You gotta spend money to make money, right?

Not always.

I consider myself very lucky to have worked on the last Gypsy revival starring the beautiful Bernadette Peters.  It was directed by the cool Sam Mendes, and produced by the gentlemanly Robert Fox (Boy From Oz, Pillowman, The Hours, Atonement).  It was a first class revival, with first class people, and I loved it.

Unfortunately, it closed after a year and a half.  We got great notices and people loved the show, but for whatever reason, we failed to become a must-see (Nine won the Tony that year).

A few years later, here comes Arthur Laurents and Patti Lupone in another revival about the celebrated stripper, and people are buying so many tickets you’d think the show hadn’t been revived four times, had two movies and been seen in every dinner theater around the country . . . twice.

After seeing Gypsy so many times during my tenure, I thought I would have been bored watching the new production.  But I was wasn’t.  It’s a great production of a great show with great performances.

Here’s what’s I noticed:  The set was smaller in this production.  The ensemble didn’t have as many costumes.  There definitely weren’t as many vari-lites in the air.  And, what the . . . they didn’t even use a real dog or a real lamb!

And yet this production is set to out-perform ours.  Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

There are probably a zillion reasons why (please feel free to comment your thoughts), including many that we couldn’t control.  But having two productions of the same show done in different styles this close to each other is a great test case.

It once again proves that a show’s success isn’t based on whether or not you build custom made boots or you get them off the rack, or whether you get the super-premium lighting package or just the basics.  Or even whether or not Momma Rose had a real dog in the first scene.

Do you think those are the sort of things people talk about when leaving your theater?

Should we have done anything different on the previous production?  Nope.  It was a stunning stylistic choice and unfortunately it just wasn’t as successful as we had hoped.

But it does demonstrate that spending more doesn’t always make you more.  In fact, you can afford to spend less, if you’re confident you’re giving them more elsewhere.

This also works in the reverse.

Why do you think Wicked is the biggest spectacle we’ve seen in awhile?

  • Matt says:

    I think you’re talking about two different audiences. You have shows that use minimalist approaches or use theatrical exposure (see Brecht and Grotowski) who seem to cater to the crowd seeking intellectual stimulation from humanistic spectacle — great performances by proven stage actors. These are the same groups likely seeing the two recent revivals by John Doyle and admire shows like Spring Awakening and Rent not for their rock concert or shock value appeal but because of the simplistic methodology of portraying them.
    Meanwhile, you have people who are drawn by the spectacle and sheer volume of a broadway (or off-broadway in some cases) musicals. These are the people who value the pumped up volume of big brassy belting numbers in Wicked, the high energy sugar coated productions of legally blonde and the aggressive rock scores of Rent and Spring Awakening again.
    I’d say there are a few shows out there who manage to get away with walking the line between these audiences. For an example, Avenue Q has very limited costumes and a fairly simplistic unit set. The spectacle is largely human as you are seeing performances by people who can create fun voices and manipulator character through a combination of their hands and their own expression. Simultaneously, it thrives on some shock value and mainstream humor.

  • Rick says:

    First, your last question.
    Wicked has a few things that really caused it to stand out. 1) It’s ‘flip side’ approach to that American Institution that is “The Wizard of Oz” was unique. 2) It’s political allegory seems so appropriate in the increasing stench of the political climate we’ve held our noses for this entire decade and 3) cross-over appeal both for families with kids and avid theater-goers who don’t necessarily like to get the cultural crap kicked out of them when they go to a show. Wicked has memorable, hummable melodies. I bought several copies of the CD for friends and was emailing YouTube links for weeks! Although you wouldn’t likely hear them on regular pop radio (a veritable wasteland of derivative dreck these days), Idina Menzel recorded a pop version of “Defying Gravity” and even did a dance remix of the song (heard at least in NYC dance clubs). More cross-over appeal.
    I wasn’t in NYC when Bernadette did Gypsy but I remembered hearing about it and thought just because you are old enough to do Mama Rose doesn’t necessarily mean you should do Mama Rose. And as interesting and dynamic a talent as Bernadette Peters is, she didn’t feel right, more like a bankable draw than the correct casting.
    I’m also reminded of all the raves of people who swore by the recent revival of “Sweeney Todd” with the cast playing all the instruments in a much more minimalist production. Very original and quite innovative and yet still somehow a drastic diminished attempt from the larger more dark diabolical story which can only benefit from an appropriate set and period costuming. The score (in my opinion) needs an appropriate visual aesthetic to compliment it. The last revival merely showed to me how much in love we always will be with one of the most extraordinary musical scores of our time. But, I’ll never figure out why this particular configuration was all the rage. I’d just as soon have had David Bowie doing his character from Labyrinth and Angela Lansbury reprising her role as Mrs. Lovett with a “Mrs. Potts” spin. Hey, that’s innovative too, yeah?
    But, while we’re wringing our hands about what succeeds and what fails in this strange little spot on the globe, I have to say I feel genuinely awful for the writers of “Glory Days” and wish the creators of this show a great success another day. Gee, and I thought my week sucked…

  • Dave says:

    I’ve been asking myself similar questions as you have, Ken. And I have to wonder whether it has anything to do with Arthur Laurents, who has been dismissing and criticizing every other version of GYPSY in every media outlet he can get his hands on. He hated the two movies. He hated the past few revivals. It’s as if this current production is the only one worth seeing.
    I personally disagree. I was blown away by Bernadette Peters and the beautiful production design of the last revival. Patti Lupone just didn’t give me what I was looking for. I believed that Peters’ Rose could have been a star. There was drive there. Quite frankly, it was one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve had. And I’m not blowing smoke, Ken.
    Still, I think we’re ultimately forgetting the big flaw of GYSPY. Many people believe the show is the best musical of all time. But that’s industry people. Theater people. The general touring public, who I imagine buy a lot more tickets on Broadway than us New Yorkers do, are not going to flock to GYSPY like they do WICKED. Or THE LION KING. Or LEGALLY BLONDE, for that matter. Because they’ve seen it in every dinner theater around the country, as you stated. And they’d rather check out THE LITTLE MERMAID with their kids.
    I just don’t see Lupone’s GYSPY lasting beyond Lupone’s run, which I can’t imagine will last much longer than a year and a half.

  • Kile Ozier says:

    I’d offer that it comes down to good storytelling. Irrespective of talent, book, set, creative/production team (which can often be too big for it’s own good; committees usually dilute the experience for which they are responsible — but, this is coming from a man who believes there should always be ONE creative driver for a project and ONE strong producer to keep reality a part of the context) or even quality of a story; if that story isn’t well told, or is distractingly overtold, the audience can become subtly distracted and not fully right-brain engaged…

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