Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Socially Conscious Musical

 Showboat 1929

Since the first true American musical play, Showboat, there have been socially conscious themes in musicals.  Showboat dealt with something that was most definitely a relevent issue of the day, miscegenation.  Inter-racial relationships were not commonly accepted in 1927 when the musical premiered, and Showboat put the realities of this on the stage, for better or for worse.

I really feel that this social consciousness is a part of the legacy of the "Great American Musical" as PBS would coin it.  From the original, through the Golden Age, up until today, musicals have been weaving important questions into song and dance routines.  Along with the token, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back formulation, social awareness is an integral part of the history of the musical.

Even Rogers and Hammerstein's works, with their generally lighthearted feel and content often dealt with serious social problems: abandonment, robbery, and suicide (Carousel), race relations and war (South Pacific), cultural differences and human rights (The King and I).

Other productions through the ages addressed our prejudices against our neighbors (West Side Story), the counter culture (Hair), races (Caroline, or Change), and those suffering from AIDS (Rent).  All too often, intellectuals are ready to dismiss the musical as "fluff" and "mindless entertainment", and while Broadway has certainly seen it's share of "fluff", you can't write off the entire form.  It's important for those of us who create and advocate for musical theater to ensure that this legacy of social consciousness carries on into the future.

What's the next step?  Which musicals are out there now that are addressing our issues?  Does Next to Normal fit the bill?  Will the upcoming Enron raise new awareness about the need for Corporate Responsibility?  I'm not suggesting that social consciousness should be the goal of a production, but I do think it's something to consider.  What do you think?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Great Women in the Theater

Amy Adams in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (borrowed from IMDb)

We've come a long way ladies, from the days of the "broadway baby" and the "casting couch".  Back then, a girl had to sleep her way into a position of even minor influence & power in the theater.  No more!

Crain's list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in New York came out today, and among other fabulous women, in all sectors of the economy, was Nina Lannan.  Ms. Lannan is president of Nina Lannan Associates, who among other productions, managed Legally Blond (yay girl-power), and currently manages the hugely successful, Billy Elliot.

In addition to running her own business, Ms. Lannan is the current chair of The Broadway League.  Apparently, "She's the first woman in the trade associations 80-year history to hold that position." (Crain's XXV;38, p 20)

It's about time!  How many of you, in your days of academic and community theater found yourself surrounded by women?  How many auditions have you attended where 90% of those auditioning were women and 90% of those auditing were men?  I know that things have been changing and that more and more women are moving into leadership positions in the theater, but where have we been ladies?

What happened to the 78 women who were in the chorus of the production of The Music Man in my high school?  There were maybe 10 guys in the show, but most of them are still pretty active contributors to the theater community who are headed for leadership positions.  Maybe it's because girls in school productions face much more rejection (78 girls for and handful of roles), than their male counterparts (heck even some male parts went to girls because there weren't enough boys).    

I don't know why most of the leaders in the commercial theater industry are men, but I congratulate Ms. Nina Lannan for setting the stage for future generations of women.

 Which remarkable theater women (or men) would you like to tip your hat to?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Blurred Lines of Battle

I began this blog with a post about the revival of the National Theatre of Afghanistan.  The inspiring article referenced in this post from UK's The Independent told the story of rebirth in a land battered by years of war and oppression.  Half a world away, everyday is a struggle to survive.

Today, I want to commend those who work in the impoverished and unstable parts of the world, striving to help those most in need.  I recently finished "Three Cups of Tea", a book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin that chronicles the humanitarian work Mr. Mortenson has done (building schools) in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past 14 years.  If you haven't read the book, I absolutely recommend it.  I also recommend checking out the Central Asia Institute's website to find out about current work that Mr. Mortenson and his organization are doing.

Humanitarian work, through education and the arts, is absolutely necessary to stabilizing and revitalizing the war torn and impoverished countries of the world.  Education provides opporunity and empowers.  Art gives both the creator and the audience the dignity and human value that is so often lost in war time. This is especially true in the current "war on terror".

Terrorism confounds modern war tactics.  The terrorist does not outfit him/her self  in the uniform of a militant, but blends in with the general population.  This makes it particularly difficult for the counter-terrorist strikes to draw the line between civilian and militant.  Out of the fear and confusion created by the inability to clearly identify the assailant, civilians often fall victim.  I cannot think of anything more destructive to a society.  A particularly haunting example of this blurring of the lines was featured in this Wall Street Journal article today.

Militants planned to attack an oil storage facility in Pakistan by gaining access dressed as women in burqas.  I'm not sure if these men considered the implications of their actions, but regrettably I fear this will further endanger women in an already volatile situation.  Imagine, following this attack, counter-terrorism forces will now fear that every figure in a burqa is a threat.  I desperately hope that this will not be the case, as the consequences of such an attitude will be catastrophic.

My plea is this:
To those fighting terrorism with firearms, please carry out your missions with the utmost care and concern for citizens and humanitarian workers.  Your job is to protect and I admire your valor.
To those who endanger citizens through terrorism, think about the many innocent individuals who will suffer directly and indirectly from your actions.
To governments of the world, work for peace.  Seek solutions that benefit the global community, and encourage your military and citizens to conduct themselves in ways that promote cultural understanding and global well-being.
To humanitarian workers the world over, thank you.  The work you are doing will not only benefit those in distress today, but it will improve the world for future generations.
To the entire world, be good to one another.  If you have the means, give or volunteer.  Peace starts with you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Proving the Economic Importance of the Arts

I found myself reading this article from the Miami Herald and decided I had to mention it.  (To give credit where credit is due, it came my way via Audience Development Specialists on twitter, follow them here

So often, as arts professionals and advocates, we find ourselves discussing the esoteric value of art.  Yes, art is vital to human expression and interaction, and the intangible benefits of the arts are infinite, but what about the economic impact of the arts?

For some arts communities, the positive impact they have on the local economy is obvious (i.e. BROADWAY).  For other communities, and often arts organizations in the nonprofit sector, this is not so obvious.  Enter the Cultural Data Project

This free online tool allows arts and cultural organizations to store their financial information on their site where it can be easily formatted to fit grant applications for a number of participating grantmakers.  (Are you smiling out there grantwriters?? Yes, something to streamline the budget building process for grants)  In addition, the service compiles the financial information of all participating organizations so you can compare how your doing in your budget range (anonymously of course).  The service in and of itself is helpful to grant seekers, grant makers, bookkeeppers, development professionals and managers. 

But why do I really think the Cultural Data Project is important?  Because all of that collected financial information is accessible to researchers who want to prove to governments and funders that the arts are a driving force in local economies and should be treated as such.  By quantifying the needs of the arts world, strategic plans can be developed that allow funds to reach arts organizations in ways that help them best serve their communities both directly and indirectly. 

Cool right?  Now I'm not trying to proselytize for the Cultural Data Project.   I'm sure there are lots of other organizations that have taken steps to provide tangible data for use in the battle for the arts in this country, I'm just not familiar with them.  One thing is certain, while the world at large seems to FINALLY be getting the message that the arts are priceless to the human experience, if we're going to survive the recession, and future economic downturns, we have to be able to quantify our worth for the powers that be.

Let me know of other ways your organization or business is proving itself as a valuable investment.