New York City VS. Houston: A Look At The Nation's Top Two Theatre Scenes
At the end of July 2012, Forbes Magazine ranked Houston as THE coolest place to live in the United States. Then August opened with the news that Houston artists earn more money than artists in other cities do. Obviously, Houston, Texas is at the brink and forefront of some serious growth in the business sector and arts sector. Thankfully, we have an amazing theatre scene-currently ranked second in the nation-to compliment all of that.
I recently spent 9 fast-paced days in New York City. Naturally, I absorbed as much of their glorious and whimsical theatre scene as time and my wallet would allow. In the time I was there, I took in performances of SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, EVITA, THE LION KING, TRIASSIC PARQ, HARVEY, Forbidden Broadway: ALIVE & KICKING, and RENT. I attended a healthy and eclectic mix of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. All the while, taking notes on how New York's brand of theatre differed from Houston's.
The truth is-there's really no difference, especially when we talk about quality. However, let me fill you in on some lingo, just in case you need it. To qualify as an Broadway show, its not about location. It's all about the number of seats. Broadway houses seat 500+ people a show, Off-Broadway houses seat 100-499 people, and Off-Off-Broadway houses seat 99 or less. Thus, if in New York City, Main Street Theatre's Rice Village stage, with 115 seats, would qualify as Off-Broadway while The Alley Theatre's Hubbard stage would easily qualify as a Broadway house. Yet, with this said, theatres like The Hobby Center's 2,650 seat Sarofim Hall and The Wortham Center's 2,405 seat Brown Theatre dwarf Broadway's largest house-the 1,993 seat Gershwin Theatre that WICKED currently calls home.
So what sets the nation's first and second theater scenes apart? In all honesty, it comes down to size, population, and tourism. Houston is a great place for professional actors and those who wish to do it as a hobby while holding down a different day job. As of now, Houston's theatre scene simply cannot support forty Broadway sized theatres, and the city does not attract enough tourists to have open-ended, sit-down runs of blockbuster musicals. Certainly, not everyone in Houston who wants to see WICKED has made it out to The Hobby Center during its three runs there, but Greater Houston's estimated population of 6.08 million, along with tourists, probably could not keep a show like WICKED open for almost 10 years like New York has.
Moreover, Houston's major theatre houses are also as technologically advanced and as capable as the houses in New York City. In fact, when building The Hobby Center, a lot of emphasis was placed on giving Houston the best of the best in technology so that would never be an excuse for a show to not perform there. Stern and Fisher Dachs delivered a performance space that was designed and specifically equipped to handle and accommodate the most elaborate and complex of performances. Basically, this means, shows like PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and WICKED have absolutely no problems when loading into and performing in The Hobby Center's Sarofim Hall. This is not to say that Houston houses would not need some renovations to house a spectacle like SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, but it could be done.
Houston's pool of artists is as talented as it is diverse and varied. While I was in New York, there was not a single set design, lighting design, actor, writer, costume design, and so on that I found to be superior to its equivalent in Houston. Given the opportunity, I sincerely feel that Houston talent would be just as successful in New York City as the talent strutting across New York stages. Houston audiences are extremely lucky to have such a large number of quality casts and crews to call this city home and perform for our entertainment.
Likewise, Houston's front-of-house and box office staffs are just as professional and polite, if not more so due to our brand of Southern hospitality, as their New York counterparts. A big difference here is that a large number of Houston ushers are volunteers. In New York, most ushers are paid and a part of a union.
There is one extremely off-putting aspect of the New York theatre scene that I would be remiss not to mention. A new trend has taken over the major Broadway houses, and it simply disgusts me. I hope that it doesn't trickle down to our major venues. For roughly $5 extra, theatergoers in New York City can now buy plastic souvenir cups at the shows they attend. This cup entitles them to take their beverages to their seats. Now, while enjoying a show in New York, the sounds of ice swirling in plastic cups and sipping can be heard all around you. Also, the Broadway theatres are allowing patrons to have snacks in the theatre during the show; thus, audiences are also treated to the sounds of popcorn, M&Ms, and more being chewed on. I have no doubt that concession sales are way up after making these changes, but after seeing SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK and THE LION KING, I simply couldn't believe how trashed the inside of the theatre looked. I was appalled and felt truly sorry for the janitorial staffs at these shows. Overall, it seems the audience experience is moving more and more towards the local Cineplex, leaving the magestic refinement of "the theatre" behind.
The only aspect of our theatre scenes that I cannot compare is our amateur scene. A majority of Off-Off-Broadway shows do not feature equity actors (professional actors that are members of the Actor's Equity Association union-the AEA). This means that Houston's fantastic community theatres, even the ones that would classify as Off-Broadway by having 100+ seats, are most like New York's Off-Off-Broadway venues. Regardless of ability to compare, it should be noted Houston has every reason to laud its amateur community, as the 25 Greater Houston area companies consistently pull off amazing feats of quality theatre every season.
While New York City will deservedly continue to be the renowned American Mecca of live theatre, it is comforting to know that Houston's own theatre scene is on par with New York with regards to quality. We may not have long, open-ended runs, but Houston audiences can take pride in what they are exposed to. Would we really want to house PHANTOM OF THE OPERA for 24 years or THE FANTASTIKS for 52? Change, even at the monthly level, works well in the Houston theatre scene and keeps Houston audiences on their toes with new and exciting experiences always being offered. In closing, I implore you to celebrate and enjoy Houston's theatre scene. Undoubtedly, Houston has a fantastic gem of a theatre scene to cherish and be proud of.
Image courtesy of David Clarke.