Thoughts from a theatre legend that are as much about the movies...

One of those Google jumps — that unfocussed sport where you click on a link for something, and then click on a link on that page and go elsewhere, and wash, rinse, repeat — brought me to a wonderful conversation between Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich, of the New York Times. Sondheim is probably best known as the guy who wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, but he didn’t rest on those early laurels.

He went on to create a number of venerated musicals (the article calls him “the Broadway musical’s last great artist”), and to get a full measure of the man, you must read Finishing the Hat and its companion volume Look, I Made a Hat, where Sondheim explores his lyrics and offers commentary on the theatre of the time. Paul Simon wrote in the Times, “After reading Finishing the Hat, I felt as if I had taken a master class in how to write a musical. A class given by the theater’s finest living songwriter.”

I could go on in this vein, but this is a column about cinema, not theatre, and the reason I bring up this conversation between Sondheim and Rich is rooted in this passage: “You have two kinds of shows on Broadway — revivals and the same kind of musicals over and over again, all spectacles,” says Sondheim. “You get your tickets for The Lion King a year in advance, and essentially a family comes as if to a picnic, and they pass on to their children the idea that that’s what the theater is — a spectacular musical you see once a year, a stage version of a movie.”

“It has nothing to do with theater at all. It has to do with seeing what is familiar. We live in a recycled culture.” Sondheim’s talking about the theatre, but he could be talking about the movies. It’s a picnic. Only, it’s not laid out in New York’s theatre district, but in multiplexes round the world.

The key word in Sondheim’s observation is “spectacular” — or what, in the movies, is called tent-pole entertainment, those big, effects-heavy productions that are horribly expensive to make and market (sometimes you have to wonder that all these millions are being spent on something as unreal as a movie), but guarantee a long line of sequels if they become hits. And looking at the worldwide grosses for, say, Fast & Furious 6 (not exactly a tent-pole movie, but a sequel to a well-established “brand”), no studio is not going to want a share of the action.

Every year, the films that work globally are the tried-and-tested, the “familiar,” the products of a “recycled culture,” as Sondheim puts it, and his frustration is that of every artist who wants to create, on a certain scale, something original and at least hope that there’s an audience for it. The film may still not work. Those audiences may reject it. But the way the business works today, there’s no way to find that out because those films don’t even open in enough theatres/countries to justify the expense.

Looking at only the US box office, the last time the year’s top grosser was not a “spectacle” was 15 years ago, in 1998, though the film (Saving Private Ryan) could be thought of as “familiar” and “recycled.” (For all its breathtaking innovations, it is, after all, a genre movie, a war movie.) And that was a time the global box office was not yet the monster it is today, making it impossible to produce a movie (on a certain scale) with iffy prospects in foreign territories.

Today, it’s nearly impossible to make a star-heavy drama like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which, in 1966, became the year’s third highest grosser. Because it’s too “American,” it will not go over in Japan. Because it’s too “adult,” it will not go over with kids. Because it’s too “dialogue-heavy,” it will not go over in countries that don’t speak English. And because it’s too “serious,” it will not go over with short-attention-span audiences.

What’s possible today is only a Moonrise Kingdom or The Master, with budgets in the 10- to 20-million dollar range, and with total worldwide grosses that are less than the opening-weekend figures of Iron Man 3.

The other interesting aspect to what Sondheim said is about parents passing on to children “the idea that that’s what the theater is.” When families go to see Iron Man 3 and not Moonrise Kingdom — both are rated PG-13, so kids can see these films — they are imprinting on their children the idea that this is what the movies are, these big spectacular entertainments that generate excitement. That there are other responses to movies will gradually be forgotten, because you can train a child or a teenager but not an adult, whose preferences are already set.

Later in the conversation, Sondheim sums up this inevitability when he says, “The theater is an acquired taste... You don’t go by yourself at 10 years old – you’re taken. Children don’t acquire that taste anymore because it’s too expensive, while movies and TV are shoved in their face from the beginning. I don’t think the theater will die per se, but it’s never going to be what it was. You can’t bring it back. It’s gone. It’s a tourist attraction.”

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