December 4, 2010

"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"--The Recount

A windfall of shows descended on Broadway over the past couple of months but it came at a time when many people are still digging out from the recession. So it’s sad but not surprising that shows are closing almost as fast as they’re opening (click here to read my fellow blogger Jonathan Mandell’s excellent rundown of departing shows).  And this week came news that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is going to pack it in on Jan. 2.

I wasn’t a big fan of this satirical musical about the nation’s seventh president when I saw it down at the Public Theater last spring (click here to read my review) but I liked it more when my niece Jennifer and I saw it at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre this week.  

I'll admit that my semi-aboutface was probably influenced by seeing the show with Jennifer this time around. As regular readers know, she can be a far tougher critic than I and not one to mince her words. But she loved this show.  What I had called jejune, she thought hilarious.  What I’d found a sophomoric mishmash, Jennifer, a history nut, considered to be a sophisticated mashup of historical and contemporary events.

But what also won me over this time was the go-for-broke performance that Benjamin Walker gives in the title role. I'd thought he was terrific when I first saw the show but I've become an even bigger fan after learning that Walker, who has been with the show from the very start, turned down a part in one of the “X-Men” movies to bring Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson to Broadway.  It was a noble thing to do and it nearly broke my heart when I watched how unresponsive the audience was the night Jennifer and I saw the show.  But their listlessness didn’t deter Walker. Trouper to the bone, he pumped himself up and performed as though people were standing on their seats and cheering.

I suspect the wrong people were in the house.  The problem is that I have no idea how to get the right people there.  The reviews split right down the middle.  Some folks found the show sublime; others thought it silly. But the audience down at the Public, where tickets were less than half as expensive, was largely young, hip and rowdy in their appreciation. 

The seat warmers at the Jacobs looked to be their grandparents. And I mean that literally. Some of the oldtimers, like the guy sitting next to Jennifer, got into the spirit of things and looked to be having a good time. But too many others were like the woman in front of me, who slouched down in her seat and clearly wished she’d gone to see Promises, Promises instead.

Broadway can’t survive this way.  Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson isn't going to end up on my top 10 list this year but there are some terrific young people doing some adventurous work that other adventurous young people deserve to have the chance to see on Broadway.  But most of them, like Jennifer and my stepdaughter Anika, can’t afford Broadway prices.  It’s not enough just to bring new material to Broadway, someone has got to figure out a way to bring new audiences there too. Because
we old diehards are eventually going to die out.

Producers are handicapped by the small size of the old landmark Broadway theaters we all love. Costs go up but the number of seats stay the same. That means ticket prices have to go up.  And that means fewer people can afford to go see a show. Which in turn means that fewer young people are getting in the habit of seeing one. Something’s got to give. 

Here’s a thought: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs just 90 minutes.  I wondered if it might have done better if it had offered two performances a night—say one at 6:30, another at 10
and cut the ticket price for each performance in half so that the show’s real target audience could afford to see it.

I know the unions would have to be persuaded to bend all kinds of rules to allow something like that to happen. And it's not my intention to pick on the unions cause I’m married to a longtime member of Local 802. Investor equations would probably have to change too. But unless the folks on the business end start coming up with ideas as imaginative as those on the creative side, Broadway could one day become no more than a memory just like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson will soon be.


Liz Wollman said...

An excellent post, and as a fan of BBAJ--and also a longtime critic of the direction Broadway has been going for the past few decades--I very much appreciate your even-handed and intelligent assessment, as I do your blog in general. Thank you.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Liz, thanks for the kind words. I hope you'll keep reading and share more thoughts when the mood hits you. jan