by Michael Chase Gosselin
Let’s imagine that we conducted a poll in which a range of theatregoers chose whether they believed the Broadway theatre was an avenue for the creation of entertainment or art. The results would most likely represent a fairly even divide. Their answers would probably reflect their respective reasons for going to the theatre. To many, theatre is a fun escape from life where lighthearted stories always end happily. A show may leave this group feeling uplifted and full of energy as they exit the theatre. To others, the theatre is expected to exercise their minds. This group wants to be affected by their theatre experience, evaluating the relevancy of the playwright’s message in their own lives or digging deeply into multi-dimensional characters.
The fact of the matter is, these two ideals can often conflict, but Broadway cannot solely provide just entertainment or just art to survive. I’m not just talking about needing shows that differ in content (as I discussed earlier on this blog), but rather the need for shows that exist successfully in both realms: entertainment vs. art. Can a show be critically acclaimed for challenging theatrical content, but still be successful with audiences (and, at the end of the day, can it make money)?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and partly due to one of my latest projects. This summer, I directed the Vermont premiere of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical, Next to Normal. If you are even the slightest fan of modern musical theatre, you know this show. Next to Normal is not your traditional musical. The plot involves the effects of mental illness and the piece makes some huge statements on the idea of “family” as a whole. It was groundbreaking, and it managed t o be loved by critics and audiences alike, with a healthy run at the Booth Theatre not long ago.
In rehearsals, I often discussed with the cast the need for us to strike the perfect balance between entertainment and art. In my mind, the Broadway production’s ability to find the middle ground is the main reason for the show’s success. It is a story that could easily lean in the direction of being painful and leave the audience feeling destroyed. Yet, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey found a way to tell their story in a way that, though realistic and eye-opening, is still hopeful in the end. If that isn’t enough, it still manages to be entertaining.Put simply, the score rocks. If all musicals had scores like Next to Normal, we might see Broadway music finding a mainstream audience again. The score managed to intensify the emotions and internalization of the characters, while helping to make the two hours more palatable as an energetic evening of theatre. Furthermore, as the show is traditionally staged with a multi-tiered set, the visuals of the production don’t only weave their own story, but create a gorgeous piece of visual art.
All in all, Next to Normal is the perfect example of what the future of American theatre should strive to be. Perhaps all musicals and plays won’t deal with plots as abstract as Next to Normal, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have productions that are both entertainment and art. Take a look at The Lion King, Chicago, Peter and the Starcatcher, and most recently Chaplin. I think we can all agree that these may be hits that pack their punch of entertainment, but the artistic elements are still present and praiseworthy. Let’s hope to see more productions that strike this balance in the near future.
Are there any other shows, either running or not, that you think fit into both categories?
P.S. CLICK HEREto see photos of my recent production of Next to Normal.