Updated takes on stage classics draw tepid responses
By Bob Abelman
“Don’t throw the past away/
You might need it some rainy day”
– From “Everything Old is New Again”
1974 Song by Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager
There were times early in the last century when ingenuity embraced the visual and performing arts, enhanced its artistry and expanded the audience.
Those days are here again, but to curiously mixed reviews.
In the early-1920s, in order to fill the silence before talkies and bring out the emotion of what was being said but needed to be read, many movie theaters employed a live pianist, organist or small orchestra to accompany their films.
In the spirit of this act of creative enrichment, but on steroids, the December installment of the “At the Movies” series at Severance Hall offered a screening of Frank Capra’s monochromatic classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” with a live symphonic performance of the film’s original underscoring by the world-class Cleveland Orchestra. Included were 40 minutes of found music written by composer Dimitri Tiomkin that were cut from the original release of the movie.
The Cleveland Orchestra offered a richer and more vibrant experience than Frank Capra could have ever have imagined or that any audience ever encountered in the 70 years since the film’s release. And yet, there were those in attendance who felt that the live accompaniment was overkill and who found that the now-somber underscoring of assorted scenes detracted from the light and happy feeling we’ve come to expect from this holiday staple.
Back in the 1930s, Broadway productions were often re-staged for film and turned into feature-length movies, bringing professional theater to places where professional theater didn’t exist.
Today, sites such as iTunes, Amazon Video, Netflix and GooglePlay stream filmed musicals and plays to phones, computers and tablets. Last year, a production of the acclaimed revival “She Loves Me” was the first in a series of Broadway, Off-Broadway and London West End shows to be streamed live or live-captured on the internet by the new online subscription service BroadwayHD.
And yet, many theater purists have been unreceptive to these ventures, condemning them for reducing the heightened reality of a stage production to the size of an iPhone screen and turning the communal experience of theatergoing into a socially isolating event.
During the early days of television, live hour-long anthology series such as “Studio One” and “The Philco Television Playhouse” offered original stage plays. In 1955, as part of its “Producers’ Showcase,” a live NBC broadcast of the Broadway musical “Peter Pan” drew 65 million viewers.
Just last month, NBC launched its fourth modern-era live musical event, “Hairspray Live!,” preceded by “The Sound of Music Live!” in 2013, “Peter Pan Live!” in 2014, “The Wiz Live!” in 2015 and Fox’s broadcast of “Grease: Live!” early in 2016. The highly promoted $10 million production of “Hairspray Live!” employed 13 digital cameras, a cast and crew of 700, and the massive soundstages of Universal Studios in California.
And yet, with 8.9 million viewers, “Hairspray Live!” was the lowest rated of them all. Even the audience for “Peter Pan Live!” (9.2 million) paled by comparison to the musical’s 1955 broadcast. The press blamed the chasm that exists between old-school stories and the new, highly obtrusive digital modes of storytelling. In particular, The New York Times called out these productions for their “inability to leave any lily ungilded, to direct a scene without tilting or hurtling or throwing the camera around.”
The evolution of entertainment, it seems, can be uncomfortable for those of us who recall with great fondness the primordial soup of traditional storytelling – when theater looked like theater, when TV looked like TV, and when film looked like film. New enrichments to old art forms are as awkward an assault on our senses as when color was added to motion pictures, when microphones were first worn by stage actors, and when television screens started growing to 65” with 2160p resolution and Ultra HD.
But change can be a good thing. Freeing live theater from the proscenium arch and making it available on multiple platforms, for instance, offers the best seats in the house to everyone in the virtual audience. And while creative and technical risk-taking involves some degree of failure – and there was plenty of that in “Hairspray Live!” – the next attempt will know which risks to keep and which ones not to repeat.
So give change a chance.
Take in the February edition of “At the Movies” at Severance Hall, where the Cleveland Orchestra will do justice to Henry Mancini’s legendary score for the romantic comedy “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Subscribe to BroadwayHD. The live streaming of “Holiday Inn: The New Irving Berlin Musical” begins Jan. 14.
Attend March’s NT Live’s broadcast of Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” at the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights.
And hope for the best rather than expect the worst from NBC’s “Bye Bye Birdie Live!” coming to TV and computer screens in December 2017.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Jan. 2, 2017.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Lead image: “At the Movies” at Severance Hall. Photo | Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra