Making changes to theater in the wake of tragedy.
Entertainment doesn’t exist in a bubble.
An audience’s enjoyment (or lack thereof), or their artistic takeaways are affected by so many other factors . . . including their mood, the weather, the shows they’ve just seen . . . and, of course, what’s happening in the world.
This can play in a show’s favor (The revival of Chicago comes to mind, as it opened in a post OJ trial atmosphere), but it can also hurt.
A couple of unfortunate events happened recently that had a direct impact on some current shows. Unlike film, which can’t make any changes to their material once it’s in the can, the question came up for the Producers and Authors of those shows of whether or not to make adjustments to their scripts to be more sensitive to the audience given recent events.
The first show in question was Billy Elliot in London the night after Margaret Thatcher died (Billy features a very critical song about Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister, and some very unflattering large puppets). Billy made the courageous and very 2013 choice of asking the audience if they approved of the number being performed. The audience voted yes, and as I often say, if you give people a choice, they can’t complain.
The second was The Assembled Parties which just opened on Broadway to a set of great reviews. Parties unfortunately featured a section about building a bomb, and also an “unflattering reference to the city of Boston.” In light of what happened last week, Author Richard Greenberg made some quick edits to his play to make sure he wasn’t being unintentionally insensitive.
Not as recently, Avenue Q was faced with the difficult decision of what to do with the character of Gary Coleman after his untimely passing. If you’ve seen the show, then you know that in Q, the character/real person is poked at a bit for fun. (The Authors chose not to make a change to that character . . . and interestingly enough for several performances after, the character got “entrance” applause!”)
Should playwrights make these changes? Or should they let them be? If audiences connect them to current events, could that add even more weight to what the Author is trying to say? Less? Should we consider shows locked, like a film, and never change them no matter what?
Here’s what I think . . . if a line, a paragraph, a song, etc. is going to take an audience out of the world that you’re working so hard at trying to create, and you risk not being able to get them back, then yes, an alteration (even if only temporary) is not only justified, it’s a must. Sure, it may involve a concession on part of the creators of the show, but better to loosen up a bit, then to lose your audience altogether.
What do you think?
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.