American Idle: Reality TV and the Decline of Broadway

Rachel Syme | April 20th, 2011

Lauren Graham in "Guys and Dolls" in 2009.

I have been royally spoiled when it comes to hearing great vocal talent on the New York stage. In my formative tween-age voyage to Broadway, I saw Betty Buckley as Norma Desmond, Idina Menzel as Maureen, and Bebe Neuwirth as Velma Kelly in the same week. The same week! And like a French child who is given the best wine straight from the bottle, I learned quickly not to accept the cheap stuff. I become petulant and obnoxious when sitting through a Broadway production with community-theater caliber voices; I start to get antsy and consider unwrapping candies or rustling through my bag. I threaten to leave at intermission, and if I am by myself, I sometimes do it. In recent years, I must admit, this phenomenon has become a lot more common.

Consider the case of Guys and Dolls, 2009. Lauren Graham, who is excellent in “Parenthood” and who continually shines in “Gilmore Girls” reruns, somehow managed to botch “Adelaide’s Lament” — which, by the way, is supposed to sound less than fantastic. The character has a cold, and is not in voce piena to begin with, but Graham made the number sound less like a pro-attempting-to-sound-sick than a sick-person-attempting-to-sound-pro. There is a pronounced difference, and everyone in the audience heard it. The strange thing was, as I glanced around, not that many seemed perturbed by the performance. Perhaps a handful of the audience members had seen or heard Broadway dynamo Faith Prince play the part in the 1992 revival, for which she won a Tony and a Drama Desk and the entire theater community’s adoration. But for the most part, this was a crowd that had arrived for the celebrities — Graham, Craig Bierko, Oliver Platt — and they were content to see the stars they already knew perform a rough simulacrum of the Loesser songbook.

It would be one thing if casual Broadway audiences got a taste of everything — insanely virtuosic voices one night, then a bold-faced Hollywood-import cast the next. Then they could decide what they enjoy best (and I may be overly optimistic about this, but I bet that if  given the choice between Bernadette Peters and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Little Night Music, more would have chosen to spend two hours listening to the former). But what is becoming increasingly grim is the fact that shows now need the marquee names to survive, or to even open, and that more and more a marquee name in New York is someone shipped over from Los Angeles and the screen world. It used to be that your little musical could be golden if it landed the likes of Kelli O’Hara; now, it needs to land a Kelly Ripa.

If you could sing, and I mean, really sing, in any generation before this one, chances are a family member remarked that you were on your way to Broadway. Now, the kids who can belt out are on their way to ‘Idol,’ or if they can’t wait for that, to YouTube fame.

This has been a seeping fear among “show people” for some time, which is why I’m sure so many of them were glad to see Christopher Isherwood’s recent rant in The New York Times about the slow drain of excellent voices from the New York stage. After attending a star-studded New York Philharmonic concert version of Company (Stephen Colbert! Neil Patrick Harris! Jon Cryer!), he grumbled about the lackluster singing. Granted, the event was a kind of celebrity stunt dreamed up by the orchestra from the outset, but, as Isherwood contends, there’s no great excuse for a bad staging of Sondheim, especially when money and world-class musicians are involved. Patti Lupone stole the night; and though she will do that in almost any production she drops into, he wished that at least one person would have posed a minor challenge.

Isherwood’s post inspired dozens of impassioned responses from theater fans, most of them agreeing with his woes (with a few pointing out that we still have young vocal powerhouses on their way up, like Sutton Foster, Aaron Tveit, Gavin Creel and Laura Benanti), and I am glad that the floodgates have opened for this kind of conversation. And yet, even with all the chatter, it doesn’t seem like things will change any time soon.

The way a Broadway star is made has shifted with the rise of reality TV, and even theater-friendly shows like “Glee.” Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison came from the New York stage to that show, but I’ll be surprised if, after the show’s end, half of the cast does not end up flooding Broadway in the other direction. Sure, many of the “Glee” kids are tightly-wound talent coils, and perhaps, if given the chance, they could explode on the stage (I could see Amber Riley owning a revival of Dreamgirls). Vocal chops bred in the Hollywood machine are not always inferior, and screen actors aren’t always the enemy. But what we are in danger of is that musical producers will forget about the very thing that the whole enterprise is founded on: the power and magic of a killer voice.

If you could sing, and I mean, really sing, in any generation before this one, chances are a family member remarked that you were on your way to Broadway. Now, the kids who can belt out are on their way to “Idol,” or if they can’t wait for that, to YouTube fame. If Broadway becomes no longer the ultimate goal,  or simply an afterthought, for young American talent, then all theatergoers will suffer.

Broadway has always been a place where the most gifted, the most brilliant voices survive; everyone else falls away except the golden tenors and the dulcet ingenues. It should be a place where a 12-year-old can see world-class talent if she stays for a week. It should be a place so exacting, so demanding of excellence, that it crushes dreams even as it stokes them. In the week I saw those three women perform, I was elated, but crestfallen. I knew I would never share the stage with them — I just didn’t have the pipes. I can imagine a teenager feeling the same way after watching Guys and Dolls, but not because she couldn’t project properly. These days, young hopefuls may feel that the bar for entry is impossibly high —  not for lack of talent, but because they don’t have a “brand.”