Monday, July 26, 2010

Theater vs. Theatre

My boss (who is a movie critic) and I are constantly disagreeing on the spelling of the word "theater/theatre." He will use "theatre" if it is the official name of an organization, but feels that as we are not French, the use of it otherwise is pretentious.

I grew up spelling it "theatre" and I guess in my mind a "theater" is a building where you go to watch movies, but a "theatre" encompasses the whole experience of a live performance. The debate rages on...actually it doesn't rage on. My WordPerfect is set to automatically change "theatre," when I type it, to "theater" and Derrick and I are both happier for it.

Many times when people ask me what I do for a living (though "for a living" is laughable...I'd be homeless if I did this for a living) and I say that I'm a theatre critic, they say it must be a nice job because I get to see so many movies. For some reason, people hear "theater" and automatically think movies.

Actually, Walt and I average maybe four movies a year. We just saw Toy Story 3. This is July and it is the first real movie we have seen in a theater this year (other than a special screening of our friend Matt Callahan's movie, Camp Beaverbrook).

In contrast, I have reviewed 36 theatrical productions so far this year and have averaged between 60 and 75 stage shows a year for the last ten years. (Those are just the ones I've reviewed. We've also seen stage shows that I didn't have to review.)

I guess for most Americans, a "theater night" means going to a movie and it's a special group of people for whom that means going out to a live performance.

JoeCoat.jpg  (33267 bytes)My colleague Kel Munger, who writes for the Sacramento News and Review recently responded to a comment I'd made on Facebook about reviewing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (go see it at Music Circus--it's GREAT!).

Kel didn't agree with my enthusiasm for the production and wrote: Not to be a wet blanket--or a damp dreamcoat--but frankly, I'm glad the run is too short for us to review. It's one of those plays (like SOUND OF MUSIC and CINDERELLA) that are perfectly good a couple of times, but after that--oh, geez.

Our mutual colleague, Jeff Hudson, who is a Shakespeare fanatic and will travel anywhere to see a promising production of some Shakespeare play, can't understand how I can see the same musicals over and over again and doesn't seem to see the irony when I point out to him that this is what he does with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is supposed to be more high fallutin' than musical theatre, I guess.

I never could get into Shakespeare and the thought of seeing yet another production of any of the Shakespeare plays sets me to groaning.

But while I disagree on the enjoyment level of Joseph, I do agree with Kel that there are certain musicals I could see over and over again and other musicals that I would be happy if I never have to review in my life ever, ever again.

Annie heads the list in that category for me. Oh I know it's everybody's favorite. And what's not to like with all those cute little moppets and a loveable dog, bright sparkly hummable music, and a happy ending. I loved it when I first saw it. But I've grown to hate the idea of reviewing yet another production of Annie. Oh, I guess I enjoy it when I see it, but by now "Tomorrow! Tomorrow!" sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me, even if the little girl singing it has an outstanding voice (and you don't get that often).

But Annie is a loss leader. If you have Annie in your season, you have parents, siblings, relatives and neighbors of the kids in the show who are all going to buy tickets. Unless the performers really screw up, I'm going to give the show a good review, and people as a whole love Annie so as long as I give it a good review, they are going to come and see it. Win-win for everybody but the critic who is so tired of seeing that show.

My life would also be complete if I never ever had to see another production of Lion King. Yes, I know--gasps of horror. But there is no show there. Once you've see the breathtaking opening number (and I'll happily see that any day), the show loses my attention very quickly. It's a show to see once, but not four times. Yet they keep bringing it to Sacramento because it brings in audience. The company that puts it on makes almost nothing from the show because all proceeds for everything except the drinks you buy go to Disney, but ticket-buyers fear that the only way they can actually get tickets for the show is to buy season tickets, so it's a good way to sell season tickets.

Unlike Kel, I actually do like Sound of Music and I could see The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof any day (as well as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). But I agree with her on Cinderella. One of the theatre companies in town puts on a very funny verison of Cinderella as its Christmas show, alternating with A Christmas Carol. It was funny the first time I saw it, but its humor does not wear well and I really, really didn't want to see it when they did it last year...and they are doing it again this year. I need a little kid to take to see it. I think I might enjoy it more.

And please, please don't anybody do any version of any show that has High School Musical in its title again. God what an awful show. I've now seen the original and High School Musical 2 and I have heard that there is a version 3, which I hope nobody tells the company that did the first two versions! Teenagers love it, whooping and hollering and claping all throughout, watching their friends on stage. 'Nuff said.

Next week I will be reviewing Oklahoma! and actually Jeff is going to see it. His paper decided that it wasn't right that they keep ignoring American musicals, and Oklahoma! is the granddaddy of them all, so he's going to go with us. In truth, I'm not overly excited about the production. It doesn't come on a dislike par with Annie for me, but I 'd rather take it in small doses and I've seen it fairly recently elsewhere. I'd rather wait for five years or so before seeing it again. But unfortunately I don't have that option.

Oklahoma! is one of those shows, like Grease, which has a horrible message covered up by all the fun music. If you think about Grease the message is that a high school girl can only be happy and popular if she becomes a slut.

As for Oklahoma! it makes murder OK if the guy involved was somebody nobody liked (not that he actually did anything, mind you!) and that even if everybody knows who killed him, hey--it's the guy's wedding night and we can have a quick trial and get him off so we can have a shivaree, right?

With very few exceptions, American musicals should not be scrutinized too carefully for the meaning behind the plot. Just make the music fun and the cast cute and toss in some kids and a rousing finale and forget that Sandy has just discarded her demure outfit in favor of skin tight black leather, a bucket full of makeup and is off to do we can only imagine what with Danny.

Actually, being a critic has made me think more kindly about the critics who showed up, most recluctantly, to review Lamplighters shows. Gilbert & Sullivan only wrote 14 operettas, and the Lamplighters has performed each many, many times. It's great if you're a G&S fan (as I am), but if you are a critic who only goes to see shows because it's his/her job (as I also am!), I can understand the desire to never ever see another production of H.M.S. Pinafore, much less have to find something new to write about it! At least when we go to see Pirates of Penzance at the Lamplighters for the bazillionth time later this month, I won't have to come home and write a review about it!

1 comment:

harrietv said...

Back to my childhood -- theater or theatre. It's actually British vs. American spelling. We must have been about ten -- a girl in our class was marked wrong for using "theatre." She pointed out that was the spelling on the Avon Theatre (actually a movie theater) in our town. The teacher reversed his decision.

I love "Oklahoma," but I don't have to glue my attention to it. Just start me off, and my brain will fill in the missing bits; somebody makes a mistake and I'm alert! "Pore Jud" is one of the funniest songs, but not every director makes him pure evil. Did he or did he not threaten? So, is it or is it not self-defense?

Somehow, it never mattered to me. On the other hand, I was disgusted with the conclusion of "Grease," and my kids didn't understand why.