Having seen the biggest flop of this season (Spider-Man, oh yes, the season isn’t over; but is there any doubt that this show will enter into the mythos of the musical theatre as the all-time mess), we went to see last year’s biggest critical disaster: “The Addams Family.” Now referring to “The Addams Family” as a flop is not really justified because while this musical received notices that would usually close a show within a week or two, it continues to draw audiences (a full house the night we saw it, possibly helped by the imminent departure of Nathan Lane). In fact, Broadway has adopted a new category of shows based on the success of this and other shows like the juke-box musicals: “Critic Proof” – shows that have successful runs in spite of critic condemnation.
There is much debate these days about the role critics in producing long-runs for Broadway offerings. Once-upon-a-time, the New York Times could make or break a show. In fact, in its hey-day, the praise from other dailies could not outweigh a pan from the Times’ lead critic. Those days are long gone – first to the growing influence of critics in other media such as television. The emergence of online media has further diluted the impact of traditional criticism. This blog, for example, is only one of hundreds of “home-grown” sources of information and reflection on the New York theatre scene.
Recently, there has been much discussion about the timing of critical evaluation. While the sanctity of opening night has been violated by online commentators for several years with web-based postings starting on the first night of previews, Spider-Man has challenged even the traditional press with its delays and apparent lack of concern for an audience paying full price to see a work that even its creators acknowledge is not really ready for prime-time. Like “The Addams Family,” “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” appears to be doing just fine in spite of the truly damning reviews that have now appeared in the traditional and electronic press. Of course, the producers also acknowledge that “Spider-Man” will have to run with full houses for at least a decade to recoup its $65M (and growing) investment; although there is also speculation that their plan (if there is one) is to market the show to arena venues across the country. It should be noted that beyond the “arena-friendly flying,” the current production’s scenery and staging relies very heavily on a traditional proscenium orientation. This week we await the producers’ decision to delay the official opening once again and there is lots of gossip (and some hard facts) that indicate the producers are tiring of Ms. Taymor’s fiddling while their money is burning and are bringing in various directorial assistance with or without her consent. But the crowds continue to plunk down top dollar to see this disaster in progress. How long this can continue is anyone’s guess – summer is coming and the tourist factor will certainly feed the Spider’s web. It’s not clear how successful “The Addams Family” has been in recouping its original investment, but national tours are in preparation and that has been a significant factor in turning a profit in recent years (and a major source of profit in the past).
So what makes these shows critic proof? Watching “The Addams Family” last night gave some clues. The overture starts with the familiar “bah dah dah bum, snap, snap” from the television show’s theme song and virtually the entire audience snapped their fingers at its first iteration. This audience did not come to see a new musical; they came to visit with characters and themes they already knew and liked. The fact that the music is less than memorable; the lyrics are painted in the broad strokes of TV sitcoms; and there is not so much a plot as a sequence of situations that provide the opportunity for very old-fashioned shtick does not matter.
The Addams Family is not as bad the critics complained. It’s just not good; but it doesn’t have to be. The critics and this audience came to the theatre for completely different reasons, reasons that are only vaguely connected by the desire to be entertained. The critics wanted something original, new, with a fresh approach to the humor and New York-chic darkness that Charles Addams created for 60 years in his New Yorker cartoons. The audience came to see their TV friends live! — To see Lurch grunt, Pugsley savor torture; and Gomez and Morticia live unhappily ever after — “bah dah dah bum, snap, snap”. It is feudal to take apart the elements of such a show to demonstrate its failure – it succeeds, just on different terms. Just as the juke-box musical has dispensed with virtually every aspect of the Oscar Hammerstein “Oklahoma!” revolution, “The Addams Family” dispenses with the need to reinvent as Sondheim does in “Into the Woods” or Holzman and Schwartz do in “Wicked” (with a little help from Gregory Maguire, whose book was adapted into the musical). BTW – “Wicked” was not exactly a critical success, receiving tepid reviews upon its opening. But it quickly became a youth-audience cult musical (remember the days when Rocky Horror was cult?). Now it’s the highest grossing show on Broadway with multiple touring productions.
And just as the show itself is an E-ticket ride through the familiar, so too are the performances of the two lead actors in “The Addams Family.” No one does shtick better than Nathan Lane. Even after a full year of classic side-takes and silly pseudo-Spanish accented one-liners, Lane charms his audience. And Bebe Neuwirth, who is given far too little to work with in the script itself, transforms stoicism into shtick. And that’s what this audience came to see. I have yet to see Jersey Boys, since I saw the real thing on Steele Pier in Atlantic City when I was a kid. But it’s the simulation of the real thing that is the attraction of both the juke-box and the comic strip musicals.
There is talk about a revival of one my favorite Broadway flops: “It’s a Bird; It’s a Plane; It’s Superman.” But this revival will have a new book fitted to Adams and Strouse’s original 1965 score. The original book was a tongue-in-cheek satire of the comic strip – a sort of Mad Magazine take on the super-hero. Today’s audience will expect a much more faithful simulation and it appears the producers intend to meet their expectations. Maybe they can get Christian Bale to make his Broadway debut as the man in the cape (although there are rumors that he will actually appear in “American Psycho, The Musical” – no kidding!).
The balance of this theatre season promises more simulation versus originality challenges. “Baby, It’s You” will join the juke-box lineup with a take on the Shirelles singing group of the 1960s, clearly aimed at baby boomers who can afford Broadway preferred-seating. At the other end of the spectrum is “Wonderland,” described as “Alice Through a Whole New Looking Glass,” with Alice exploring a fantastic underworld in New York. There are also three film-to-Broadway musical conversions” “Sister Act,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” In theory, the film-to-Broadway shows should have appeal similar to “The Addams Family” – we like what we know! But recent history suggests they are held to a much more traditional standard of what makes a good musical. “Billy Elliott” and “The Lion King” have succeeded by totally reconceptualizing their progenitor film’s form, while shows like “Xanadu” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” have died recreating their originals. “Mary Poppins” is largely a regeneration of the ever popular movie, but it succeeds because it has all of the elements of a classic book musical, including that ever so rare commodity: a memorable (if already familiar) score.
Maybe it’s time we created a new class of Broadway musical: The E-Ticket Ride. That’s not meant to be pejorative, necessarily. I enjoyed the spectacle of Spider-Man; it was just all of that other silly nonsense that got in the way of the show that annoyed me (and just about everyone who has written about the show). While I was not as captivated as my fellow theatre goers were by “The Addams Family” spectacle and cornball humor last night, I must admit that I originally preferred “The Munsters” and had to ask my partner the name of “Cousin It” when It appeared in a fight with a curtain tassel last night. But it was also clear to me that very few people in the audience last night felt they had not gotten what they paid for, which is more than I can say of many evenings in the theatre.