I have to agree with my main man 99Seats against my ole friend Playgoer: This Howard Kissel column on the closing of Brighton Beach Memoirs really is garbage. But it's garbage because it completely ignores the "business" part of show business over and over again. Let's go to the tape:
So far so obvious, right? I mean, if a show closes, pretty clearly the audience for that show either didn't exist or didn't come to the theater. A lot of people are taking the "didn't exist" perspective. Kissel wants to broaden "didn't exist" to mean not only "the Neil Simon crowd" but "The Broadway Crowd". What Kissel doesn't talk about (and, to be fair, no one seems to be talking about) is whether or not the show was well produced or well marketed. One of the producers said in the Times that it would take absolute raves to keep the show open.
I was saddened to learn that Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs," which opened last Sunday, will close this Sunday. "Broadway Bound," with which it was supposed to run in repertory, will not even open.
This news has been attributed in some quarters to the death of The Neil Simon Audience.There is some truth to that, but I fear the problem is much larger. It has to do with the death of The Broadway Audience, which disappeared some time ago.
That's a pretty clear sign right there that the show was inadequately financed and had low cash reserves, as they couldn't afford to keep it open long enough to build an audience. Yes, advance sales were reportedly quite slow, but I just want to pause for a moment before we all start writing epitaphs for this audience or that audience and say that the show wasn't widely (or interestingly) marketed, they clearly didn't have enough money to keep it open, and the biggest "draw" was David Cromer, who only theatre insiders know, have heard of or are interested in. I'm not saying that these are the definitive reasons why BBM closed (Broadway closings are like ink blot tests) but these are all real problems with the production that have nothing to do with whether or not the "audience" for Brighton Beach Memoirs exist or who that audience is.
Moving on... How does Kissel define the audience? Well...
The Broadway audience, which highbrows condescended to, especially when it was at its height, in the decades after World War II, was certainly centered in New York. It was middle class (with significant exceptions both higher and lower on the social ladder.) It had a higher percentage of Jews than the population at large.In other words, Howard Kissel is upset that more people like him don't go to Broadway these days, and that Broadway isn't designed to appeal to him anymore. There's a couple of tipoffs, the "moi" and the little bit of resentment-filled bristling with "which highbrows condescend to". I understand these frustrations... hell, I think i wrote something similar from the perspective of younger audiences a week and a half ago. But here's the issue... if this is what Howard Kissel wants, theater that appeals to himself as a demographic, there's lots and lots and lots to see of it in this town. It might not be on commercial Broadway, but Lincoln Center, MTC and Roundabout all essentially cater to him as an audience. Those are the three largest theaters in town, and three of the largest performing arts companies in the nation. There's plenty of others who appeal to him a a demographic as well. This will become important in a few paragraphs when Kissel tries to explain what happened to the "Broadway Audience":
It also went way beyond the Hudson. In the decades after the war Broadway was a significant factor in middle class life all across the country. It was not only New Yorkers who knew Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams (not to mention all the major figures of our musical theater.) Those names counted for something in every major city across the country, in part because their plays toured immediately after they finished their Broadway run, often with the original stars. That was how a little boy in Milwaukee (moi) became entranced with the theater.
This is the point where this starts to read like a bad blog post. You're not supposed to be able to say shit like "X was caused by Y" without some evidence to back it up. Even one title of one show that was a hit with tourists but too intellectual for the MiddleBrowClassJew audience would help. Instead, we get a poll of Howard Kissel's friends to match Thomas Friedman's poll of Magical Taxicab Drivers Who Talk Like Thomas Friedman.
Broadway lost its national audience as well as a lot of its local audience starting in the '60s, when it became increasingly politicized and intellectualized. The audience that had grown accustomed to turning to the theater for emotional catharsis no longer found it. When I think of the friends with whom I used to go often to the theater, they now tend to go more frequently to the opera and the ballet, where they find the emotional rewards the theater, Broadway or otherwise, seldom gives them.
There's a lot that's really, deeply wrong with this paragraph, including the simple questions of what about all the other decades between then and now? Did the 80s continue to drive these audiences away because Phantom and Miss Saigon were too "intellectual"? Is Broadway intellectualism really the issue? That Broadway isn't middlebrow enough?
But what's really really wrong with this paragraph is that it ignores that the entire landscape of the theatre industry has changed radically since 1960. Simply put: People don't have to go to a Broadway show (or local tour) to see professional theater anymore, because there was this thing called the regional theater movement. Moreover, NYC's MiddleBrowClassJew audience is extremely well served and catered to by this other thing called Off-Broadway. Which is where David Cromer's other show, Our Town (which Kissel loved) continues to play very successfully. Furthermore, a lot of people have seen BBM at their local community theater or high school and might think twice about seeing it for $100. Which is the other thing that Howard Kissel doesn't mention-- the show was really fucking expensive to go see.
I'm not saying that audiences haven't changed for Broadway. Obviously they have. And of course it's a lot more tourist driven than it was. I'm just not sure I see this as such a huge tragedy so much as a demographic realignment driven by business realities.
There's more wrong with this column, but 99 handles it well and this blogpost is getting longer and angrier than I intended it to be, so head on over there and read what he has to say about it. To me, what this ultimately reads like is blog posts on The Corner by old white guys lamenting the death of monoculture at Universities. Kissel's demographic group used to be the catered to group at the height of a monoculture in his particular area (theatre). That monoculture has broken up a little bit with some positive and some negative consequences, but his demographic group is no longer as in charge as it used to be and now he's throwing a tantrum about it.