Friday, May 16, 2014

Who's to Blame for "Bridges" Early Closing?

Steven Pasquale and Kelli O'Hara in the underappreciated (and soon to close) The Bridges of Madison County

Jason Robert Brown's beautiful, heartbreaking The Bridges of Madison County (featuring a career-best and Tony worthy performance by the always amazing Kelli O'Hara) is closing this Sunday.  If you haven't seen the show yet, stop reading this and go buy your ticket now; the blog will still be here when you return.  For those of you who have seen it, let's sit down and have a frank discussion about all of the issues Bridges' premature closing points to in our industry and the people who work in its.

Now, Broadway is a business, and Bridges has hardly been a box office sensation.  It would be unfair to blame the producers for closing a show whose grosses don't cover its weekly running costs; if anything, they should be commended for keeping the show running as long as they did.  No, if blame must be assigned, it belongs squarely on the potential audience members who supposedly wanted to see the show but didn't.  I was in the theatre district the day after Bridges announced it was closing and heard multiple people discussing the news with some variation of the phrase, "That's too bad. I wanted to see that."  To which I say, "Well then why didn't you?"

Theatre people love to complain, and one of the most common complaints over the past decade has been the lack of original and artistically daring work on Broadway.  According to these naysayers, everything is movie adaptations and revivals with miscast stars and jukebox musicals that clearly had their genesis in a marketing meeting.  These complaints aren't entirely without merit - although I tend to think the situation isn't as dire as most people make it out to be - but the fact of the matter is when something like Bridges comes along and *is* artistically daring and more serious, it isn't supported.  The easy scapegoat is the tourists aren't cultured enough for these sorts of things, but it isn't exactly fair to blame them for not attending a show during their 4-day vacation that you couldn't be bothered to see in your months of living here.

When it closes on Sunday, Bridges will have run for exactly four months.  And while that isn't a particularly long run in this time of multi-year hits, it also isn't an insignificant amount of time.  Especially for someone who lives in the city, I find it hard to believe that there wasn't at least one evening (or afternoon) during that four months where they could have attended the show.  And before any New Yorker even starts with that "I'm busy" nonsense, the fact of the matter is that everyone is busy, but with a little thing called time management it really isn't that hard to carve out a 3-hour block to see a show (especially if you have time to see a movie, go out drinking, or any of the millions of other leisure activities even "busy" people have time for).  If you make seeing Show X an actual priority, I promise you that you will magically find the time to do so. 

And before anyone brings up the price of tickets, I have a twofold counterargument.  First of all, while theatre tickets are certainly expensive, industry people should know better than anyone just where all that money is going and the importance of supporting the industry financially.  Secondly, no one is saying you need to buy a $150 orchestra seat.  There are rush seats, there are discount codes (especially easy to come by when a show is not selling well), and plenty of other ways to get in to see a show that don't involve spending an entire week's paycheck.  If all you can afford is a $40 or $50 ticket (and if you cut out a night or two of drinking/dining out at NYC prices, I promise you that over the course of a month you can scrounge up that much money), then buy that ticket and know that you supported the arts as much as you were able.  If all of the New Yorkers who wanted to see Bridges had bought a $40 ticket, the show might have been able to run an extra week or two.

The other major problem I see with Bridges lies in its critical reception.  To be blunt, the critics were not kind to the show.  Now everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and as long as a critic can back that opinion up with specific examples from the show they can write whatever they want.  But considering that critics are some of the loudest voices decrying the commercialization of Broadway, they should maybe be a little more encouraging to new work that possesses the traits they claim the industry needs more of, even if it doesn't always execute those traits well.  There is a way to point out the flaws in a piece without dismissing the entire thing out of hand, and I feel that far too many critics latch onto the flaws of new work while ignoring the positive traits.

This problem is particularly pronounced when you compare how new works are reviewed versus revivals.  In the same week, I saw Violet and If/Then (coincidentally the same week Bridges announced its closing).  I personally think both shows have some structural problems, and if I'm being honest I feel that If/Then is the more successful of the two productions.  But the general press savaged If/Then's flaws while ignoring what in my mind are many fine performances and a thought-provoking narrative that tackles some of life's big questions.  These same individuals largely overlooked Violet's structural problems and somewhat trite message in favor of praising the cast, since the convention is that you don't review the writing of a revival.  This double standard tends to make revivals sound more appealing than new works, and as a result a lot of the revivals this season are doing better business than the new shows.  If the critics steer people towards revivals, and those revivals subsequently make more money, then the new, daring work critics claim to want will be produced less and less.

At the end of the day, we all need to take responsibility for our actions and the messages they send.  If we are going to complain about the lack of original work on Broadway, then we need to make it a priority to get out and support the original work that does get produced.  No single individual can turn a flop into a hit, and there are some fantastic shows that due to their nature are just destined to be more niche affairs (as a serious musical without much spectacle in an industry that has lately favored feel-good puff pieces, Bridges probably falls in that category).  But if we all collectively make a more conscious effort to prioritize and support new, artistically daring new work like Bridges, If/Then, or even A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, we can help counterbalance the masses of tourists who are only interested in seeing Phantom and Mamma Mia! for the umpteenth time.  And the other lesson to be learned here is that you cannot assume a show will still be running when you get around to it; if you are passionate about seeing a show, you need to prioritize it because you cannot ever know for certain how long it will run.

PS - I saw Bridges twice, once when I reviewed it in March and then again after it announced its closing date.

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