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re: My review of the new Off Broadway musical JOAN OF ARC: INTO THE FIRE by David Byrne at the Public
Posted by: Singapore/Fling 03:00 pm EDT 03/16/17
In reply to: re: My review of the new Off Broadway musical JOAN OF ARC: INTO THE FIRE by David Byrne at the Public - jwgnewyork 02:31 pm EDT 03/16/17

You make some strong points (and I fully agree about "The Light Years", which is a truly baffling programming decision), but I would also offer a few additional thoughts:

While it is true that our tax money goes to these institutions, it isn't nearly enough to keep these theaters running without immense outside contributions, in the form of foundations, individual donors, ticket sales, and commercial producers, to name just a few pots. As much as I hate to see it happen, having a big name that can sell a show is a large consideration in what gets produced. In the case of "Joan of Arc", David Byrne and Alex Timbers are both names. Byrne is an established musician who can bring in a non-theater crowd and easily gets featured in the press, and Timbers is a rising star who is getting profiled in The New Yorker and building a following. They had a big hit with "Here Lies Love", and it sounds like the Public wanted to position this musical to capitalize on the new presidency (when they thought it would be HRC).

The article from the New Yorker makes it clear that they went into rehearsals still figuring the show out, but it also makes it clear that this is the kind of show that can only be ultimately figured out on stage, with lights and sound, because that's what Timbers cares about most. Perhaps it should have had an out-of-town tryout, but that isn't the Public's style, and this thing seems too big a show to have a Public Lab that would do it justice.

We don't know why it was seemingly rushed into production. We can't say that it was a matter of discipline, because we don't know. It may have been a matter of money, it may have been about an urgency from the election, it may have been about Byrne felt it was ready and Eustis trusted that his team would pull it together in previews. It may be the case that Eustis could have been more honest about it shortcomings with Byrne, but that also potentially risks a relationship that could prove fruitful in the long term, if Byrne keeps making theater. There's a lot we don't know.

Based upon both the reviews and the response on this board, it seems that the show is underwhelming but not amateurish (which is how I characterize "The Light Years"). A risk was taken that Byrne and Timbers would find magic again, and they didn't. Instead, they fell into a lot of traps that writers and directors fall into all the time, in terms of stories that lack drama and stagings that can't make up for it. Timbers seems to be building a track record as a director who goes big and either succeeds gloriously or fails spectacularly, and this seems to fall into the latter category. Both he and Byrne may learn things from this run that make them better at building their next show(s). In that case, this failure succeeds in a different way, and the investment pays off down the road.

There is a lot of risk in programming, and there's only so much that a script or a workshop can tell you, and there are myriad factors that are involved beyond the quality of the shows and the reviews. Simply having David Byrne at the Public, even if the show doesn't do well, can pay off immensely in publicity and street cred, which then helps the company raise more money next year, since the our tax dollars don't cover very much (and may stop doing it altogether). Considering how much of the Public's work is still about community involvement (projects like the Mobile Shakespeare Lab and PublicWorks), they do a lot of things that lose the company money and spend the tax dollars wisely and well on non-elite audiences.

I don't know Oskar Eustis personally, but I've never heard anyone accuse him of being empty-headed, and he's run the Public better than anyone since Joe Papp, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that there were good reasons to put on this play.

Tim Sanford, meanwhile, I have begun to question what's going on in his mind, but it's taken a couple seasons of mostly duds for me to get to that point.
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