Is Length Important?
I feel I've got to the stage where my favourite phrase is 'ninety minutes, no interval'. Length is one extreme variable that productions can afford to play fast and loose with, now so it seems more than ever.
Traditionally both plays and musicals last around two-and-a-half hours including interval. Through the 50s and 60s when Broadway musicals were being churned out in a semi-conveyor belt fashion, you could almost set your watch by certain elements of the shows. Traditionally starting at 8.30pm, in New York in particular, the formula of writing a 'good' musical seemed to be developed to a fine art (ask David Merrick), with a longer, sometimes 90-minute first act, followed by a 45 minute to an hour second act. Even now it is very rare to have a longer second act than first.
The phrase '11 O'Clock number' was born from the moment in each show that the final 'big' number arrived, usually for the central character and more often than not being one of the most memorable numbers from the show. As the creatures of habit we are, audiences would perk up and recognise the signpost that we're almost at the end and the denouement is just around the corner.
This formula still exists in earnest - sitting through Made in Dagenham recently, the downbeat of Gemma Arterton's 'big number' in the second act coincided perfectly with the faint 'bleep' of the gentleman's watch next to me at precisely 10pm (which would be 11pm if the show was starting at the traditional 8.30pm). The 'ideal' formula for musicals, one that audiences are most familiar with, is deemed by many to be the blueprint when writing new work. But will we always be stuck in this structure, and does it actually dictate too much for writers that it then becomes oppressive? What worked for 'Funny Girl' in 1964 may not be the ideal format for a 21st Century audience.
This week Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph asked if theatres have a responsibility to audiences to program shows to end at a sensible time. Whilst the West End is currently littered with exceptional examples of shows packed into smaller packages (My Night With Reg and The Nether are two examples), there are still a few 'monoliths' threatening the commute home for many - and not just those commuting from outside of London.
The Old Vic's recent production of The Crucible which clocked in at almost 4 hours is the longest sit I remember in recent times. Scheduled to start at 7.30pm, due to the reconfiguration of the auditorium and the amount of people milling around to find their seats, the show didn't actually begin until 7.40pm. The final act finished just before 11.30pm, and I couldn't help think that it was wholly unnecessary. Who wants to be commuting anywhere at that time, let alone outside of London?
This week I saw Shaw's wonderful Man + Superman at the National which boasted a 3 hour 30 minute run time, due in particular to the re-addition of the 'optional' third act which takes place in Hell. The production began at 7pm, coming down just after 10.30pm, which felt altogether more manageable. The audience however, conditioned to a much shorter sit, struggled in part to sit still and enjoy the drama. At every possible opportunity people were up and off to the toilet, swapping seats with the person next to them, and in the case of the obnoxious woman in front of me - whipping out bed socks, sticking their feet across their partner and giving themselves a full French plait, only to meticulously undo it during the final act.
Despite enjoying The Nether and its swift run time, I couldn't help feeling somewhat cheated. With ticket prices at an all time high, audiences are looking for as much bang for their buck as possible. Could it have been paired with another play to create more of an 'evening', or would that diminish the overall effect? I won't lie - I love being home before the 10 O'Clock news.
By far the worst example of minute-per-dollar spending was the recent Broadway production of The River, which holds my prize as being the worst play I've ever seen. At over $300 a ticket and a running time of 85 minutes, every solid second counted. Yes - Hugh Jackman was indeed pleasant to look at, but the combination of Butterworth's incoherent and pretentious script, along with the a full ten minutes of silence whilst we watched a fish being cooked resulted in the worst value for money possible.
So what's the answer? There is a great deal of variety on the West End currently, especially when it comes to plays. I can't help feel however that musicals aren't offered the same level of freedom. About ten years ago, the one-act 90 minute musical was 'vogue' on Broadway (Spelling Bee, Drowsy Chaperone, A Catered Affair, Xanadu), but the commercial West End didn't really follow suit. Producers face higher rental costs on one-act productions to cover the cost of the loss of interval bar sales for the venue, but surely this can't be the most discouraging factor? The recent revival of A Chorus Line showed how difficult audiences found sitting without a 'comfort break' - people were wandering out all over the place which was distracting for both performers and fellow audiences.
Are we as audiences too conditioned to specific forms? And does it matter? With the question of length - I can only say it's a matter of personal taste and opinion.