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In Defense of Spectacle


Just the mention of the word spectacle is enough draw ire from many theater fans. Immediately, one conjures up the word Cats and the venom flows. Other long running spectacles are The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, and Les Miserable. Each are lavish productions running for years that have audiences in awe of the deus ex machina.

Without the rising junkyard tire, the crashing chandelier, the helicopter, or the barricade, are these shows worth seeing? Let's take a look at them.

First is the granddaddy of them all, Cats. For fifteen years, Grizabella has been lifted to the heaven side layer on that tire. Who can ever forget Betty Buckley singing "Memory"? There was a time that this musical was a hot ticket, but now it's frowned upon by musical-know-it-alls. Everyone loves to hate Cats, yet, I feel the musical is an important one, in that it was one of the first musicals to draw children into the theater giving them their first Broadway experience. Even today, the Winter Garden is filled with kids and tourists experiencing their first Broadway show. Every Christmas I'm sure kids ask mom and dad for a few CD's from Santa and surely Into The Woods is on that list. And now what do we have, but a new Sondhead, or theatergoer, all because of Cats. And if we laugh at Cats for what it is, I'm sure there's only one other person laughing louder; all the way to the bank.

Speaking of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the chandelier crashes nightly at the Majestic theater where The Phantom of the Opera has been playing for over ten years. This is my least favorite of the spectacles, yet, it has a worldwide following of rabid fans. Many have seen it scores of times and continue to do so. I think it's a, if I can say this without being a sexist, woman's show. I don't know any men who are so enraptured over the Phantom as there appears to be thousands of devoted female fans all over the world who are in love with the Phantom. And hell will have no fury like that of a scorned Phantom fan if you-know-who is cast in the role for the film. The Majestic sells out nightly as it has been doing for over 4,200 performances. Spectacle? Or is it love?

Over at the Broadway theater, the helicopter lands nightly on the stage to the awe of the audience. Miss Saigon is a musical I avoided for about four years. I simply was not interested in a musical about Viet Nam, (for personal reasons), or seeing a helicopter landing on a Broadway stage. While in London, though, I did catch the show and was pleasantly surprised. It has a wonderful book and score; the helicopter simply was really not that important as I'm sure the musical can be staged without it. It's an expensive effect, for sure, and I actually found it distracting. Aside from that, the story is a powerful one which had the audience at Covent Garden in tears at the end.

Les Miserables opened in 1987 and is still packing them in with almost 100% capacity. Why people call this musical spectacle is beyond me. The "barricade" is simply a set that is cleverly designed on a turntable which I would hardly call spectacle. This is my favorite show of the long running ones. It has a great book, fabulous lyrics and music that will have you humming tunes for a long time. There are so many good numbers in this show that it's hard to single out a few, but "Master of the House" is rollicking fun, and "Bring Him Home" was the very first song in a Broadway musical that reduced me to tears and had be balling like a baby. After ten years, the musical was freshened up with not only a paintjob on the scenery, but also some major recasting which caused quite a stir a year or so ago.

There you have four musicals that after years of running are still packing them in. Why? Tires? Barricades? Chandeliers? Helicopters? I don't think so. It's simply that they are good and they're crowd pleasers as well. They will be around a long while, as long as people buy tickets. So, if you belong to the minority who thinks these shows should vacate the theaters they are in and make way for new musicals. Sorry.

That's show business!


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