Broadway Baby: a Reflection
Despite having been to New York a healthy number of times, never before had I been adventurous enough to attempt to see 12 shows in just 8 days. Thanks to some lucky scheduling, matinees and double performance evenings I was lucky enough to cram in a mix of drama and musicals, both on and off-Broadway.
Whilst numerous books could be written on the differences between the West End and Broadway both in terms of style and content, this recent trip got me thinking about the more physical differences between the two, and how the overall experience of going to the theatre can be so varied. It's interesting to note that not one side of the pond delivers the 'ideal' audience experience, but there are pros and cons of both:
Theatres : or A Gentleman's Guide to Biting Your Tongue
Whilst the West End boats beautiful Victorian architecture, modelled around large foyers and entrance halls, on Broadway it's quite a different story. Audience members line up and down the street in a disorderly fashion creating havoc in one of the busiest areas of New York, until the house doors are open. Want to collect your tickets before hand? Good luck. Oh, it happens to be raining? Enjoy the whole of the first act with wet feet. On Broadway, every inch of the space is designed to make money, and the auditorium begins feet away from the main doors. Expect a mad rush and scramble to get to your seats.
The upside to the Broadway design is that each theatre is much newer, meaning views from all seats across the house are generally good. Unlike many West End theatres which include seats behind pillars, safety rails and other obstructions, Broadway houses are designed almost as though you're meant to see what you're watching. Whereas cheap tickets in the West End often means leaning over a sketchy balcony whilst looking sideways with a crick in your neck, most Broadway houses are wider than they are tall, meaning that they mostly operate on two levels, unlike the four of many in London. Views from the back of the 'Mezz' are therefore the cheapest, and never feel quite as far away as their UK counterparts.
Programmes and Playbills: or "the best things in life are free..."
Like everything in America, you enter and exit the theatre via the gift shop, or in this case, concession stand that sells everything you can possibly think of with the show's artwork slapped on it. Whilst many people collect items from flop musicals, others are willing to shell out tens of dollars for a velour tracksuit, often it has to be said in size XXL, proving they've been to see Hugh Jackman in the flesh.
On the positive side however, Playbills are free, and more importantly uniform. All Broadway houses offer free programmes in the form of Playbill magazines to audience members, unlike the West End where patrons are forced to pay around ï¿½6 to read the detail of the show they happen to be seeing. Granted, they are often in the form of a glossy booklet - they lack uniformity and can't be collected in neat binders or easily framed by Type A fans such as myself.
Toilets: or "It's a Privilege to Pee"
Women have long since resigned themselves for the inevitable line to spend a penny whilst their suffering husbands are able to smugly strut past them and still have enough time to get to the bar. On Broadway however, things seem much fairer, with both sexes forced to wait in line for the restrooms, and in many cases missing the first scene of Act 2 (I counted 15 people still in the bathroom as the Entr'act of 'Gentleman's Guide' kicked off). The Gerald Schoenfeld theatre had only one bathroom for over 1000 people, which meant a long and silent line of audience members sore from laughing at Nathan Lane et al. in It's Only a Play, hoping to relieve themselves before the 'pant wetting-ly funny' (yes - an actual pull quote) second act
Drinks: or "I'll tote you gin bottles out after midnight so no one'll see..."
Whilst your Playbill may be free, your drink is most certainly not. Charging $9 for a diet coke is common practise, as is serving it to you in a plastic Sippy cup, that results in your drink spilling all over your lap. Reducing you to feeling like a child, your half time wine feels much more refreshing when fed through a straw. Oh, and don't worry - it's a 'collectable' Sippy cup. Just in case you plan on using it again. Watch out for an Albee themed beverage glass coming to a dinner party near you.
Off-Broadway also thinks it's acceptable to charge $50, yes that's correct, $50 for two glasses of wine. When the drink costs more than the ticket price, you know something's wrong. What's even better, is the bar man will follow this robbery up by sliding the tip jar in your general direction, leaving you feeling guilty for the entire show.
Latecomers: or Better late than never?
In the West End, start times appear to be more rigid. With set performance schedules, audiences tend to know when things will start. The biggest surprise comes when longer shows start at 7, resulting in audiences wandering in mid way through the important exposition scenes, or in the best case, the secondary character's filler song. On Broadway, show schedules change on a weekly basis and quite frankly it's a surprise the actors even know when to turn up. Shows can start any time between 7 and 8.30pm, with varying schedules week by week. This results in numerous entries throughout the entire show, as ushers do their best to get people seated.
At 'Cabaret' last week around 30 people entered after about 20 minutes and began milling around in the dark, fondling their way to the seats. During 'On The Town' one woman arrived over an hour into the first act, and slithered down the aisle, only to stand up and watch without going to her seat, blocking the view for most of the audience, until she was sassily put down by an elderly lady in oversized glasses. Some things are best left said by the old.
It also works the other way round. About 30 minutes into 'A Delicate Balance', one man had enough and left his seat, disturbing an entire row at the front of the mezzanine. He couldn't just leave in silence, instead he had to tell each person he crossed individually the reason for his leaving - which was no reflection on the fine work being carried on stage, but instead due to a cramp in his knee. By the time he repeated himself 15 times, I think even Glenn Close had heard him.
So in conclusion, both the West End and Broadway delight in their idiosyncrasies making the business we called show often just as entertaining on this side of the curtain...