Review - The Music and The Mirrors
So the big theatre buzz on Sunday morning was generated from a New York Times op-ed piece by violinist Paul Woodiel, currently employed by the Broadway production of West Side Story. As the long-time friend of that show's composer, Leonard Bernstein, put it, "(A)fter 500 performances, our producers have told us and our union that in order to cut costs they will chop our string section in half, releasing five musicians and 'replacing' them with a synthesizer piped in from another room. I don't think Lenny would have approved."
Well, I'm not long-time friend of
Lenny... ah, the late Mr. Bernstein... but I'm guessing Mr. Woodiel is quite correct in his assumption. The question the producers would be more concerned with, I'm guessing, is whether or not the paying customers will approve. I would suspect that if you asked Mr. and Mrs. Tourist who are very excited to see West Side Story live in a Broadway theatre whether they'd rather hear a fully live orchestra or one augmented by a synthesizer they'd op for the former. But ask if they can tell the difference and you might find that, at least to their ears, it really doesn't matter. Yes, a musician will hear the difference. A singing actor will hear the difference and someone who frequents live musical theatre, as well as unamplified, fully-orchestrated concerts, will hear the difference. But that's a minority of the Broadway ticket-buying public.
Even though art should be for everyone, the appreciation of art comes with a developed taste that is educated to notice the details. That's why I can go to a gallery with my brother, an award-winning photographer, and be perfectly entertained by a show that infuriates him for its flaws. That's why I can be absolutely delighted by an improv troupe that makes me laugh while my friend, who is schooled in improv, prefers the work of another troupe whose subtle mastery of the craft escapes me. And while many in my place would respond with the traditional defense, "I may not know much about (art, wine, ballet, sexual positions...) but I know what I like," I tend to be more interested in learning about the reaction of a more experienced palate.
That's not to say that those less immersed in an art form have no right to an opinion, but I'm sure I'm not the only one noticing an ever widening increase between what is acceptable to the casual theatre attendee that just wants the occasional fun night out and the passionate playgoer who believes in a Broadway that aims for artistic zeniths.
In the perpetual battle between art and commerce, there are those who will tell us that understaffed orchestras, substandard performances by crowd-pleasing celebrities and cheap production values are the prices we pay for having thriving theatre district and if we relied solely on productions that pleased the so-called culturally elite the fabulous invalid might just finally lie down and die. Regarding West Side Story, Woodiel says, "The show is inseparable from its lush, sophisticated orchestration. So here's my proposition: if the show is no longer profitable, the producers should simply close it with its dignity intact. Doing so might put me out of work, but it would honor (rather than demean) the legacy of Bernstein's crown jewel."
So I ask you, dear readers, is it best for Broadway to keep a show open at any artistic cost, especially if that cost may not be noticeable to most audience members?
What's that you're wondering? Would I be able to tell the difference between five live string musicians and one synthesizer mirroring their sound? Perhaps not. While I can pick up on reduced orchestrations of familiar scores, detecting whether or not there are strings actually being bowed, given the way the music is amplified nowadays, is not the easiest task in the world, especially when you're simultaneously paying attention to all the other elements of the production. But if I look across the aisle and notice Seth Rudetsky wincing in pain, I'll know that all's not right.
"I'm not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself. I want it to sound like the composer."
-- Leonard Bernstein
The grosses are out for the week ending 7/11/2010 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.