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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Joey the war horse comes to Durham, and what the new DPAC season says about Broadway

Posted by on Wed, Mar 14, 2012 at 1:33 PM

Last week, the slogan "New York Has Never Been So Close!” was proclaimed at least four times in the presentation for the 2012-2013 SunTrust Broadway series at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

But while I’m certainly looking forward to several of the touring productions, including the season opener, War Horse, I was left wondering, What does this lineup say about the current state of Broadway?

Eight plays will come through DPAC starting in October: War Horse, Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, Jekyll & Hyde, Mary Poppins, Anything Goes, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Sister Act.

On Friday afternoon, the theater and SunTrust previewed the lineup with a special presentation for season ticket holders that consisted of a reception, Durham Mayor Bill Bell praising the lineup and a video segment produced by official media sponsor WTVD-11 (reporting from New York!) that highlighted the shows (good luck finding it on their website, though).

But what got me out of the house for this junket was a live presentation of Joey, the life-sized horse puppet from War Horse. More on that in a minute.

Did I mention that "New York Has Never Been So Close"?

I rarely get up to New York, but based on my last few trips, I concede that this slogan represents an accurate cross-section of Broadway’s current or recent hits. While some, like the latest Mary Poppins, have been around for several years (and in Jersey Boys’ case, have come through the North Carolina Triangle before), others are relatively new, with War Horse premiering on Broadway only about a year ago after its successful run in England.

A stage play, particularly one with many effects, sets and cast members, is something that is seemingly immune to the changes in distribution brought about by the Internet and digital media. Sure, someone will post a camcorder version of a show online once in a while, but the experience of live theater is difficult to translate to, say, a recorded DVD version. Only rarely does a show get broadcast on PBS or other venues, and even then, it’s hardly the same experience.

While music, TV, film and even books are able to become viral in a short period of time, there’s still a much longer wait for a Broadway show to attain the combination of cachet and technical development that allows for people all over the country, and the world, to experience it live through a tour.

It might be a boon to those of us in smaller markets to have hit productions going on tour quickly, but on the other hand, it also highlights just how commercialized Broadway has become in its efforts to keep up with changing times. Without speaking to the quality of the eight shows, most of which I haven’t seen, I can break down that almost all fall into the categories of “Based on a Movie,” “Revival of an Older Show” and of course, “Jukebox.”

These aren’t necessarily bad things. Jersey Boys, for example, is a terrific show that offers real insight into the lives of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and is more than just an uncanny impersonation. And this is hardly a new trend—read up on Broadway history, and you’ll find virtually any book and/or movie you can imagine has been adapted into a musical at one point or another (the most infamous example, Carrie, was recently revived in a de-camped version, and excoriated by critics again for denying audiences the Grand Guignol spectacle they craved).

But last year’s big hit, The Book of Mormon, was an anomaly on Broadway: a hit show that was written directly for the stage with original songs. The quality of the work clearly speaks for itself, but would The Book of Mormon have even made it to Broadway if it didn’t come from the creators of South Park (and, lest we forget, Avenue Q)?

Book of Mormon aside, It’s starting to seem like the most unrealistic thing about the Broadway-themed TV series Smash is that it purports to depict plans for an original Broadway musical with original songs.

In searching my mind for successful original musicals of the last few years, I keep finding qualifiers. Yes, Wicked has had a long and successful run, but perhaps it was familiarity with Gregory Maguire’s source novel (or more likely, musical mainstay The Wizard of Oz)—that brought in the initial audience?

Fela had well-known music and the production backing of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith (I hesitate, though, to call it a jukebox musical). And War Horse has reduced many a grown man to tears, but Stephen Spielberg’s producing it and directing the Oscar-nominated film version certainly doesn’t hurt the viability of the touring production.

But War Horse still represents a triumph. It’s a non-musical play where the main character is a non-speaking puppet, based on a children’s novel not nearly as well-known as Harry Potter and its ilk. And the Joey puppet is as breathtaking advertised. His movements and body language are uncannily like that of a real horse. I wanted to pet him, but he’s boxed up before I have the chance.

Afterwards, I’m invited with other members of the press to talk to members of the War Horse team, including Finn Caldwell, associate puppetry director for the National Theatre production.

Much theatrical geekery on my part ensues as we discuss the structure of the horse puppet (cane with an aluminum frame); how long it takes to make a new puppet (nine months at a “factory” of puppeteers at South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, with plans to add two international productions a year); and the challenges of each new production (the puppeteers “learn” the physical space on stage and adjust the movement of the horse accordingly).

“It’s about creating a visual text,” Caldwell says of the performance, tensing slightly when I refer to the performance as “pantomime” (it’s apparently a bit of an insult in British theater).

I leave DPAC slightly encouraged. Certainly, there’s plenty of gimmickry at work in the Broadway shows coming through town, but the thought and artistry put into War Horse, combined with the enthusiastic response the audience had to the puppet and promotional footage, indicate that perhaps something unique can succeed on the Great White Way alongside the jukebox musicals and film adaptations.

For all my cynicism about gimmicky musicals, I’m still crossing my fingers for a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark tour. Is it wrong to want to see if someone crashes into a DPAC balcony?

Click here for more information on the 2012-2013 SunTrust Broadway season.

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The best seats at DPAC will probably be half of what you’d pay for rear mezzanine on Broadway.

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