble that does the same for literature and vampires that Hayden Christensen did for "Star Wars." My friend and fellow blogger, Jeff Stolarcyk, has written a great review of the whole Twilight thing on his blog that can be viewed here:

So a theater full of fan girls who love Twilight. Okay...I could only confirm that one of them loved Twilight...but still...I can guarantee that there were a lot more there. The other horrifying sight? A girl who could have been no older than six.

Now I need to point out something about this show for those of you who don't know.

1) This show has gruesome murder, rape, pedophilia, abuse, corruption, swearing, revenge, and a plot so in depth that there is a reason the movie version was rated R. How many other movies about Broadway musicals can boast that claim?

2) This is the revival we are talking about here. There aren't lavish sets, or a full orchestra. There is a single set, with minimal props, a lot of pantomiming, and all of the actors also play their instruments while on stage, and while acting. All of the major action still happens but is often times represented...for instance when the first murder occurs, the lights go red, and one of the actors pours a bucket of blood into another bucket.

It sounds odd, but the point is this: rather than seeing the story acted out as it's happening, you're actually seeing it being portrayed through all of the inmates in the asylum that Toby is eventually locked up in, through his memory. So the murders aren't actually happening anyways, hence the representation. It sounds strange but it's creepy as hell to watch a stage full of actors with white faces, bloody lab coats, playing the haunting score while singing the final "Ballad of Sweeney Todd."

Now, you expect a six year old to get all that? Let me tell you, she ended up sitting two rows behind me, and she didn't. I know for a fact because after every line she would ask her grandma what just happened. And her grandma would tell her. Like...when Judge Turpin realizes that he'd like to have sex with the girl that he's been raising like his own daughter, and the male actor reaches down and grabs the female actors breasts, and the six year old goes, "whats going on gram-ma?" and the grandma says, "well honey, he wants to do naughty things with her."

Or perhaps the most disturbing moment of the whole ordeal: At the end of the show, after the final murder, the grandmother excitedly and almost as frenzied as Sweeney himself, grabbed her little granddaughter, squeezed her tightly against her chest and says, (loud enough for all to hear mind you,) "That's six of 'em he's got honey." What the hell kind of parenting is that? This show messes with me, and this is what I do for a living. A six year old? To disturb the whole theater?

So on top of that annoyance, you'll also imagine my simultaneous despair and glee that all of these people who would say, "I'm so glad that they finally brought that show here, I mean the movie was awesome, so let's go see stage version," who just didn't get it. Some people didn't like it. They wanted lavish sets. They wanted the blood to spray from the necks. They wanted the chair that sends people into the bake house. (Granted the chair is really cool, but just wouldn't fit in this rendition.) It wasn't as grandiose as the film.

But that's the whole point of this post. I saw the same show they did, and I was blown away. The only misstep for me was that the actress playing Johanna wasn't blonde. I was silently pleading for the final song to last longer than in normally does, hoping that the actors would hold that final note just a few seconds longer. I did not want it to end.

What has happened to our culture and the world of theater when we can't use our imaginations to fill in the all of the subjective stuff that can't be shown on stage because it's impossible, or because the actors are too busy playing a Sondheim score? The film has all the gory details, but a film can. But is that what we want? I like horror as much as the next guy, but I don't actually have to see the throats being slit in such gruesome detail. So when I see Johnny Depp killing the people, it's so realistic I look away. Isn't it a bad thing when you look away from a movie screen?

Also, isn't the beauty of true horror when we are still scared even though we don't actually see it? Like in The Dark Knight, we don't see the Joker kill Gambol, but we know that he did. We also don't see the thugs use the splintered pool stick to fight each other to the death as per The Joker's wishes, but they did. Let your imagination scare you, rather than being shown, because oftentimes we are disappointed. You're always more disturbed by what you don't see.

It pains me to know that some people who saw Sweeney Todd with me tonight could not appreciate the show because it was "weird." But if you can't appreciate actors singing these difficult songs, while moving all of their own props, while also playing their own music, while still acting, and in some cases changing instruments with people while in the middle of a song, without missing a beat, all with out a conductor, while still turning out a wonderful performance, then what can you appreciate? That's true art. That's true theater.

And when this can no longer be appreciated because it wasn't like "the movie," or because they didn't "show everything," then it's clearly marked just how corrupt culture has become. We can't appreciate art in it's true form. The ancient Greeks had less, and yet the had festivals dedicated to this sort of thing. Entire cities would shut down so they could go be entertained. I know theater has lost some of it's appeal, but if a show like this can not be appreciated, much less tolerated by those who enjoy the story and music, so long as it's in a different medium, well that's just sad.

Apologies for getting on the soap box, but sometimes you just feel strongly about things.

This post supported by Theatre Ticket Suppliers

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