The Play's Not the Thing

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The Play's Not the Thing
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

People are fond of saying that the American Musical is dying, if not already dead. But the last few seasons have been very good for Broadway Musicals. Besides revivals of old shows, new works like Wicked, Avenue Q, and Hairspray have been huge commercial successes. If anything is looking less than healthy on Broadway, it's plays without music.

Two sobering statistics are proving that on Broadway these days, the play's not the thing. A.) There hasn't been a new play that's turned a profit in two and a half years...and B.) This season, so far, has seen only two new nonmusical plays premiere--with only three more scheduled to open this spring.

This doesn't mean that new plays aren't being written or produced--they are, but they're only being seen at not-for-profit theaters. Given that out-of-town tourists currently make up the majority of Broadway audiences, traditional plays simply aren't seen as having the requisite spectacle needed to bring people to the theater.

So, in the last few seasons, Broadway has seen new types of entertainment appearing on its stages, and two examples of these permutations have recently appeared here in Los Angeles.

The first was Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam. This show ran for almost 200 performances on Broadway and even won a Tony award for special theatrical event. After closing there, it toured America and last week it arrived in Hollywood at the Kodak Theatre.

The show is little more than a DJ, a pair of turntables, and a modest set, onto which the nine poets make their entrances and exits. At first glance, Def Poetry Jam looks very little like theater; but it fact, it resembles that long-dead art form: the Broadway Revue. A big ensemble piece opens the show, then each performer/poet has the chance to wow the crowd with a solo number--occasionally teaming up for a duet or trio. Finally, the show closes with a rousing chorus. Def Poetry Jam is sort of a 21st Century Ziegfeld Follies, swapping costumes and showtunes for literary imagery and hip-hop syncopation.

It must be said that some of the poetry isn't particularly notable, although most of it is well delivered by the photogenic cast. The work of a L.A. based poet named, conveniently, -Poetri- is fun (he rants against bad drivers and Krispy Kreme donuts) but little more than standup comedy set to verse. The standout was a Jamaican poet named Staceyann Chin, whose lyrical stanzas were as elegant and explosive as her hair.

The other form of entertainment that Broadway is using to fill its theaters is the one-person celebrity show. This season features productions with A-List stars like Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg--but even B or C-list celebs like Sex in the City bit-player Mario Cantone and the venerable Jackie Mason have their own one-man shows.

Here in L.A., Santa Monica Boulevard's Theater Row is currently hosting a first-rate one-person show: Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God. Ms. Sweeney is a former Saturday Night Live cast member, most famous for the asexual character known simply as -Pat.-

Letting Go of God is Sweeney's third theatrical monologue--her first, God Said, -Ha!- had a short run on Broadway in 1996. As the titles of these shows would indicate, Ms. Sweeney is very interested in the almighty. Raised a Roman Catholic, Sweeney's show is about her struggles with the contradictory doctrines of the religion.

Given Sweeney's history as a comedienne, it is not surprising that Letting Go of God is funny, but what is surprising is how insightful--and borderline scholarly--this show is. The benchmark of one-person shows is Lily Tomlin's Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, and Sweeney's show should be considered in the same galaxy as that famous work.

Letting Go of God has been a bona-fit small theater sensation here in L.A. having already been extended three times. With Broadway's interest in one-person shows, a move to New York would seem to be in the stars.

Letting Go of God continues at the Hudson Theatre through February 20.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.