Let me infotain you Essay

Published: 2021-07-11 21:45:08
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“If you haven’t been back to Broadway for a while, this is the show to see!” Sound like the words of a critic who’s dying to see his or her name in the print ads? Not quite–it’s the sign-off of a TV special put together by WNYW, the Fox affiliate in New York. The line is delivered by reporter Julie Golden standing outside the Martin Beck Theatre on the opening night of Guys and Dolls, while the show’s producers read the reviews (live!) behind her on the sidewalk. The program, which won an Emmy in 1992 for best local special, is an example of the growing genre of television-about-theatre.
TV specials about the theatre seem to be a New York phenomenon–where theatre is part of a vital arts economy tied to tourism and the service sector–although some have been seen nationwide. The most frequent national disseminator of these backstage peeks is Great Performances, produced for PBS by New York’s WNET, which in the past year and a half has aired documentaries on the making of Jelly’s Last Jam and Angels in America as well as Guys and Dolls, and this season hopes to produce one on the West End-to-Lincoln Center import Carousel. In New York, local stations are also finding theatrical productions to be alluring sources of glossy, tailor-made footage, if they can just gain enough access to capture the spirit of a production (or at least its high-profile stars or creators) on film.
A handy focus for programs of this nature is the musical recording session, an easily capsulized though not intrinsically thrilling event. Shows on the recordings of Company and the opera-star version of West Side Story manage to get on tape the unrehearsed drama of performers (Elaine Stritch and Jose Carreras, respectively) who were having difficulty putting out, as the studio clock ticked. Great Performances’ rendition of the Guys and Dolls recording session takes the same approach, though it unfortunately finds little to do besides encouraging the actors to make wisecracks into the camera after we’ve watched them belt out numbers with cups of coffee in their hands. It’s a program, nevertheless, that makes you want to buy the record. WNYW’s Backstage on Broadway: Guys and Dolls Opening Night descends to home-movie level when it goes into dressing rooms to record cast members telling us how much they love one another. All the same, the program conveys some of the intricacies of light cues and scene changes, and draws pertinent parallels between the Broadway of the original 1950 production and the current season. With its dollop of useful information, this is a bouncy 11 o’clock news item, expanded to fill out an hourlong report.
Hometown boosterism is key to the local stations’ approach. New York producers, both the theatrical and the TV kind, love to tell you that theatre is good for the city. It’s “unique to New York, an industry that no one else in the world has,” says Bob Woodruff, vice president of program development for WWOR-TV and executive producer of its specials on The Goodbye Girl and Kiss of the Spider Woman. “We want to nurture it as much as we can.”
The equally civic-minded Joachim Blunck, executive producer of WNYW’s specials on Guys and Dolls and Tommy, declares, “We want Fox 5 to be a force in support of the arts and culture that make New York a world capital. We are putting TV’s unique ability to work for New York’s unique culture.” The tone of Fox’s programs evidently derives from this rapid-heartbeat style.

Documentaries with depth 

The genre also accommodates documentaries with a longer view, ones that place a work of theatre in a historical and social context. Two recent programs by Great Performances delve into their material with remarkable depth. Jammin’: Jelly Roll Morton on Broadway presents a rich portrait of African-American life, while still providing the regulation Broadway excitement. In the Wings: Angels in America on Broadway–probably the first of these shows to examine a nonmusical–seems at least as concerned with issues of gay identity and national politics as it is with the play itself. While it does include rehearsal footage and shots of the actors talking about their characters, the documentary is most compelling for its footage of Roy Cohn in 1954, Patrick Buchanan at last year’s Republican convention, and playwright Tony Kushner’s on-camera description of how he “came out” to his parents. This is serious business for the average stagestruck viewer, and even for the play’s Broadway producers, one of whom, Benjamin Mordecai, found the program “more political than we expected.” Not that he’s complaining: “When Great Performances presents an hour on a play on national television,” Mordecai acknowledges, “it has tremendous implications for the importance of that play.”
Whether packaged as “documentaries” or “specials,” these programs have something in common: Broadway producers love them. After all, they are at least in part (as TV critic John J. O’Connor wrote in the New York Times) “program-length commercials.” What accounts for their current proliferation? TV people (those in local news, anyway) swear they were always interested. “This is an opportunity to do something with a little class,” says WNOR’s Bob Woodruff. “We’ve been fighting for years to do this.” But he needed the agreement of producers and theatrical unions, which for a long time was hard to obtain. Producers are now seeing the advantage of cooperating: “They’re calling us |after specials have run~ to tell us they’re doing markedly different business at the box office,” Woodruff says. After the special on Jelly’s Last Jam aired, the musical’s producers called Great Performances to request some footage for a new commercial. Even if they aren’t designed as marketing tools, these shows end up getting used that way.

For its part, Great Performances has turned in the television-about-theatre direction because of industry restrictions. Plans to film an entire play for television have often been thwarted because producers were afraid a televised version would rob from their box office. So mounting whole performances for the camera becomes financially prohibitive, when an agreement can be worked out at all. Even for use in documentaries, Actors’ Equity Association imposes limits on rehearsal or performance footage. Kim Powers, head of drama development at Great Performances, says that for the Angels documentary, “we were able to get Equity to break some stipulations. Our getting 12 minutes of performance on the air was longer than anyone had been permitted for this kind of program.”

Shortened attention spans 

Theatrical documentaries at Great Performances have become a solution to viewers’ shortened attention spans. Longer shows aren’t attracting audiences anymore, so the network would like to keep its programs to an hour’s length, with an exception made only for opera. “On our productions of Uncle Vanya and Hamlet,” Powers confides, “the numbers dropped with every successive half hour of the broadcast. Hamlet had the advantage of Kevin Kline, but the disadvantage of being three hours long.” Documentaries are a way around that problem, a “short way of delivering the play without doing the play itself.” That may be TV’s solution, but it’s not a very hopeful development for audiences interested in experiencing an entire evening at the theatre.
The “infotainment” format raises a host of questions, most central being: When does a documentary become just another marketing tool? For example, late in a run, previously fussy producers may decide that a TV show isn’t such a bad idea, and, says Powers, “they come back begging us to do it.” The gargantuan pull of television was no doubt behind the casting of soap star Michael Damian in this fall’s Broadway revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a point that WWOR will make use of in the special it’s producing. “It could bring a whole new group of people into the theatre,” says tireless good citizen Bob Woodruff. “We’re doing an interview with Michael Damian on the set of The Young and the Restless. His fans will want to come to the theatre to see him.”

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