Broadway Sells Spectacle

Last Saturday I saw a man grin who was about to be guillotined. It got me thinking about the future of Broadway.

I was watching the musical the "The Scarlet Pimpernel" in New York. My wife brought along binoculars she used earlier in the day to spot a white-throated sparrow in Central Park. At the theater, I grabbed them to get a closer look.

The show is set during the French Revolution. As I focused on one of the "noblemen" marching up some stairs to be executed (far upstage with his back mostly to the audience) I caught him smiling casually at his fellow actor, the "executioner."

To be fair, I never felt the principal players that night failed to emote (or sing or dance) at anything less than full throttle. But it reminded me that Broadway today is more than ever about spectacle than real drama or real emotions, more about giving audiences an "experience" to rival movies and home-video systems.

As with most Broadway shows, "Pimpernel" is a visual and audio extravaganza. Huge sets magically rise and then disappear from the stage. Music and sound effects shake the theater (wireless headsets hike the decibel level, if you like). Elaborate costumes dazzle.

If glitz and pageantry draw crowds, what's wrong with that? If customers are plunking down $50 or $80 for a ticket, let them decide what's entertaining. Let the meaty dramas and unconventional approaches find their audiences in smaller venues off-Broadway (which is exactly what is happening).

What concerns some observers is that Broadway seems to be caught in a kind of "feedback loop," just a part of the TV-film-music entertainment continuum (and a relatively small part at that) void of fresh ideas.

Instead of theater spawning movies, the creative flow runs the other way: Movies spin into Broadway shows (think "The Lion King" and "Footloose"). Instead of actors heading from New York theater to Hollywood, pop stars now come East to shore up musicals: R&B singer Toni Braxton recently took over the role of "Beauty" in "Beauty and the Beast." She follows pop singer Debbie Gibson. And so on.

Still, don't let all this high-minded hand-wringing keep you home if you just enjoy watching highly talented performers in lavish settings. A lot of people do. Broadway is booming. "The Lion King" is ready to roar through Jan. 2, 2000.

For information about shows and to buy tickets, call toll-free 888-BROADWAY (888-276-2392).

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