Mary Poppins

Eyewitness News

I walk through Times Square. Red, blue, purple, yellow flash and wink. Faces blur. Lights pulse: on, off, on, off. Someone sings a pop song I don’t recognize, revving up those passing by. Times Square. Me, passing through.

Breathing sultry air, I witness the moment: on, off, on, off. I feel my arms in motion, my feet hitting the pavement. Buildings rise, old, connecting me to a past I cannot really touch. Billboards change rapid-fire and signs rotate. In just a few short minutes I witness Mary Poppins, Bubba Gump, race cars speeding.

In the midst of this are offers to come and go – somewhere, but I’m not sure of destinations. The bus stop. Theater tickets starting at $31.50. A giant beer bottle rising up golden, then disappearing.

“I will write as soon as I get to New York,” said Father Byles. I saw his words, bigger than life, white against amber, just an hour ago in the exhibit for Titanic. I will write as soon as never came. Still, the words are hanging somewhere near Times Square, in a dark hall where you can touch a piece of sunken ship, buy a fragment of coal that powered black and white promise (virtually unsinkable! they said). My daughter reached into the touch case – a fragile child’s hand traced remains of wreckage. We passed on the coal purchase, refusing to buy tragedy.

Mary Poppins floats skyward, clinging to her black umbrella. I watch her go and wish for my own umbrella against time. And a red dress. I could use a red dress, singing past tragedy.

Green Ogres and Other
Unfortunate Trends on Broadway

New York City. The culture capital of the world. If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. New York City is where it’s at, because when New York sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.

Yet, as I walk from the subway to my office a few blocks from Times Square, I see billboards that make me shake my head in utter dejection for the “culture” we are putting out. Am I referring to the lingerie models twelve stories high? No. How about the nauseating ad campaign for last season’s Gossip Girl, depicting teenagers in the throes of hot, mind-blowing sex (complete with the tag lines “OMFG” and “Every Parent’s Nightmare”)? Ironically, this is not what has my knickers in a knot today.

As sorry as I am to see such a lack of creativity in Hollywood that producers are resorting to really awful television revivals (like the embarrassing latest incarnation of Beverly Hills 90120), I’m lamenting a different unfortunate trend as I read the NY Times and wander past the billboards in Times Square.

I’m actually talking about Broadway.

My first love. The Great White Way. The place where the rubber hits the road for actors. Broadway was once the pasture where the sheep of the stage were distinguished from the goats, the field where the wheat was separated from the chaff. People relied on Meisner or Stanislavski or even Hagen for technique and inspiration, taking lines that were actually conceived and written for stage and acting them out.

Sadly, a leisurely stroll through Times Square shows that the boards are being increasingly clogged up by hit films, cartoons and revivals being adapted for (or remounted on) the stage. When they did it with Beauty and the Beast, it was cute. “Oh look, that’s fun. They’ve adapted a cartoon for Broadway,” I thought to myself. But now we’ve got The Little Mermaid and Shrek (I don’t count The Lion King, because it was such a creative departure from the film). Not to mention stage productions of films like Billy Elliot, Mary Poppins, Young Frankenstein and -in case you missed the memo – 9 to 5.

I’m not even kidding.

That’s right. Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’, there’s no getting by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’ . . .

Besides these adaptations, we have revivals out the wazoo. A Man For All Seasons, All My Sons, Equus (a sure hit, what with Harry Potter doing his own revival of The Full Monty), Grease, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Hair, South Pacific, The Seagull, West Side Story and White Christmas.

Are you telling me, Mr. Broadway Producer, that there were so few new shows worth mounting this year that you had to sink to so many revivals of tried and true hits?

Don’t get me wrong – I am all for reviving great plays. I love some of these shows, and have performed in several of them myself (from the list above, I’ve done A Man For All Seasons, Gypsy and West Side Story). But as I look over the list of what’s playing now, and I see mostly film adaptations and revivals, I get a bit bent out of shape. Broadway should be bringing the world new work, showcasing the incredible talent out there.

Now, before I get carried away, there have been some excellent new shows produced in recent seasons. In the Heights and August: Osage County were blips on Broadway’s heart monitor, giving hope that all innovative creativity has not been lost, and that new shows are still being produced. But with more people than ever earning MFA’s in playwriting, is it too much to ask to see some new blood next to the “written by” credit in Playbill? Where are the Anton Chekhovs and Arthur Millers of the twenty-first century?

Well, since you asked, I have a few suggestions. If you’re thinking of investing in a Broadway show, I happen to know that Stephen Schwartz is looking for funding to finally mount his musical Children of Eden, which, despite a successful regional theater run, has yet to appear on, or near, 42nd Street. This show has been in development for over twenty years (ironically, I was offered a role in the North American premiere production of this show, but had to turn it down). I also know a few excellent composers and librettists who have developed new works for stage, including David Kirshenbaum (whose Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus would make a welcome addition to the Christmas show buffet table, where traditional titles are growing a bit stale) and Gary Pozner (with whom I collaborated on Nautilus, a family-friendly musical produced by Walden Media that premiered in Denver a few years ago).

Am I suggesting these works would be the next Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera? Not at all. But then again, neither is Shrek, The Little Mermaid or 9 to 5. Yet there they are, defining a new age of Broadway, when a show’s pre-fab marketing plan makes it more viable than its creative ingenuity, book & lyrics or, heaven forbid, incredible acting. (I salute the cast of August: Osage County, who acted their butts off and deserve to be on Broadway. Johanna Day and Estelle Parsons, namaste).

In our effort to contribute to the creation of new culture, International Arts Movement has decided to create a space to showcase emerging playwrights, directors and actors. In April 2009, IAM is producing a weekend of one-acts, featuring three directors and three one-act plays. Melody Erfani, Luann Jennings, and Brie Walker will be the directors, and we are accepting script submissions through the end of January. If you or someone you know is interested, please contact me for more details – my email is christy(at)InternationalArtsMovement(dot)org.

We need new theatre. We need new live stage works. And, call me a big, fat, green ogre, but we need to drastically reduce the campy stage productions of cheesy musicals that belong on DVD, not the boards of Broadway.