September 7, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

“The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease,” wrote Moss Hart in his iconic autobiography Act One, which encapsulates in one sentence as much as can be said about the dangers of a career in show business. And though it could be argued that Hart was being somewhat facetious, I tend to doubt it. For those obsessed with the theatre, it is a disease. But as Tevye cleverly retorts when told by Motel the Tailor that money is a curse, “Then may the good Lord strike me with it — and may I never recover!”

Moss Hart: playwright, director and novelist.

People ask me how I keep the flame of passion for theatregoing from extinguishing after so many nights out and the answer is simple: there’s always the chance for a one-of-a-kind experience, which is what live theatre is all about. I’m very fond of the story that the journalist James Wolcott tells of his going to see films with his friend and fellow critic Pauline Kael. Though known as a notoriously tough customer, just before the lights would go down in the theatre, Kael would take Wolcott’s hand and whisper, “Let us pray.”

I believe that whatever god Kael was appealing to was in the hope for a transcendent experience, which is the reason any of us go to a play, film or concert in the first place, isn’t it? For me, there’s no room for becoming jaded. Sure, I can sometimes have a bad run where it seems like everything I see is a disappointment, but I’m rarely sorry I went (unless it was ungodly expensive). Yes, there are times something is truly terrible and painful to sit through, but frankly it doesn’t happen all that much: testimony to the quality of theatre currently on display both on and off-Broadway right now. Honestly, I marvel at the level of talent in New York in 2017. Things only seem to get better and better and better.

Take a show like Bandstand, which is about to end its five-month run on Sunday afternoon (prematurely, for my taste). Seeing it for my second time last night, I was dazzled by the company of fine actors, a good many of whom play their own instruments. And the dancers? They’re incredible; the best Broadway has to offer. It’s a shame that this fine show struggled to find an audience worthy of all it has to offer. Both times I saw it, everyone in the theatre were thoroughly enjoying themselves. In the current economic environment, unless a show is a hard-to-get ticket, audiences discriminate against ones that are more readily available to them. As if it might run through their minds, “How good can it be if no one’s clamoring to get in?”

Broadway cast of “Bandstand.”

That is only one of the many side issues of how much it costs to see a Broadway show these days. And I know, I know … ticket prices have been high for a long time now. And they are going to keep getting higher. I hate that with every increase, the decrease in attendance is hidden by the fact that Broadway keeps boasting of its highest grossing season ever! It’s an easy milestone to achieve, once the insane premium ticket pricing is factored in. That you can go to the box office and buy an $850 seat is stunning to me — that and the knowledge that when the product is in demand there are many who are willing (and able) to pay it (just get ready for both Bruce Springsteen this fall, and the Harry Potter double-header in the spring).

To stretch Moss Hart’s metaphor a bit, then if theatre is a disease, are we looking at high costs as the infection that could cause Broadway at its core to fester and rot away? Maybe, but who knows? I’ll say one thing: because I work as a director with college-age kids who are in love with the theatre, there’s little to be done that can dampen their enthusiasm for entering it. And it is that enthusiasm I attempt to build upon by way of teaching them as much history as I can, since it’s important for them to be aware of how even the most innovative shows owe so much to what came before, i.e. Rent or Dear Evan Hansen. This often prompts the occasional arcane phrase or reference that wind up being necessary to break down and explain. When this past summer I told the cast of a show I was directing that a certain bit of staging was going to go over like “gangbusters,” it caused plenty of confused head tilts. A quick Google search gave us its derivation: Gang Busters, a 1930s radio program so popular that it ran for more than twenty years. Each episode began with great excitement and sound effects, thus something “starting off like gang-busters” morphed into the popular idiom of “going over like gangbusters.” It’s actually still in usage today, as only yesterday I heard MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle reference the term when introducing a talking heads panel on her morning program.

Having risked an off-point diversion here, let me attempt to both stay on track and conclude this column at the same time. In a recent discussion about Broadway and its potential as an endangered species, I brought up how it was ever thus: that for nearly a hundred years the theatre has been referred to as “the Fabulous Invalid.” Meaning that no matter how many times you kick a certain something to the curb, there is always the chance it can rise again through sheer force of the good will it generates, even in the worst of times. And how great is it that the phrase was fully utilized to express that very sentiment nearly eighty years ago by none other than … yes, you got it: Moss Hart. It was he and his longtime partner George S. Kaufman, who wrote a 1938 Broadway comedy titled The Fabulous Invalid, a thinly-veiled version of how the New Amsterdam, the greatest Broadway theatre of its day, came to fall on hard times when it was converted into a movie house ten years into the Great Depression, no longer able to book extravaganzas like The Ziegfeld Follies, for which it had become famous.

1938 Playbill for “The Fabulous Invalid.”

Unfortunately, The Fabulous Invalid’s sole claim to fame was its title: it closed in sixty-five performances. But then as Ira Gershwin once wrote, “The melody lingers on.” Appropriately enough, the words were to his brother George’s music for a song titled “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.



Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.

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Ron Fassler

Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.