Hit-the-Road Shows: Theatre for a New Economy

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

One of the powers that theater possesses, more so than literature, painting or even cinema, is the ability to speak directly to a particular time period long after a work was first created. Novels, poems, portraits or films can all gain new relevance (or more often, irrelevance) with time; but theater, because it is live and must be recreated in the present (and not merely preserved and observed anew) holds the special potential to connect the wisdom or folly of the past with the immediate present.

No doubt there are screenwriters, sculptors and satirists right now trying to distill of essence of today's economic crisis; but because getting new work out into the marketplace takes time, the soonest we might see a novel or TV show titled Depression 2.0 will be some time next year. Theater, on the other hand, already provides a repertoire of works that deal with human foibles dating back to Ancient Greece — and it also has a way of making works you didn't think had any relevance, suddenly seem oddly prescient.

This hit me last month when I went to the opening night of a play in London titled Creditors. No, it wasn't written hastily this summer in response to Britain's financial woes, it was written by August Strindberg exactly 120 years ago (but by the number of times I saw it in mentioned in the papers that week, you'd think it was a Credit Crunch Comedy that was the new darling of the West End).

creditors.jpg Luckily Alan Rickman's production of Creditors didn't try to turn what's basically a love triangle into something more topical; but at a staging of one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays I saw later in the week, you'd swear it was written and directed in direct response to the financial markets. Timon of Athens is not one of the Bard's better plays (it hasn't been seen here in LA for ten years) but at Shakespeare's Globe, the story of a profligate King whose friends desert him once they realize his credit's no longer good, seemed more substantial. Sure, it still lacked the complexity and drama of his best-known works, but as a parable, Lucy Bailey's production (programmed and conceived long before the stock market went sour) gave Timon a new lease on life.

road_show.jpg I mention this because next week will see the Off-Broadway premiere of Stephen Sondheim's Road Show, which among theater people is perhaps the most anticipated (or dreaded) event of the year. Sondheim is arguably the most revered man in American theater today and this is his first new musical in over 14 years, but people are wary. This musical was first titled Wiseguys when it famously failed in a workshop directed by Sam Mendes. Then it faltered both when it was titled Gold! and then retitled Bounce in a Hal Prince staging that received bad reviews in Chicago and Washington D.C.

Ten years and a new production by John Doyle (who directed last season's Sweeney Todd at the Ahmanson) have helped Sondheim's show, but nothing has helped more than the theatrical Gods of timing. Road Show is about, and I'm not making this up, a real-estate market bubble that bursts. It tells the story of the Miziner Brothers, an eccentric turn-of the century pair who were on track to make millions during the Florida land boom of the 1920's only to see the whole Boca Raton development go bust.

It's easy to see why this story didn't feel like a big, commercial musical when Wiseguys was workshopped during the height of the dot-com boom of the late 1990's or as Bounce, which coincided with the run-up of the Bush housing boom in 2003. The current recession is not good for the performing arts in general; but in this one instance it may result in some strange alchemy: changing what many feared will be Sondheim's last musical from a leaden dud into box-office gold.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.