Alright, I’ve had it and I’m not keeping it to myself anymore.

It seems that not a day goes by that a news item appears one place or another announcing that someone famous is considering/acquiring rights/contemplating/dreaming about creating a Broadway show or being on Broadway. Yesterday it was Kara DioGuardi saying she was thinking about writing a musical. Today it’s the manager of The Eagles saying that they’re exploring creating a musical out of the band’s catalogue. I have little doubt that you can supply your own example of this type of evanescent project with about five seconds of not-so-deep thought.

Perhaps I should be happy about this development. After all, it suggests that well known figures in the entertainment industry see a connection to Broadway as something valuable, a charm they can embrace to legitimize their efforts in other fields. I mention Broadway specifically in this case because I do not hear people saying that they dream of writing a show for their local regional theatre.

Ironically, there are famous people who have done or are doing just that, modestly and earnestly. Jeff Daniels founded his own theatre, The Purple Rose in Michigan, and regularly writes plays for production there, despite his Hollywood fame. Bruce Hornsby wrote a musical called SCKBSTD that premiered at Virginia Stage. The estimable team of Stephen King and John Mellencamp will see their musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County materialize at The Alliance Theatre this spring. I’m excited about these.

But it’s the unfounded announcements that worry me. Someone goes on a TV show to promote some project or product and suddenly they’re accumulating theatre cred merely for thinking about joining our community. As if that’s not bad enough, their utterance is amplified by the media, who already think putting on a show is about as tough as mounting the high school musical (abetted by Glee, where every rehearsal is pretty  much a polished performance).

There used to be a corollary to this, which a former boss of mine referred to as “producing in the column.” This referred to the practice of less-than-top-line producers announcing projects in hope of making it into the once essential, now long-gone, Friday New York Times theatre column. But many of these productions didn’t yet exist; the producer planted the item to see if people would call expressing interest, and only go forward if their call sheet was sufficiently filled. Back then, the item appeared for a day, and sank out of sight. Today, these items are endlessly repeated, and archived, via the Internet. They spread like a hardy weed, even after they’re abandoned.

I’d like to issue a simple challenge to the media, both theatre-oriented and mass appeal: every time you feel compelled to elevate a musing into a production, you must take the responsibility of checking up on that show at six month intervals. If it comes to pass, terrific, keep on covering it. But when it fades into the woodwork, write something equally as prominent as that very first mention making clear that the project is off, and in many cases, never really was. I’d also add a penance for falling for these largely transparent p.r. stunts: each time you’re gulled, write about a show by a playwright or composer you’ve never written about before, or a theatre company that has never been able to get space from you. And I’m including every outlet that simply regurgitates wire service copy.

You see, there are countless theatres and writers who are actually working at the task of making theatre every day, and they can’t get any attention for their efforts – which exist in the corporeal world. A friend just told me the tale of working at a theatre where the artistic director was nearly in tears of joy over the appearance of a local news crew, for the very first time in memory. But why were they there? Because in the recent storm Irene, a large tree had fallen and blocked entrance to the venue.

I don’t wish to seem harsh to my journalist friends, who likely resent those occasions when they are thusly ill-used. I understand that celebrity sells and that you’re often being pushed, against your own wishes, to report on those who have achieved fame, be it through talent or outrageousness. All I’m asking is that you don’t play into their p.r. machines just because they utter the words “Broadway,” “theatre,” “musical” or “play.” Wait until they write one or are cast in one. Then I don’t really begrudge them the attention. I know what sells. But don’t let these Harold Hills sell you instruments and lessons until they know how to play theselves. Write about the people who are serious about making theatre.

Trust me, there are so many stories to tell.

  • September 16, 2011
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