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There Really Is No Business Like Show Business
The time: January 2009
The place: Broadway
The event: A total of 14 productions (including three long-running Best Musical Tony winners, two shows with multiple Tony wins, three musicals by Tony-winning writers and/or directors, a high-profile revival of a play with Hollywood stars, the last original play by a recently departed playwright, two limited engagement holiday shows, one Chinese spectacle, and the triumphant return of Liza Minnelli) closed.
It’s Steven here from Penguins and Procrastination. Last summer, I worked at a well-respected, professional (or for those in the know, Equity) theatre upstate New York. In the lineup of shows were four popular musicals that can be brought up in everyday conversation. However, even with loyal patrons and repeat subscribers, the theatre had trouble filling the seats. With $4.00 gas prices and the urge to save money, regular theatergoers were not willing to make their annual trips to their favorite regional theatre or stay for the after-show cabarets. Similar situations have been seen across the nation, causing many regional theatres to shut their doors or be in danger of doing so.
These instances may be a serious wake-up call for any aspiring theatre professional, such as the one writing this blog post. And it is. The nation’s economic crisis has affected all industries, and it is no secret that Broadway and the theatre in general have been hit hard. What does this mean for someone like me who is taking his first steps into that elusive field called show business? A few things come to mind, and not all of them are scary.
In the midst of all the drama surrounding the economic state, I have found that New York City is never at a loss for theatre opportunities and auditions, and those auditions are teeming with talent. The theatre scene is just as competitive as ever. This is a good thing. Competition is a healthy aspect of show business. The quality of talent is not necessarily diminishing with the gloomy economy. Standards of talent have not decreased, which means that from an artistic point of view, the theatre continues to thrive.
It is a fact that in this economy, people still make a living by working in the theatre. It may true that actors have to accept gigs that pay less than they’re used to, but to be working in a show means a steady paycheck for the duration of that contract. Out-of-state theatre gigs and tours help people save money since they don’t have to worry about paying rent for however long the contract is (as long as they sublet their apartment or any similar alternative). Also, many theatre people have other jobs to help pay the bills. These jobs are flexible and don’t go out of style, whether it is working at a restaurant or offering services such as photography, web design, or music or dance expertise to fellow actors. Let’s be honest: someone working in the theatre probably knows what it’s like to have a smaller salary than someone working in corporate America, so a year of slightly less pay is manageable.
If the economy has scared anyone out of a career in show business, it hasn’t ended the life of the business itself. In fact, Broadway has adapted to the economic climate. Sure, intimate or experimental musicals such as 13, [title of show], and most recently The Story of My Life have all failed on the Great White Way, but there are only four empty houses on Broadway currently (that’s a low number of empty Broadway theatres). The focus of shows playing on Broadway has shifted to uplifting tales during economic hardship (like Mary Poppins, In the Heights, and the brilliant Billy Elliot) or family-friendly crowd pleasers (The Little Mermaid and Shrek). I realize that four of the five shows I just mentioned are based on movies, but this is a way the theatre has redefined itself to stay afloat. If this is not Broadway’s proudest trend, at least it has kept itself alive. (More screen-to-stage Broadway transfers coming up: Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 and the U2/Julie Taymor Spider-Man musical, with Sister Act, The First Wives Club, Ghost, The Addams Family, Catch Me If You Can, and Slumdog Millionaire in the works.) This isn’t the first time a gimmick put Broadway back on its feet. In the aftermath of 9/11, jukebox musicals helped bring people back to the theatre. One of the original jukebox musicals, Mamma Mia!, is still playing worldwide and was turned into one of the most successful movie musicals ever.
The times reflect and reshape every medium within the entertainment industry. The requirements of a theatre professional are always changing, economic crisis or not. Of course, it is wise to be a bit more conscious about money right now, but the theatre is far from dead. I’m currently working at a dinner theatre in Florida with actors who are happy to be employed and audiences who relish a good night at the theatre. I’m also returning to that suffering theatre I worked at last summer for one of their biggest seasons yet in terms of the caliber of their lineup of musicals. The economy has claimed some victims in the theatre world, but this is all part of the natural evolution of theatre itself. Broadway will survive, the theatre will prevail, and the show must go on.
Steven holds a BFA in Musical Theatre from Emerson College. Originally from Long Island, he is currently performing in Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre in Hudson, FL. He urges everyone to support the performing arts in any way possible, especially in schools. Check out his blog, Penguins and Procrastination.
Slumdog did, in fact, clean shop, bagging eight of the ten Oscars for which it was nominated. The audience seemed to really like the song and dance number with A.R. Rahman and John Legend (small shout-out here to Archana, Anie, Lisa, and the other girls in Yuva, you were awesome!). Does that mean the U.S. will open its arms to all things Bollywood?
Yet Indian culture is slowly finding its way into people’s awareness. My friend recently showed me an exercise video structured around Bollywood dance and bhangra (both dance forms, by the way, are fantastic workouts). Indian cooking styles and spices have been warmly embraced by chefs across the board. I think there’s even a commercial for Emergen-C that features a Bollywood-esque dance number. I just don’t think Indian movies will be embraced as readily.
Case in point, A.R. Rahman (yes the one who got 2 Oscars) enjoyed immense success in London’s West End for his collaborative work with Andrew Lloyd Webber for “Bombay Dreams.” The same show closed after only a few months on Broadway, a few years ago. Granted this was before Slumdog Millionaire took the nation by storm, I don’t think we’ll be seeing people flocking to see films like “Dostana” or “Kal Ho Na Ho” anytime soon, for the songs, or anything else. I won’t deny, though, that there will be some increased interest in Bollywood overall, just not a lot.
Maybe American films may incorporate some of the glitz and lightheartedness that tends to characterize Bollywood films, though sparingly. In a time where we just need a chance to smile or laugh, a little Bollywood levity can’t hurt. Bollywood seems to have stuck with the musical style that was more reminiscent of American cinema from the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. Perhaps through Bollywood, American cinema may return to the styles of those times, if but a little bit. That’s just a guess.
Slumdog Millionaire more likely represents the well-publicized start of America’s love affair with Indian culture, though in actuality it has been simmering steadily for a while. In Indian culture, there lies an exotic appeal that has sometimes been welcomed (the seemingly ubiquitous appeal of kurta tops) and sometimes shunned (yoga has been a touchy subject for some Christian groups, though most people have taken to it quite favorably).
Britain has already integrated Indian culture seamlessly into its own, oftentimes yielding a wonderful mix of East and West (chicken tikka masala, for those who may not know, was created by a South Asian chef working in Britain). It’s probably not surprising that Britain was more acquainted (and attracted to) Indian culture longer than the U.S., considering that India was the crown jewel of the British Empire for a little over two centuries.
Indians probably only started emigrating to the U.S. in respectable numbers after World War II, unlike most of the other immigrant groups in this country. Our culture was still being understood for the last three or four decades. Indian characters were a rarity in film and on TV until probably the last decade (Parminder Nagra in ER comes to mind, as well as Naveen Andrews in Lost, and Sendhil Ramamurthy in Heroes).
Now, though, we’re officially on our way to adding Indian culture to the proverbial melting pot of our cultural understanding and awareness. All it took was a little indie film about a young boy from the slums with an extraordinary story.
Disclaimer: This will probably be useless to the 90% of all moviegoers who probably have already seen this movie.
There’s no denying that I loved this movie, and for the most part, is deserving of the accolades it has received to date. That being said, though, it wasn’t my favorite movie of all time.
Dev Patel is definitely the real star here. He was clever and funny, and was able to quickly assume more serious emotions when needed. I’m not sure why Freida Pinto has been getting more press, she’s all right herself, but doesn’t really shine. Naturally Irrfan Khan was great, in his usual, understated way. Anil Kapoor gave probably the best performance in the context of all the other ones I have seen.
Being an Indian, I guess it was natural for me to feel a strong kinship to the story, as it meandered its way through Mumbai slums and beyond. There were parts of Mumbai that felt familiar, buildings I’ve seen, streets I’ve been on, so there was a connection beyond the plot and beyond the characters. The movie incorporated a fair amount of Hindi, all with subtitles, which lent it a feeling of greater authenticity. It may have been a hair quixotic–with its story unfailing love and the clean, near-perfect ending–but that’s what draws people in. Nonetheless, it was a story to which anyone could relate. That is probably what made it such a huge phenomenon.
The movie was an emotional journey that made sharp twists and turns, but never let you fall off. Despite the fact that Salim, Latika, and Jamal were raised in a slum–a place that probably few of us really understand, let alone have encountered–they were not distant characters, but ones to whom we could wholly relate.
It is important to note, however, that it may be easy for one to generalize the state of the slums to India as a whole. Poverty is present in India, but so is industrialization (as depicted in the film as well), as well as the clean-cut, beautiful, sometimes touristy side of India. India is taking strides towards a bright new future, but of course in order to secure it, it will need to address some of the problems. Corruption and poverty probably rank near the top.
Yet to those (Amitabh Bachchan et. al.) who think the movie portrays India as a third-world nation…I thought it was a pretty honest portrayal. Of course most people will not think of India as some backwards country, given the rate at which it has been accelerating towards the top. People are very well aware of that, especially in the U.S. We’re constantly bombarded with stories tracking China and India’s ascension to the world stage, alongside the ones tracking our clumsy fall from grace.
Don’t get me wrong, Amitabh is awesome, but I think he’s jumping the gun just a little bit.
So if you haven’t seen this film yet, go see it. It’ll definitely be worth your while.
Granted this film wasn’t exactly produced by Indians, it’s still a start. Kind of surprising to see Shah Rukh Khan present at the Golden Globes as well.
Congratulations to the cast and crew of Slumdog Millionaire!