You're right, of course, that chasing an audience is pointless and often condescending. Theatergoing's a pretty straightforward experience; if you go once, you know how it works. Last year, I went to see a musical-theater version of the classic Jamaican movie The Harder They Come at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, a thriving theater in a desperately poor neighborhood of London. I was surprised by how many people didn't appear to have been to the theater before—picking up tickets and figuring out where to sit was a new experience for some—but if they had a good time, as most of them seemed to, they'll be back.
There's a weird tendency to treat theater as something that we should see because it's good for us. It has been very good for me—it has educated and entertained and stimulated—but I go because I enjoy it. The other day, the woman sitting next to me in the cheap seats pointed to her Playbill and told her companion, "I'm up to my neck in debt, and it's all because of this." I'm sorry about her cash-flow problems, but there are worse addictions.
I'm a bit of a recluse—I love the solitude of television, knowing that I can watch it in the comfort of my own home, then yack about it later with friends who are also viewing alone. Theatergoing allows you to share an experience with strangers without having to talk to them. If the audience is restless, it's hard to achieve that willing suspension of disbelief that turns actors and sets into real people in real places. (That's why I want to murder people whose cell phone rings in the theater and merely injure them at the movies.) But when everyone is captivated, it's transporting. The warm response to Radio Golf definitely enhanced my experience of the play—the plentiful "uh-huhs" suggested August Wilson was expressing something that rang true. (Why I consider some audience noises unacceptable and others experience-enhancing is one of those psychological mysteries I prefer to leave unexplored.)
I found Coram Boy, the melodramatic British tale of 18th-century orphans, exhilarating. A friend found it laughable. I couldn't argue with her—it grabbed me, but it left her cold. Perhaps the guy next to her was fidgeting; perhaps the cast was off that night. In a weird way, the possibility of a dud performance is what keeps me going back. It's live; anything can happen.
I've only seen 18 of the 35 Tony-eligible productions, so I'll spare you my predictions (guesses, more like it), but I admit I'm caught up in the Grey Gardens/Spring Awakening race. I agree with you that Grey Gardens is an amazing, imaginative achievement and a wholly original one. The musical, like the documentary—and I don't care what anyone says, the show doesn't make much sense if you don't know the film—is about Grey Gardens, the family property, as much as the peculiar Beale family that lives there. Of course, attention-seeking crazy people often show up on the Broadway stage—sometimes even as characters—but the combination of eccentrics whose tics and accents and style of dress are instantly recognizable to anyone that's seen the movie, the connection to the Kennedys, and the need to marry music and drama to that over-the-top story presented the writers with a hell of a task. The creative team did an amazing job, and, probably most important of all, they found the actress who could make it work. Christine Ebersole is mind-blowing in the double role of Edie Beale mère and fille—two eras, two styles of music, two co-dependent personalities—singing beautifully and giving a pitch-perfect impersonation of Little Edie circa 1975. I saw both the off-Broadway and Broadway versions (the former offered a more convincing explanation of Little Edie's psychological breakdown, though the latter is the better, tighter show), and in the smaller venue, I happened to sit on the first row right under the spot where Ebersole delivered the big second-act number "Another Winter in a Summer Town." How was it physically possible to sing like that with tears and snot streaming down her face? She deserves the Tony for that achievement alone.
Spring Awakening feels schizophrenic—the kids dress and talk like 19th-century Germans and sing like 21st-century Americans; most of the music is folk-pop supported by beautifully spare string arrangements, and then a couple of drum-and-guitar-driven rock songs with self-consciously edgy lyrics explode out of nowhere. (A Broadway cast album with a parental-advisory sticker—shocking!) Yes, yes, teenagers are hormonal and unpredictable, but it gave me whiplash.
When I first read your column about the show's many "false" rhymes (this/fist; idol/Bible), I dismissed it as a purist's lament, but then you cited Edward Kleban's suggestion that "while an audience may not know the rules of lyric-writing, they have a harder time understanding the lyrics of a song if they don't have perfect rhymes and right stresses to guide them. When that happens, they wind up feeling alienated from the show." Sure enough, the folks next to me kept getting lost. During "The Word of Your Body," all that business about wounding and bruising caused particular confusion, and every time my neighbor asked his wife, "What is he saying?" I was pulled out of the moment. Still, some of the songs are gorgeous and beautifully intimate. Original cast albums aren't usually on my playlists, but I can imagine listening to "Touch Me" or "The Dark I Know Well" without ever thinking of the musical. So, Tony for Grey Gardens, Grammy for Spring Awakening.
Broadway keeps popping up on television. From Rosie O'Donnell's enthusiastic plugs on The View (she'll be missed at the box office), to Betty Suarez's 12-year-old Broadway-loving nephew Justin on Ugly Betty, to the snatches of Sondheim that sneak into Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. We've even heard discussions of Jersey Boys and Grey Gardens in the final season of The Sopranos. It seems fitting, then, that on Sunday, all will be revealed at both the Tonys and The Sopranos. Enjoy the show!