“In those years, people will say, we lost track /of the meaning of we, of you we found ourselves /reduced to I/and the whole thing became/silly, ironic, terrible…” —Adrienne Rich
Once upon a time in the mid-’80s, Tony ’n Tina’s Wedding was an innovation. Three years after the audience immersion show was first performed in a New York City American Legion Hall in 1985, it was included in an article in The New York Times about the “avant-garde” with the likes of performance artists Holly Hughes and Karen Finley and experimental troupes La Mama, the Wooster Group and Mabou Mines. You could say the interactive play changed the national landscape of community theater forever, although now we tend to think of it with the same exhaustion as Nunsense, which premiered off-Broadway in 1985.
It would be easy to make a bad joke about the local theater scene — how if you read our calendar listings on any given week you might think The 570 was stuck in the ’80s. But honestly, the Big Apple’s not doing much better — Into the Woods just opened at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Larry Kramer’s 1985 AIDS play The Normal Heart finally opened on Broadway last year. And the latest musical to move from stage to screen is the ’80s-themed jukebox musical Rock of Ages. One of the biggest debates in the theatre community right now is about an attempt by the owners of sitcom Three’s Company (1977-1984) to squash David Adjmi’s play 3C, which features an original plot in the familiar framework of the popular show. While the “fair use” fight is an important First Amendment issue for artists who want to reserve the right to explore or satirize such pop culture phenom, I can’t help but think, let’s move on. Does it have to be derivative to get produced? And if so, is this more a reflection of the quality of writing we’re churning out or are audience taste buds so fickle producers won’t dare to stage anything that doesn’t “taste like chicken”?
I don’t suppose we can blame CATS for every reactionary decision that’s stifled theater in America since its 1982 Broadway debut changed the game, but it’s so tempting. CATS was no ordinary musical — it was a tourist attraction. In the neo-conservative culture of early ’80s America that ranked children on the brand of jeans they wore, the number of Swatches they owned, and the size of the Duran Duran poster over their bed, CATS tee-shirts were another status symbol.
I’ve never been a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber and when I finally saw CATS in the mid-aughts, I left at intermission. Because all song and dance (and high-tech special effects) aside, the show was a hit for the hype. CATS was a successful marketing campaign; you could buy the souvenirs to prove you had been a part of it. Les Miserables, thankfully more substantial than CATS, would follow suit. And then there was Phantom. It would be reassuringly conspiratorial to think political censorship squashed the philosophical discourse of the mid century and (drug-inspired?) experimentation of the ’60s and ’70s, but ultimately it was little more than greed.
Show business has always been about making money, but we’ve seen the little mom and pop shops of theatre shut down by the corporatization of Times Square while America’s main streets were boarded over. The best thing that happened to theater in the ’80s may have been the groundwork laid for outsourcing new play development to regional theaters. Ensuring the future of our stages lies in the same strategy as saving our shops — micro/niche innovation. In the words of a more familiar mantra— buy local, buy “handmade.”