Finding Complexity in Simplicity

Yesterday we took our Kaufman campers on their annual field trip to see a show.  In the past, I’ve chaperoned trips to Wicked, Legally Blonde and Shrek.  It’s always interesting to experience theatre with kids, and to hear their observations and critiques.  Want an honest opinion about your show that’s in development?  Bring in 20 kids from the Lucy Moses Summer Music Theatre workshop and they’ll whip it into shape.  One of my favorite (and most astute) comments came on the walk back from Shrek last year— “I just wonder if it was necessary to make it into a musical.  It worked so well as a film.  There are so many other interesting stories they could make into musicals” (My sentiments exactly, Sarah.  If only all audiences felt the same way as you).  This year we went to The Fantasticks—and I’m so glad we did.

If you’ve never seen the show, or you haven’t seen it in a while, I recommend checking it out.  The current cast is great and the production feels fresh, poignant and even timely, despite reaching its 50th Anniversary.  It reminds me of another one of my favorite theatrical pieces, Our Town.  Returning back to Jordan Roth’s three criteria from yesterday’s post, both these shows: 

  • Are uniquely theatrical.  They don’t need to put a real helicopter on stage or a flying car to move people.  (Sorry Miss Saigon and Chitty.)  Rather than try and fight the limitations of live theatre and compete with television and film, both these shows use theatrical devices and conventions (pantomime, rich language, sharply drawn characters, empty space) to tell the story and let us actively engage our hearts and minds in the material. 
  • Are essential.  Both of these shows deal, in very theatrical and non-confrontational ways, with some of the deepest, most timeless and universal themes—love, loss, growth, coming of age, pain and acceptance, among many others.  If your piece honestly delves into these epic and complex issues, you don’t need helicopters cluttering up your stage.  All you really need are proficient and talented actors and singers, clear and focused direction, and an audience willing to suspend their disbelief and go on an emotional journey with you.
  • Sell tickets.  The Fantasticks is the worlds longest running musical.  Enough said.  Ask someone who has never stepped foot in a Broadway theatre and I bet they have either seen or participated in a production of Our Town in high school, at a community theatre or a regional theatre.  At the very least, if they grew up in the 80’s, like me, they saw it done on Growing Pains and The Wonder Years.

Life magazine once said The Fantasticks is "a sophisticated story about innocence."  Maybe that’s why yesterday’s performance struck such a chord with me.  I’ve just spent the past seven months writing and developing another “sophisticated story about innocence.”  I hope Helen has as long and healthy a run as The Fantasticks.