What is the play about?
I find I’m dissatisfied, more often than not, with new plays and musicals. This post is my attempt to figure out why and what the director can do to help remedy the situation.
Of the shows that impressed me the most over the years, I most often think of the shows directed by Harold Prince. Good, bad, or indifferent the Hal Prince shows were unified: the writing, staging, and design all worked together to tell the story. The best recent example to my mind was Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys, which just completed a successful run at the Vineyard Theatre and appears to be headed to Broadway next season. I found the show flawed but exciting.
I would put The Scottsboro Boys in the unified column because it is a serious attempt to put historical incidents within a single theatrical framework. While the show wasn’t always successful, the creative team conjured a palpable theatrical tension that helped sustain the piece.
Here is where a director and choreographer can be instrumental at the level of creation. While Fiddler was being written, Jerome Robbins constantly asked Stein, Bock, and Harnick what the show was about. He asked them so often they wanted to kill him. But when they finally were able to succinctly describe the essence of the play– how tradition falls away with each new generation– they knew how to unify that show.
Based on what I’m seeing, I don’t think directors are asking that question.