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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

'Reality' entertainment creeps into theater

Fantasia Barrino of "American Idol" stars as Celie

Fantasia Barrino of "American Idol" stars as Celie in the long-running Broadway hit "The Color Purple." Credit: Newsday / Ari Mintz

It seems like forever since we could use the word "reality" without imagining ironic quotation marks around it.

What was once a solid, unambiguously meaningful word, of course, hasn't been itself since so-called reality TV marched across our screens with nonactors pretending to forget the camera in unscripted competitions, courtships and other public displays of so-called life.

The theater, bless its old-fashioned inflexibility, has remained reasonably unscathed by the monster in the box. Yes, our musicals have had more than a few invasions of the hyper-embellished screaming style beloved by "American Idol" and its progeny. In general, however, the most tangible impact, which turned out to be impressively nontoxic, has been the casting of reality-show winners in Broadway shows.

Fantasia Barrino ("American Idol," 2004) had a triumph in 2007 as the replacement Celie in "The Color Purple." She returns to Broadway this fall in "After Midnight" (formerly "Cotton Club Parade"). In 2008, Clay Aiken ("American Idol," 2003) was charming as a replacement Sir Robin in "Monty Python's Spamalot." Constantine Maroulis ("American Idol," 2004), got a Tony nomination for "Rock of Ages" and, last season, survived "Jekyll and Hyde." Most substantially, Laura Osnes (who won her part in the revival of "Grease" in a 2007 casting contest) struggled with prejudice against that background until, last season, she enchantingly emerged as her own star in "Cinderella."

But that was then.

This summer, it appears the theater has caught up with -- or been caught by -- some of the unavoidable reality of reality TV. Last month, Atlantic Theater's Stage 2 briefly presented the well-received premiere of "Good Television." Rod McLachlan's play, which I did not see, explored an addiction reality show, "Rehabilitation," in which producers manipulated a meth addict for ratings.

On Thursday, Second Stage Theatre opens "Nobody Loves You," a musical about a philosophy grad student who auditions for a reality TV dating show in an attempt to win back his ex-girlfriend. The show, with book by co-lyricist Itamar Moses and music by co-lyricist Gaby Alter, has a hefty cast that includes Leslie Kritzer ("Legally Blonde") and Rory O'Malley ("The Book of Mormon").

Moses, best known as the playwright of such smart, guys-in-conflict serious comedies as "The Four of Us" and "Back Back Back," is a fan of reality TV competitions in which people with real skills compete. He mentions "Project Runway" and "So You Think You Can Dance," which, not incidentally, has employed the show's choreographer, Mandy Moore.

As for the dating shows, well, they are "like watching a slow-motion car crash," he told me in a recent phone interview. "I mostly feel empathy, not condescension."

But why would anybody choose to go on such shows and why should we be interested in anyone who did? "I don't know," he demurs, then goes on to suggest that he has given the question more than casual thought.

"I suspect it's just a different version of all the things we do that are maybe self-destructive -- a shortcut to making our lives feel like they matter. It's why people get high," he continues, "or why people pursue really exciting, really inappropriate partners. They're temporarily living a heightened experience because they're afraid that sinking into everyday experience will be boring and depressing."

He says he believes theater has been spared such shows because, "I'm not sure there's a way to do what reality TV does in the theater. You can't put nonactors onstage with no script and force them to behave in front of a live audience. It's easier to forget a camera than all those people."

As I see it, however, reality TV is having an effect on theater right now that extends beyond casting discoveries and material for playwrights.

I'm talking about an experiment that producer Ken Davenport is attempting for the first time this summer on the tryout of a new musical, "Somewhere in Time," in Portland, Ore.

The audiences are given dials to register instant reactions during the show. As I understand it, theatergoers can express themselves by turning the dials to "love this part," "neutral about this part" and "hate this part." Davenport writes a high-profile blog about the theater and actually has a mission statement that asks, "How can we use new technology to advance the theater?"

Comparisons can be made with audience surveys by Hollywood and political polls. To me, however, polling audience taste to shape new musicals feels a lot like reality TV shows in which viewers decide whom to vote off the island.

Davenport sees the similarity. If the audience doesn't like a block of dialogue, it can vote the dialogue off the musical. He considers this "another tool in the toolbox," just a more immediate version of the surveys he uses to get reactions at readings. He also denies he would use popular opinion to shape revivals or plays.

"I would never do this on a Tony Kushner play," he says, understating the absurdity of the idea. "But in the early development of a new commercial musical, yes, absolutely I would."

Davenport, whose most recent productions were the disappointing "Godspell" and the dazzling but underrated Broadway transfer of Alan Cumming's one-man "Macbeth," bristles a bit when asked if democracies can create art.

"This isn't creating art," he says. "We do the creating. But this allows us to eavesdrop on the audience reaction. We need data. We don't get instructions. We look for trends. If everyone says the same thing, we listen. They help us come up with creative solutions."

Traditionally, artists and producers watch tryouts and preview audiences to get a sense of their reactions. "The great producers of the old days would have used this technology if it were available to them," he insists, acknowledging that "dial testing" is hardly popular with his colleagues. "I try to stay with the curve," he says. "Our industry sometimes is a little behind. I totally don't get it."

Of course, Davenport is the book writer for this show, which means he has one fewer creative type to fight him. "I think my team was a little resistant at first," he admits. "But they are coming around. They want to look at the trends."

He is incredulous that Broadway producers will spend $10 million developing a production "and don't spend $10,000 to test it. This is a big business. I owe this to my investors."

It is hardly news that 75 percent of Broadway productions lose money. Clearly, it is hard to make a hit. So far, only four from last season recouped their investment -- Al Pacino in "Glengarry Glen Ross," Jessica Chastain in "The Heiress," Bette Midler's "I'll Eat You Last" and, most recently, Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Masha and Sonia and Spike." None of those is a new musical.

I asked Moses if he could imagine Broadway producers "dial testing" their shows. "I guess the closest equivalent is a mainstream studio film," he says. "Otherwise, it would be crazy to think this would make anything more than pleasant middle aesthetics -- the way to create the most boring theater imaginable."

Davenport bristles at a printed quote from another producer, who asked, "Did Michelangelo ask dial testers, 'Do you like this part of David's leg?'"

"Michelangelo did not have to recoup," he retorts. Which begs the question of how Michelangelo would do on "So You Think You Can Sculpt?"

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