Musical Relationships in the Broadway Theatre

22 February 2016

Musical Relationships in the Broadway Theatre

Two years ago, I saw Les Misérables on Broadway with a friend and we sat in the very front row. Reading Christopher Small’s Musicking; The Meanings of Performing and Listening led me to ponder this performance. There were a few discrepancies between the connections that occur between people during a performance as described in Small’s book versus what I experienced at the Broadway musical. Looking back, I thought about distinct relationships that took place within the theatre during that performance: the relationship between the space and the audience, the relationship between members of the audience, the relationship between the audience and the performers, and the relationship between everyone in the theatre and the music.

The first relationship, between the audience and the theatre space, is one that often gets overlooked. Small notes that “[e]very building, from the tiniest hut to the biggest airport terminal, is designed and built to house some aspect of human behavior and relationships, and its design reflects its builders’ assumptions about that behavior and those relationships” (20.) Les Misérables was performed in the Imperial Theatre at 249 West 45th St in New York City. I remember mentally preparing myself to see a grand and ornate theatre as I entered the building, as this was my first time seeing a Broadway musical and I didn’t quite know what to expect, and was a little surprised by what I found. It was a beautiful space, but a lot smaller and more compact than I had expected. Hundreds of chairs were squeezed into quite a tiny area. Seats were so close to one another that my knees were almost touching the stranger’s next to me. As I made my way to the front row, I remember stopping in awe as I realized our seats were virtually pressed up against the front of the stage. The only thing between us and the stage was a thin window that allowed the audience, if they were as close as we were, to view the orchestra pit below the stage. I was excited by this proximity to the performers, but I could see how some might have found it cramped and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it made any socialization with audience members other than those who were directly at one’s side awkward and impractical, which encouraged everyone to face forward and focus on the stage. Like Small describes, it was as if the space was telling the audience how to act once inside.

I also remember that the lighting was quite dimmed as everyone filed in to take their seats. There was no natural light coming into the room since there were no windows which cast a closed-off atmosphere on the space. Even the doors were almost invisible as they were disguised to blend in with the woodworking on the walls. I would assume that many theaters use these sorts of techniques so that, in the words of Small, “… they allow no communication with the outside world. Performers and listeners alike are isolated here from the world of their everyday lives” (25.) This is another way the space can ease the audience into the other world that takes place when a performance is in progress and tells them with subtleties what to expect and how to act.

The relationships between audience members may be the most peculiar when viewed out of context. According to Small, “[e]ven those who have come with friends sit, once the performance begins, still and silent in their seats, each individual alone with his or her own experience, avoiding so much as eye contact with others. Whatever may be the nature of the performance, they experience it, and elect to experience it, in isolation, as solitary individuals” (41). I found this statement to ring very true at this performance of Les Misérables as well as at the large majority of performances I’ve attended in my life. Even though the audience undergoes a shared experience, it is strange and even frowned upon to outwardly display this or communicate any similarities of reaction throughout the duration of the show. I recall the woman sitting next to me singing along to many of the songs in the show under her breath and how my irritation flared each time she did so. I remember thinking that I didn’t come to this Broadway production to listen to the woman next to me, I came to listen to professional performers who would give the most accurate representation of the music as possible. Looking back on this interaction, it seems a little harsh for me to have had such judgmental thoughts; after all this woman was just enjoying the show in her own way. I believe it is the strange code of conduct ingrained in the theatre-goer’s mind about how audience members should not interaction whatsoever that causes this irritation at any deviation from an audience’s normal response.

This bizarre conditioned response of the listeners extends to their interactions with the performers, as well.

Orchestra and audience, too, are strangers to one another, and there is no opportunity for them to become anything else, for they enter and leave the building by separate doors, occupy separate parts of it, and never meet during the event. This seems to be felt more as a relief than a deprivation by both parties, who apparently treasure their separation and prefer not to enter into a relationship of familiarity with members of the other group. And on the other hand, the audience is expected to sit quietly and accept the orchestra’s performance as it plays, the only response open to its members being applause at the end. … What is not an option is to make any visible or audible response, of either approval or disapproval, during the course of the performance… (42-43)

Perhaps what is most intriguing about this phenomenon is that the lack of interaction between the audience and the performers is most often a “relief.” I personally disagree, as I find meeting the performers and learning more about their personal additions to the work to be beneficial in my understanding and enjoyment of the work. Since I was seated right up against the window to the orchestra underneath the stage, the conductor’s head ended up being directly in front of me because he stood below the stage, as well. This way, he could conduct the performers below while watching and coordinating with the performers on stage. Right before he cued up the orchestra at the start of the show, he turned and said hello to my friend and I. Even this minuscule interaction seemed to break the peculiar barrier between performer and audience member. It made me feel more integrated into the performance, which I think helped me remember all the small details that were unique to this particular one, since I felt a part of it. But, according to Small, these details should not color my opinion of the work because the original work itself is finite, isolated from any deviations, and cannot be changed. So perhaps for the music to remain as true to its pure form as possible, and therefore as removed from human interpretations as possible, this separation is necessary.

However, this particular rendition of Les Misérables was a revival of the musical, which originally debuted on Broadway in 1987. This type of performance is supposed to stray from the original work in some way as the new cast, directors, and musicians add their own fresh perspective to the production. This idea conflicts with Small’s notion that a piece of music is almost never perfectly performed due to human error as well as human expression. In a revival performance, these deviations from the norm are embraced. Perhaps this is why it was extremely difficult for me to appreciate the work exclusively from the new aspects these performers brought to the show.

As for the relationship between the performers and the music, it heavily depends on what type of performer one is considering as well as which type of performance. Small discusses the visible evidence of this relationship at a symphony concert:

This is the great paradox of the symphony concert, that such passionate outpourings of sound are being created by staid-looking ladies and gentlemen dressed uniformly in black and white, making the minimal amount of bodily gesture that is needed to produce the sounds, their expressionless faces concentrated on a piece of paper on a stand before them, while their listeners sit motionless and equally expressionless listening to the sounds. (155)

In a musical, particularly Les Misérables, the performers’ expression of emotion is very different from the description Small gives. Singers display all the anguish and longing about which they sing in their faces, movements, and even their voices. For example, I remember one scene where a humorous character sang a high note and purposely screeched it, which caused him to go off key, to add to the comedy of the scene. He used his voice to add more passion to the music than was originally there. Something like this would never take place in the more serious, precise representation of a work performed by a symphony orchestra. Therefore, musicals are different because the stage performers play characters which they are able to use to outwardly display their emotions.

The audience of this particular production strayed a bit from the normal, accepted response of the passive listener, as well. Many of them were crying in response to the performance, which is an obvious outward expression of emotion. The woman singing along next to me most definitely didn’t follow the unspoken code of conduct of a silent audience member. Perhaps this was slightly disruptive to those around her, but it was clear that she was engaging in the music in a way that no one else felt compelled to express openly. Perhaps these differences were due to the fact that this was a Broadway musical and not a opera or a more traditionally formal concert. Or maybe it could be that the stereotypical intimidation present at professional concerts due to this implicit etiquette has diminished even since Small wrote his book just eighteen years ago. Either way, the performance I attended produced several different reactions to the typical ones described in Small’s book.

Overall, I agree with Small’s point that to achieve a perfect representation of a piece of music, all human influence and interaction should be excluded or ignored. But this made me realize how much I do not think one should strive for this perfection and miss out on performers’ individual additions to the music. I also disagree with Small’s idea that performers and audience members leave their emotional responses entirely out of the work they are performing or witnessing. Musicals especially rely on the passion of their performers to get more drastic reactions out of their audience. Broadway shows are often not as esteemed as orchestral concerts or operas, but still require quite high-caliber talent. Musical theatre is often categorized as “low art,” but I like to think of it as an art that engages with the emotions more openly and explicitly than orchestral music, which is described in more detail in Musicking. Perhaps if Small had included more examples of the genre of musical theatre, it would become clear that, while it has several similarities to performances of “higher art,” the relationships that take place cannot ultimately be regarded with the same standards.

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