* With apologies to Mr. Irving Berlin
Last week Boy and I had the pleasure of attending a Broadway show for the first time in many months. I say “pleasure” because the recently-opened revival of A Little Night Music we saw was really quite good, with strong performances by most of its cast, most notably and somewhat to my surprise by Catherine Zeta-Jones. However, while the show was a pleasure, the experience of attending the theater was not.
I’ll tell you why . . .
Strike One: The Tickets Were Exorbitantly Expensive
Getting good seats these days to an early-stage run of a hit Broadway show is virtually impossible for mere mortals without going through a ticket broker, and the cost of procuring such seats can be astronomical. I pre-bought our tickets through American Express before the show opened and paid a whopping $277 per seat for our center orchestra seating, or $554 for the two of us. I was surprised to see, however, that this did not include a huge scalping fee as a full $267 of the per-seat cost actually went to the theater, with Amex and Telecharge between them taking only $10 in handling fees per ticket. On the rare occasions that Boy and I attend the theater we are usually willing to spring for seats in the orchestra, preferring to forego the experience altogether if it means being relegated to seats in a nose-bleed balcony or ones with obstructed views. While I recognize that one pays a premium price to sit in the center orchestra, I think having to fork over more than $500 to the house for two seats is exorbitant.
That's right, $277 a seat!
…Particularly when it is obvious that the producers have scrimped on the expenses of mounting the show, which was most definitely the case here.
But we didn’t know that when I ordered the tickets as a Christmas present to us, and–even though expensive–I was more than willing to pay such a price for us to see this show. That's because neither of us had seen it before in other revivals, we both enjoy listening to the original cast recording from time-to-time, and we thought it would be one of our last chances to see Angela Lansbury on stage.
Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt, Catherine Zeta-Jones as her daughter Desiree,
and Keaton Whittaker as her grandaughter Frederika (photo: Joan Marcus)
So we decided to make an evening of it, starting with dinner at “21”. I am going to be posting shortly about having dinner there so I’m not going to say much about that part of our evening for now, except that we both enjoyed it.
Strike Two: The Theater Was Woefully Understaffed
A Little Night Music is playing at the Walter Kerr Theater, a confection of a hall built in 1921 and one of the most intimate theaters on Broadway, seating only 975 patrons. We arrived there approximately ten minutes before curtain to find a scene of utter mayhem outside with people jostling and pushing to get into the sole door that was being used to admit patrons. That was the first thing about the evening that struck me as “off.” In my view, there should have been someone there from the theater to direct the crowd, several more of the six available entry doors should have been opened to admit the crowd, and there should have been more than the two harried ticket takers on hand to process the nearly one thousand people entering the theater. But that would have meant paying wages to such staff, I suppose.
Strike Four: No Coat Check!
After vainly searching for the coat check to leave my briefcase, overcoat, and hat before taking my seat I learned from an exasperated theater employee–annoyed because I had interrupted a transaction–that the Walter Kerr doesn’t have one. This struck me as particularly odd. Not only is it my understanding that having a coat check is a standard offering at most theaters, the absence of one is a decided inconvenience for the Walter Kerr’s patrons–particularly during the winter. I suppose that the bean counters at the Jujamcyn Amusement Corporation decided that dispensing with a coat check altogether would help them maximize the theater’s revenue-per-square-inch calculation, since it opened up valuable real estate for more concession opportunities. Furthermore, they no longer have to pay salaries to the benighted lackeys forced to work checking coats. With this running through my mind, and annoyed by the prospect of having to sit buried under a pile of outer garments for the duration of the show, I then started to make my way to my seat.
Boy and I were eventually able to push our way through the hordes of people clogging the aisles and found the row that our seats were in. I was pleased to see that our seats were as billed, right in the center facing the stage, four rows back. All other seats in the row were already occupied so we had to "excuse me" our way past the seated patrons, none of whom bothered to stand up to let us by (as I would have done) despite the fact that the space between rows at the Walter Kerr is extremely tight at best, and far narrower than the stadium-sized seating found in most of the movie cineplexes the audience was likely more accustomed to. Much to my dismay I found that when I arrived at my seat it was next to one occupied by a Jabba the Hutt whose overly ample frame not only engulfed the arm-rest between our seats but also extended into my space, where it remained for the duration of the evening. I was not happy that I had to squeeze my way down into the seat while balling up my overcoat and putting it on my lap with my hat sitting on top of it.
Strike Five: The Patrons Were Under-Dressed, Ill-Mannered Boors
Once I had collected myself somewhat from this unpleasant experience, though, I was further dismayed when I turned and looked around the theater, taking in the rest of the audience. With few apparent exceptions the vast majority were dressed like slobs, wearing clothes more appropriate for an afternoon spent cleaning out the garage than for attending an evening's performance on the Great White Way. I felt like a decided fish out of water in my suit and tie and a throw-back to a different (and in my view better) era. Does anyone make an effort anymore?
Photo courtesy of Google Images
Not surprisingly once the show started the peanut gallery of the audience commenced a steady stream of comments, coughing, and gurgles, at least that is when their mouths weren't occupied with swilling water from plastic bottles that annoyingly captured the stage lights every time they took a swig. In retrospect I'm surprised I didn't hear someone loudly speaking on a cellphone during the performance giving a blow-by-blow description of what was taking place on stage.
Strike Six: As Little As Possible Was Spent on the Production
Fortunately I was able to block most of this out and enjoy the show, and the first act was quite good. But despite solid, and at times quite wonderful performances, both Boy and I were struck at how stripped down the production was, a view shared by many reviewers. The New York Times noted that there were barely enough musicians hired to constitute a pit orchestra. In my view "orchestra" is a complete misnomer as in reality there were barely enough musicians to constitute a combo, and what few there were were relegated to a mezzanine level on stage left as the pit had long-ago been dispensed with to make room for more lucrative seating.
In addition to an understaffed group of musicians the stage was barely decorated with a virtually nonexistent set, and there was little in the way of scenery changes between acts. Finally, as far as I could tell there was only one full change of costumes for the cast during the entire show. Not even the leading lady got more than two gowns to wear that evening. In some of the articles that I've read the producers apparently claimed that they were aiming to create a concert-like, Chekhovian mood in this production, but I rather think that was merely an excuse for why they invested what appeared to me to be the absolute bare minimum in the show's production. Forgive me for what I'm missing here, but what do Ingmar Bergman and Stephen Sondheim have to do with Anton Chekhov?
Photo: Charles Sykes/AP
After an intermission that saw the reemergence of the army of hawkers and hucksters shilling souvenirs and tee shirts at every turn we settled (well, in my case squeezed) back into our seats for the second act. It was quite enjoyable, and the highlight was when Ms. Zeta-Jones sang a nuanced "Send In the Clowns," a song that I have heard mutilated by so many bad performers over the years (including Boy's worst nightmare of Bonnie Franklin holding a sheaf of balloons) that I usually start to cringe at the first few notes of its intro. Ms. Zeta-Jones' performance actually brought tears to my eyes (contrary to what my readers may think I am a sentimental fool), and it was the only time during the evening that the audience really quieted down. In my view Angela Lansbury pretty much mailed in her performance that evening as Madame Armfeldt, but I don't begrudge her that since it isn't exactly a toothsome role to begin with, and as far as I'm concerned she has the right to rest on her laurels at this point in her remarkable career. A letter from Ms. Lansbury is still a treat indeed.
Strike Seven: The Huckstering Never Let Up
Even as we left the theater we were continued to be assaulted by vendors desperately trying to unload more souvenirs, snacks, and memorabilia. Management had even set up another stand outside with a barker urging everyone not to miss their last opportunity to sign up for a pre-sale of the as-yet-to-be-released cast recording. I couldn't wait to get away.
In our apartment Boy and I sat for an hour or so talking about the evening. Although we were both genuinely happy to have seen the show, and enjoyed it, we were both highly irritated by how unpleasant the experience of attending the Walter Kerr Theater had been. We laid most of the blame on the producers and the theater's management, who appeared to us to have done everything in their power to extract as much as possible from the audience while giving as little as possible in return. In the end I do not believe I got anywhere near my "money's worth" for the more than $500 I spent on our tickets--if I had to put a number on it I'd probably appraise the evening's true worth at no more than about half that.
Given our less-than-enjoyable experience in attending A Little Night Music, Boy and I agreed that we won’t be in any hurry to return to the theater to see a Broadway show, and particularly one with the misfortune to be staged at the Walter Kerr. As far as I'm concerned, I'd much rather stay at home and spend my money on something else that would give me lasting pleasure, such as the original cast recording of A Little Night Music--the one with Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold. And since I already own it I would have $554 more in my checking account than I do today.