Barefoot in the Dark

Hosted by
Barefoot in the Dark:
Why LA Theatre has a brighter future than Broadway

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It was announced this week that the current Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park was closing after only three months.

This may not seem like a big deal, especially here in Los Angeles, after all it's just another poorly reviewed revival in a busy Broadway season, but Barefoot in the Park's closing is a good clue as to why theater is struggling these days.

Last week, the LA Weekly devoted two feature stories to Los Angeles Theater's less-than-rosy future. One article spoke of how theater's audiences are dying off and younger crowds are not replacing them; the other was about educating students about theater in the attempt to stave off this audience extinction.

Both articles are good entries in the ongoing discussion about theater in LA, but both ignore the fact that theater in Los Angeles is booming compared to where it was 40 years ago. Forty years ago, LA was not a theater town. Then in 1967, when the Center Theater Group began, the Taper and Ahmanson put on nine plays between the two spaces. This year, they put on 13 plays--19 if you count their work at the new Kirk Douglas Theatre. And as for 99-seat or community theater, there's two to three more times the amount of shows staged here in Southern California than there was in the 1960's.

True, theater in LA may not be a blue-chip money-maker, but with these numbers--and three new mainstage theaters opening in the last two years--it can only be described as an expanding market.

Which brings us to Barefoot in the Park. In 1963 when it opened, Broadway saw 82 new productions open; this year, it will only have 42 opening nights. So, it's Broadway--and not LA--where theater is in a real decline over the last two generations.

But Broadway's decline is what's driving those LA Weekly articles about theater in LA. What is really being lamented here, and in theater circles around country, is that regardless of box-office statistics, theater is losing its place of influence in our shared popular culture.

Which again brings us back to Barefoot in the Park. In the 1950's Neil Simon was a successful TV writer, but he felt he could do better work--and make more money--writing plays. Which he did. Barefoot in the Park, his second play--and first hit, was really just a sitcom, but it was much sharper and funnier than what you'd see on TV those days. What's more, the original cast starred Robert Redford and was directed by Mike Nichols. Plus, the top ticket price was $7.50.

So, in 1963 theater gave the audience a relatively good deal. You got to see people who soon would be stars live on stage, and for seven bucks what you saw was better than what was on TV. No wonder the show ran for almost four years.

Today, however, it's a different story. To see this Barefoot in the Park, the top ticket price is $100 and the people you're seeing on stage (Jill Clayburgh and Tony Roberts) used to be stars--plus the writing is not sharper or funnier than what's on TV today.

The sad fact is that television honestly offers a mass audience a better deal than commercial theater.

This doesn't mean that theater is dead. There will always be a ---theater audience." It's just that if current trends continue, it will be a smaller, more niche market. This is unfortunate, given the large mass audience American theater earned on the backs of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and, yes, Neil Simon. But it doesn't have to happen.

No the real crisis for American theater is not aging audiences or lack of exposure to theater in schools; it's that the commercial theater cannot attract young talent anymore.

The theater used to offer writers less censorship and more creativity--plus access to better actors. That's not the case today. Broadway seems incapable of realizing this, and the failure of its expensive revival of Barefoot in the Park is a perfect example.

But, Los Angeles, a relatively young theater town with such diverse performances styles, would seem to have a better chance of nurturing a new brand of American theater. Yes, better funding of arts and education will help create a new generation of audiences--but better plays that speak to Americans today would do it even faster.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.