Why Do Community Theaters Produce Bad Shows?
The other day I was doing some research for another column when I came across an advertisement for a community theater's 2017-18 season. They had a nice mix of bold choices with well known chestnuts but one show in particular stood out. Not just because it's rarely done, but more so because it's ranked as one of the worst shows and biggest flops of the 21st Century, I'm referring to Brooklyn: The Musical.
Now you may be a fan or have a soft spot for this show, but let's be honest, it was a tremendous disappointment and roundly panned by critics and audience members alike. Much of the criticism was based on the actual material rather than the performances of the cast (which included Eden Espinosa, Karen Olivo and Will Swenson) themselves.
For instance, Talkin' Broadway's Matthew Murray said,
"Buried beneath the rubbish of the show's outward appearance is just more rubbish, albeit in the guise of a book and score (by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson) similarly incapable of rising above the esprit debris."
So this raises a question, why do community theaters insist on producing bad material?
I'm not talking about shows that flopped, because there are a good number of shows that didn't have successful runs on Broadway. I'm talking about shows with obvious book problems, lack of interesting characters, terrible songs, etc.
This has nothing to do with the "Broadway Cast vs. Community Theater Cast" debate. There's no need to compare, bad material is just bad material. It doesn't matter how talented you are, terrible music will always sound terrible.
So why do community theaters choose shows like Brooklyn or Young Frankenstein or even the infamous Carrie: The Musical?
Well, the blunt truth is that it starts with ego and then moves to fandom. Many directors I've seen think they can somehow make these pieces work or that their pool of actors can somehow fix what was wrong with it.
However given the restrictions that licensing rights have when it comes to editing or changing the show, community groups wouldn't be allowed to fix the bad book or re-write the terrible songs.
With all due respect to your directing abilities, it's not like you're going to unlock the secret of how to make a terrible show work. And even if you did, licensing houses wouldn't let you do it anyway. Yet, many directors still try.
The other reason I've seen is fandom. Just like any show, directors may be fans of these pieces and that's what drives the decision to include them in a season. But as people responsible for putting together a season, fandom should be the last reason why pieces are selected. Look, I personally like Taboo but I would never include it in a community theater season. I might be a fan of it but assuming others will be too, is delusional.
Remember, theater fans are smart. You don't have to be an expert in script analysis to notice bad dialogue, sloppy plots or under developed characters. You don't have to be classically trained in music to know when you're hearing a bad song. If New York crowds hated it, it's more than likely that Kansas crowds will too. When you do that, you're just putting your theater in a deeper and deeper hole.
Just like the Broadway industry, the community theater industry has to keep potential box office results in the back of their minds. However community theaters have an advantage of knowing what typically will sell well and what won't, seeing how very little original work is performed at these levels.
So if you are in charge of the financial stability of your community theater group; you may love a piece that is known as a flop or just plain bad, but that doesn't mean your audiences will, so why take that risk?