Saturday, October 15, 2011

Is New York the new Peoria?

This is just a quick post to note a trend that I think many of us have been conscious of for a long time, and that can be summed up in the following question: Has New York become the new Peoria?  It used to be that Broadway was the source of theatrical culture - but these days it's more like the last stop, the site of final ratification of cultural touchstones perfected elsewhere.  Musicals are probably the exception - but even hits like The Book of Mormon feel like re-formulations of cultural ideas long incubated in Chicago, L.A., or some other city; they're familiar even at their premieres.  And it seems many, if not most, of the game-changing "New York productions" of the past two decades (Angels in America, Intelligent Homosexual's Guide, The Seafarer, August: Osage County, War Horse) were actually imports.  Even musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone came from Canada.  (Canada!) And it seems people suddenly pretty much accept, after this summer's RSC occupation of the Arsenal, that New York has to import great Shakespeare - and solid productions of the rest of the classics are hardly staples of the Big Apple, either . . .

This is all top-of-mind today because as I looked over a current list of New York's most-lauded productions, I couldn't help but notice how familiar most of them sounded.  Les 7 Doigts de la Main, for example, are earning raves for Traces - only Boston audiences are already quite familiar with this brilliant new Canadian circus troupe; we've seen them twice. Sleep No More was a sleeper hit here (as it was in the UK) before it opened in New York. Likewise War Horse arrived in Manhattan from London.  And I saw Freud's Last Session out in the Berkshires last summer.  As for the leading edge in performance in the Five Boroughs, it's also indebted to the national and international circuit: these days Boston gets the latest just a week after the Brooklyn Academy of Music does (at ArtsEmerson).  Yes, I'm afraid these days BAM is often merely another tour stop, just like Boston is!  Of course plays still flow from the Broadway and Off-Broadway fonts, to our smaller regionals, every year.  But the general rule now seems to be: minor work flows out of Manhattan, major work flows in.

When will the popular conception of New York catch up with the reality, I wonder?  Perhaps never - New York is still, in absolute terms, the center of theatrical production - and theatrical money - in this country.  Yet for some reason that money doesn't lead to a corresponding theatrical edge.  And people may begin to slowly notice this strange inversion in the cultural climate; these kinds of things often sneak up on the national consciousness, and then suddenly become the new conventional wisdom overnight.  You can already feel the pronounced lack of interest in the classic national Broadway tour (which is often just re-heated regional work, anyhow).  How long before people recognize that New York is no longer the source of our theatrical culture, but rather its final resting place?

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