On Wednesday (April 2) I will be speaking at a big 4-day Musical Theatre conference at the CUNY Graduate Center. So if this is up your alley, please come! If not to my lead-off panel (10:00am, ugh) definitely check out the entire schedule, which features some fascinating papers covering all corners of the repertoire, past and present.
For my own topic I've decided to offer a complex--dare I say, contrarian?--argument against the proliferation and acceptance of the staged reading in place of full production, especially as typified in the phenomenally successful "Encores" series at City Center. Don't get me wrong, I love "Encores" as much as anyone, they put on a good show and give many neglected pieces some welcome light of day. But I think there's a case to be made that goes beyond what the individuals beyond "Encores" intend and effectively asks: "Is that all there is?" Are readings what we'll have to settle for in this current cultural and economic climate?
While I'm addressing the ramifications of this for our musical theatre repertory specifically, I think there are obvious examples of this in the dramatic world as well--from non-plays like "The Exonerated" to the "development hell" new playwrights find their work subjected to in endless spirals of readings, workshops, and other production "hybrids."
At the end of the day, of course, it's all about the benjamins. Readings are cheaper, and once prodcuers (profit & nonprofit alike) discovered audiences will still pay full price for them...well, the budget writes itself, doesn't it?
I'm still working on my paper itself. But I thought I'd at least post the abstract I submitted here in case anyone had immediate responses, challenges, ripostes, or "amens" to offer. So have at it. Who knows, you may end up in the paper!
"Encores!" and the Downsizing of the American Musical Theatre
One of the most successful ventures of the New York musical theatre in recent years has been “Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert,” a program of revivals at the City Center. A nonprofit company presenting only three productions a year at five performances each, “Encores” has pioneered a form of the staged reading (or “concert version”) that is cheaper to mount than full productions, yet attracts public attention commensurate with Broadway openings. On the one hand “Encores” has provided invaluable services: recuperating or restoring “lost” pieces from the past or lesser known works from illustrious songwriters’ catalogues, as well as showcasing that material with preeminent performers otherwise unavailable or unaffordable. But in proving the viability of scaled-down readings, has “Encores” also unwittingly set a hazardous precedent for the musical revival in the long run? As professional theatrical production costs skyrocket (in both commercial and nonprofit spheres alike) the fully staged revival of even a canonical American musical is an endangered species. Does “Encores”—as well as the spate of “piano and music-stand” imitators it has spawned—risk reinforcing the cost-cutting mentality of current theatrical practice by inuring audiences to the lowered expectations of rudimentary staging and designs, performed “scripts-in-hand” with abridged or revised librettos? As their successful transfer of Chicago has showed, the “Encores” aesthetic can now sell on Broadway.
By focusing on specific productions, as well as the company’s business and marketing practices, I suggest that “Encores” and its ilk have fulfilled some of the needed functions of a National Theatre of the American musical, but while also asking: at what price?