Tuesday, May 6, 2008

They'll pass you by

I am not a Bruce Springsteen fan; in fact, I actively dislike most of Springsteen's music. Not looking to start any fights here -- I just want you to know, so you will understand where I'm coming from. Now then. When I first heard that a musical called Glory Days was coming to Broadway, I assumed it was a Bruce Springsteen jukebox musical. As you may know, I was wrong. Glory Days is actually an original musical about four buddies looking back at their high school days after completing their first year of college. I saw it a couple weeks back, and much to my surprise, I left thinking, "Wow, I really wish this show were a Springsteen jukebox musical." Would I want to sit through a couple hours' worth of the Boss's greatest hits? Definitely not. Would I willingly do so if my only other choice were to see the actual, non-Springsteen-related musical Glory Days again? In a heartbeat. Because Glory Days is just that bad.

I've been hoping to get around to saying so before now -- I wanted to warn you. I will never get those 90 minutes back, but I saw an opportunity to save you from my fate. Unfortunately, work got in the way, and now I see that Glory Days opens tonight. And, if there is any justice in the world, it will close tomorrow. So I guess my advice isn't very helpful at this point. Still, for what it's worth, here goes.

Perhaps you've seen the colorful ads around town, which pose the question: "What happens when two 23-year-old writers create a show about four 20-year-old guys?" Apparently the response they were going for was, "Why, that sounds like exactly the sort of thing I'd want to see on a Broadway stage!" Or at least, "I don't know, but I'm certainly curious to find out." If you have an inexplicable fondness for 20-year-old guys, or an ill-placed confidence in 23-year-old writers, you might react that way, I suppose. But if you're like me, your response is probably something like, "Um... it would be kind of obnoxious and not very good?"

Even if, like me, you find that pitch singularly unappetizing, you might still find yourself thinking, "I guess it has to be pretty good, if it's getting produced on Broadway." And that's where you'd be wrong, because you'd be giving the people who make decisions about what should be on Broadway far too much credit. In fact, Glory Days is exactly what you'd think a musical written by two 23-year-old guys about four 20-year-old guys would be -- that is, immature, underdeveloped and earnestly embarrassing to watch. It's also musically void, cheaply produced, and statically staged -- not that the material allows for much excitement or opulence. When I walked into the Circle in the Square theatre, I looked at the metal bleachers preset on the stage and thought, I wonder how they're going to move those out once the show is underway. Then the show started, and about 10 minutes in, I realized: They're not going to move the bleachers. This is the set. Four guys on bleachers: this is the entire evening. You can, of course, stage a very compelling evening of theatre with a single, minimal set, but that's not what happens here. In fact, not very much happens here. The bleachers aren't a clever metaphor; they're literal bleachers, upon which the characters sit, and stand, and occasionally dart about in an unmotivated fashion. Sometimes a character in one corner of the bleachers will not be able to hear what characters in the other corner are saying, but there doesn't seem to be any reason for that, besides a vague sense on the creators' part that you can do that in musicals. Take a good look at the photos that accompany this Playbill.com article about the show. Doesn't that look exciting? Doesn't it just sing? Pity the photographer who had to create publicity stills for this one, because that's the whole show right there. Four guys on bleachers with eager expressions on their faces, singing songs that couldn't be less interesting or memorable if they were making them up on the spot. For 90 minutes.

I feel sorry for the cast members, who try their hardest to breathe life into this limp material; Andrew Call is especially successful at creating a character with presence and personality out of the broad strokes and shallow insights the script provides. It's not their fault the result feels like a consciousness-raising play for junior high students. It's not even the writers' fault, really -- somebody wanted to put their little musical on Broadway! Were they supposed to say no? It's the producers I have a beef with. Last week I alluded to this show when I noted that I'd finally seen a Broadway musical even worse than Little Women. Honestly, the two are difficult to compare -- they were awful in their own unique ways. But in the end, they made me angry in the same way, because I walked away from both knowing that the producers who were responsible for their presence on Broadway had made their decisions based on everything but the quality of the material. These shows don't come to Broadway because someone says, "People need to see this," or "This is Broadway-worthy." They come to Broadway because producers see an opportunity to cash in -- to grab a certain demographic; to make a play for a Tony in a year when the competition is thin; to cut corners and still charge $100 for a ticket. A four-character, single-set, ninety-minute pop musical! It's got everything it needs to be a moneymaker -- who cares if it's any good?

I'd seen people leave in the middle of a show here and there, but I'd never seen audience members streaming out of the theatre the way they were the night I saw Glory Days. And every time someone passed me, I thought, "Take me with you!" They were probably on their way home to dash off their own half-baked musicals, because if this can end up on Broadway... Well, then, maybe it's time to stop pretending that Broadway is the ultimate arbiter of quality and success.

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