It has been a confusing season for theatergoers who also read.
At least that has been true for me.
I read Mark Haddon's magical 2003 novel, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," before I saw Broadway's ingenious high-tech stage production from London's National Theatre. And, though many people I trust were enraptured by the audacious attempt to translate the novel's first-person narration by a 15-year-old autistic boy, I admired the achievement but never felt the excruciating intimacy I experienced in the bestselling book.
Would I have been better off going into the theater without expectations?
Weeks later, I faced the opposite quandary. I was blown away by "The Fortress of Solitude," a major new socio-pop musical about the coming together and the breaking apart of two boys, one white and one black, on the mean streets of Gowanus, Brooklyn, from the mid-'70s through much of the '90s. Daniel Aukin conceived and seamlessly directed the show at the Public Theater, with a sensitive book by Itamar Moses and a soul-punk-hip-hop score by Michael Friedman, all of which kept surprising me with unexpected riches and emotional complications.
But the show is an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's popular 2003 semi-autobiographical novel, which I have not read. Would I have had a less enthusiastic reaction if I knew what would happen? Would I, inevitably, have been comparing the book and the musical?
At least one critic colleague, who loved the novel, dismissed the show as having the sentimentality of an after-school special. Did he fail to see what was on the stage because he had the book in his mind as he was watching? Or did I miss the shortcomings of the musical by not knowing the source?
You see where this is heading. I've always been adamant about preparation. There is no excuse for being ignorant about things that can be known, especially information easily available to everyday theatergoers.
But these two experiences, both bold and important, have me a little thrown -- enough to ask some adapters what they ideally want in an audience.
Moses -- a playwright of such diverse adventures as "Bach at Leipzig," a costume drama, and "Back, Back, Back," about athletes and steroids -- discussed the pros and cons of expectations regarding "The Fortress of Solitude."
"We said to ourselves very early on that the show had to be successful even for people who did not know the book at all," he told me in a recent phone interview. The creators were clearly hyper-aware that "this is such a New York book and so many people have such strong associations with it." Moses fully expected there would be people who want to know "why we made that choice on page 302."
And yet, "theater and novels are so different formally," he continued reasonably. "In order to give people an analogous or equivalent experience, you have to change a lot. But people who love the book have to feel that we honored it."
Ever since I was a baby critic, I've been questioning myself about whether to read a play before I go to review it. Early on, I always read the script, keeping in mind that a new work would probably evolve through the playwright's work with the director. But I liked to see what the playwright first had in mind. Are lots of stage instructions included, as in a work by Eugene O'Neill? Or, like David Mamet, does the playwright jump right into the dialogue without a hint of how the thing was meant to look?
Over time, I became uncomfortable with knowing too much about the story in advance. It kept me from experiencing the work as a member of the audience. I invented a technique I called "one-acting" the play -- that is, reading half to know about the playwright's intentions but leaving the rest for a surprise. These days, I would rather be completely surprised -- and, if interested enough, I read it after I see it.
But what about movies that are adapted into musicals? If it is a popular movie we sort of remember from years ago, should we watch it again to refresh the details? If the musical works wonderfully on its own, how important is it to itemize ways in which it differs from the film?
Conscientiously, I almost always watch again, though, as in rereading a classic, I try not to revisit it too close to when I'm seeing it live. Otherwise -- and I'm sure you've had this experience -- it is hard not to superimpose the version in your head, like tracing paper, over the one onstage.
I asked Andrew Bergman, who wrote the book for the upcoming musical version of "Honeymoon in Vegas," how much a theatergoer should know about the movie. "It's not going to hurt if you saw the movie," he said playfully, "But it's certainly not going to help."
The trick here is that Bergman wrote and directed the 1992 hit comedy that starred Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker and James Caan. In this, his first attempt at a Broadway musical, he says, "You have to start by throwing out the movie. We kept the essence of the movie, but this is something completely different. When I first saw the show," which opens on Broadway in January with direction by Gary Griffin and a score by Jason Robert Brown, "I actually thought that, if I had never seen the movie, I would have been better off."
He is certain that "nobody is going to look at Rob McClure, who is sensational in the show, and say, 'Jeez, where's Nic Cage?' The movie was 20 years ago. Anyway, do you think you would have had to read Damon Runyon stories in order to appreciate 'Guys and Dolls'? I don't think so."
He appears to be only half-kidding when he says his ideal theatergoer is "somebody who wants to have a good time." And, if the guy who adapted the movie for Broadway "mutilates" his work, he has no one to blame but himself. If only everything were so simple.