Musical Theater: When Did Loud Become Good?

A question or two and a possible explanation about why musicals at the summer theatre and regional level, seems to be presented all in the same fashion.

Being a life-long participant in the production of musical theater as an actor, producer, director and writer, I have of late noticed what I feel to be a disturbing trend in musical theater presentation. I feel a little like I’m plagiarizing Gordon Gecko, in calling this presentation style, ‘loud is the new good.’

Funny Thing… Not so Funny

I noticed this first a few years ago when invited to look in on a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, directed by a friend. The show was ramped up to the ninth degree, unrelentingly loud, frenetic and acted at a fever pitch. The production played on only one note; there were no variations in the tempo or acting levels, performers were left with no where to go in a scene, because they started their performance over the top both in dialogue and song.

Now I’m sure there are any number of people reading this who are at this moment saying, ‘Well, duh, that’s what Forum is supposed to be, a frantic romp from curtain to curtain and they would be correct, my observation has to do with degree.

The creative team who wrote Forum is undoubtedly more clever than most of us, or we’d have Broadway hits being done in rep fifty years after they were written. They knew that nothing can run for 2.5 hours at the speed of a run- away freight. It’s hard on the actors and harder on the audience. It wears us out. It robs us of the desire to participate.

When Pseudolous is talking Hysterium into being the young, female body on the bier by reprising ‘I’m/You’re Lovely’, it is lovely, quiet and melodic except for the sound of an audience in hysterics at Pseudolus’ audacity and Hysterium’s willingness to play along.

When Erronius runs around the walls of the City to fend off a curse, he may be chipper with accomplishment on this first pass, but by the third time he’s exhausted, not imbued with what appears to be a caffeine overdose. Where Hero sing, ‘Love, I Fear,’ he’s not in the middle of a dumb show, a chase, a dance routine with chorus or anything else that draws our attention away from his lyrics. We need to know about Hero, it’s what makes the jokes involving him work later on.

Little by little over the following years, I’ve noticed no matter what the material, this ‘loud is good’ is creeping into all kinds of musicals. It’s unfortunately governed by the law of diminishing returns. When an actor works flat out in isolation, he or she calls attention to themselves, not to their character or to the plot.

No Room to Build the Scene

When everyone in a scene works flat out, they are no longer in a theatrical situation at all, they are a collection of individuals, screaming lines at each other, not listening to or responding to the other actors. The object of the scene is no longer communicating information and emotion to the audience, it’s putting oneself forward for approval in competition with your peers. It is incredibly self-centred and wrong headed, but it seems to be becoming the norm. I think I have the answer and there’s no easy fix.

Theater schools have replaced regional theaters as a way of learning the craft. (In Canada unfortunately we never have had a repertoire system, but we now have a large number of theater schools). You don’t learn good theater etiquette from older experienced actors anymore, you learn it in groups from teachers who they themselves have studied, not necessarily participated.

Everyone is interested in the triple threat, without understanding that each of those talents needs to have a working brain behind it that can bring empathy, subtlety and a range of emotions to a role. Then you have a real triple threat performer.

Finally, theater schools need an awful lot of average people to support their departments. An awful lot of people who no matter what they do will never earn a living in performance. They can be trained into passable dancers, tentative singers, and actors by example, but they can’t learn empathy. In the meantime theater schools and departments have to keep up the fiction that everyone they teach is employable, so if you can’t make ‘em good, you can make them so loud and so frantic and so needy on stage that a lot of people think they are good. If some of those people are parents and close relations, so much the better.

Of course theater schools produce excellent people, a precious few that make a living in the theater. But somehow we lack that middle echelon, steady, intuitive artists that breath life in parts of all sizes, without fuss; seasoned professionals.

It would be better if the millions and millions of dollars spent to build theaters and study centers on University and Community College Campuses could be invested in creating a network of regional theaters, where acting hopefuls were engaged by audition, played everything they were given and learned in a working theater. Only then I think, would the cult of loud be replaced by the necessity of good. Not only would this improve the standards immensely, it would have beneficial effects for tourism, retail and the arts, where ever the theaters were built.

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