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Are New Musicals Just 'McTheater'?

Wicked-lion king-mary poppins

Musical theater is once again on the rise, not only on Broadway but on the West End as well. Wicked and The Lion King, for example, have been doing big box office business lately, both in London and on the Great White Way.

But to some theatergoers on the other side of the pond, these shows have an alarming similarity to the original Broadway productions. Alarming, because it’s the exact same show. Gone are the days when seeing a show in a specific time and place meant seeing something singular and unrepeatable.

At least according to Dan Rebellato, writing for the Guardian.co.uk theater blog, who points out that the word "theater" used to imply a unique experience each and every time a new performance was seen by an audience. When a new production of a musical came to the West End from Broadway, it would have a new creative variation, the distinct flare of the particular director whose hands it was now in. But these days, a new production of Cats (for example) means an exact replica of the previous show in nearly every possible way. Granted, it would be difficult to find a new yet just as glorious opening to a musical such as The Lion King -- but it shouldn’t be ruled out as a possibility.

Rebellato puts these aforementioned musicals, and a few other big-budget properties, into the category of "McTheater." This cookie-cutter way of putting on a show makes the entire production feel like "soulless repetition." Live theater no longer feels live.

Putting up a musical night after night is hard work for everyone involved. It takes a lot of dedication and passion. Even forgettable musicals such as Shrek and Spider-Man (which hasn’t even ended previews yet) -- which make me want to roll my eyes and long for the days of Cabaret and Oklahoma -- aren’t set on automatic pilot. Handy tricks like pitch-correcting mikes, which Rebellato views as one of the scourges of modern musical theater, are not as prevalent in modern shows as some might think; for instance, I know that they were not used during the recent Broadway revival of A Little Night Music. "Let’s-shake-this-thing-up" has not been a welcomed idea of late, true. But "soulless?" If, on the other hand, by "soulless" Mr. Reballato is referring to the shoveling of ridiculous amounts of money into a surefire blockbuster mega-production, then perhaps he does have a point.

I don’t think "soulless repetition" is a fair remark to throw out into the cosmos of the theater world. Often, a good old-fashioned straight drama can become just as repetitive and stale. The emergence of brands and franchises among today's theater marquees is a bigger topic then mere identical-twin-syndrome.

Maybe something closer to "intimidated by the enormous magnitude and reputation of the production" would be a more specific cause for this musical cloning fad. These recent musicals do feel live to me, as an audience member in her seat. Personally, I find that the sheer scale of the musical, along with the emphasis on special effects, are the chief distancing determinants. The root of the problem began on Broadway anyway, not on the West End: Disney musicals, movie adaptations, and juke box musicals came into this world already soulless. How could minor variations to these productions make much difference anyway?

But what do you think? Do you prefer being able to see the exact same show that was recommended to you, sharing the same experience with audiences who saw it weeks or months (or decades) before? Do audiences even notice when a show uses the same lighting cues and choreography from its original production – or does that only concern the out-of-work techs and choreographers? And does the presence of live actors on stage automatically refute Rebellato's claim that live musical theater is just becoming the same show night after night? Leave your comments below to share your thoughts.

-- Annelise Bianchini

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