Media scholar Jonathan Burston has been doing some fascinating work on Broadway mega-musicals—you know the kind: Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast. His focus is not merely the Disneyfication of Broadway theater (which is its own rich, wicked topic—get it? Wicked?). Burston is also interested in the transformation of the actor’s experience of work—from the act of, say, making acting choices, to, for example, doing it just like they did in London, or singing a song just like the first Phantom did it. Check out his latest at
The actor’s craft has been reduced, compressed, turned into a quasi-creative factory labor under the logics of not only late capitalism but of what Burston calls “recombinant Broadway”—shows that started out as (animated) films become Broadway shows then turn back into films, version after version proliferating like a reflection of a mirror caught in another mirror. Think Hairspray. Waters’ film made its way to Broadway then made its way back into a cinematic form—complete with a cross-dressing John Travolta doing a tremendous Baltimore accent. We come to the theater with a sense of what we’ve already seen; we head to the movies already familiar with the songs.
Burston writes about some of the creative frustrations of theatrical performers as a result of these new forms with particular force. I’m hooked on such insights. If you’re like me, then you too dig Inside the Actor’s Studio, have felt a giddy curiosity when, say, Natalie Portman describes her craft in one breath and her favorite foreign-language curse-word in the next. The boundary between audience and actor, fan and celebrity has always seemed porous—and electrified.
But several shows of late have explicitly played with that boundary. Take the revival of Hair. Happily breaking the 4th wall since its original production in 1967, the current revival ramps up the impact of that seemingly radical theatrical gesture. The whole way through the new Broadway production its players (members of The Tribe) gallop up stairs, stand on chairs, dance in the aisles— all of which culminates in an extraordinary Technicolor theatrical freakout where the audience is invited, cajoled, corralled on stage as the entire theater erupts into the plays anthem: let the sun shine. And in an age of Broadway mega-musicals and movie-to-stage transfers, there’s something radical about audiences singing like they’re at church.
Plus, I saw Slava’s Snow Show and watched clowns literally sit on some grumpy audience member’s head (this before they blew snow into the crowd to the tune of Carmina Burana). Or take Spring Awakening with its staggering narrative and imaginative staging: you can get seats on stage if you so desire. And as you sit there watching the drama unfold, watching the audience in the theater proper watching you on stage as you watch the play, you’ll be thrilled and surprised when one of the other audience members on stage turns out to be a member of the chorus, but you won’t know this until the cute little Asian girl in 7-jeans and a t-shirt stands up on her chair and starts to wail.
But actors have always been running through the aisles. And even Ayn Rand knew that an audience seated on stage heightened the tension of a show (recall her play The Night of January 16th). And if you dig this line of inquiry, check out Peter Greenaway’s uber bizarre-o masterpiece The Baby of Macon (1993). If actors are frustrated by the logics of a system demanding the near-exact reproduction of performances because producers believe that that’s what audiences have come to expect—the pleasures of consistency and familiarity, the reproduction of a performance rather than the reinterpretation of a text– then what to make of this secondary pattern? Some audiences relish the pleasures of boundary play. If audiences are on stage, if actors are in the audience, then are we not all somehow implicated in the broader transformations Burston describes?