I’ve seen lots of Broadway musicals. My parents first shuttled my brother and me to the theatre from our family home in Connecticut in 1995, the heyday of the Broadway mega-musical. We saw all the big shows – Beauty and the Beast at the Palace, Cats at the Wintergarden, Les Mis at the Imperial. Later, in my early teens I came to fall in love with other big shows - 42nd Street at the Ford Center, Wicked at the Gershwin, and Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Marriott Marquis, to name a few.
These big, immaculately produced musicals set the tone for my entry level taste in theatre – the more epic scene shifts and glittering, diamond-encrusted wardrobe (ideally by William Ivey Long); the more droves of beveling chorus beauties and leading ladies belting their guts out they could pack into one production, the better. Some years later, I remember seeing the very minimalist John Doyle revival of Sweeney Todd and thinking, “HUH?” Notwithstanding a goth Patti LuPone on the tuba, the show didn’t make much sense to me without that big, ominous set from the Hal Prince original. Sweeney just seemed a bit heavy handed outside of Victorian London. And I love Sondheim. But more opulence, please!
An evening at the theatre was meant to be fully realized and transformative. How can an audience suspend its disbelief long enough to forget their miserable lives for a few hours and invest in a fictional narrative if they’re stuck staring at a minimalist box all night? Where is the magic in that?
I promise I’m going somewhere with this. In recent months, my husband and I have rendezvoused at the Metropolitan Opera on a few occasions. He is a classical musician and has sought to sophisticate my musical palate by introducing me to Stravinsky, Mozart, and Verdi. I admit I was a bit reluctant at first – “classical music is boring,” I deliberated. “How can I enjoy the opera if I don’t understand what they’re singing?”
Perennial mountings of the Met’s La Boheme and Michael Mayer’s Rigoletto, the latter set in a neon-lit 1960s Las Vegas play world, proved most impressive. Aside from the obvious aptitude of the opera singers (all world class talents), I found myself most astounded by the majesty of the production elements. How amazing! The way the epic physical production all comes together to support the music so seamlessly, conceiving this thrilling, sensory experience that feels so one of a kind – like Broadway, but bigger and even more expensive.
I’m talking about behemoth sets – much bigger than any I’ve seen on a Broadway stage – laden with a hundred “extras” in Dickensian garb, all frozen in a street scene tableau while the prima donna stands downstage delivering a non-amplified “Muzetta’s Waltz” so perfectly live and unproduced it might shatter crystal at any moment.
Of course, I’m referring to La Boheme, which has played in the Met’s repertory since 1981. In the second act, snow sprinkles across the vast expanse of the stage in a scenic illustration rivaling Christmas Eve itself. And just went you think they couldn’t possibly dump any more money onto that stage, a live horse trots on from the wings. Or a herd of freshly groomed hunting dogs. Grandeur.
To say that the commitment to detail is adequate at the Met would be a gross understatement. Their sheer capacity to produce and maintain the sets to the dozens of productions in their repertoire is unrivaled. The scale of their productions is humbling in comparison to even the most luxurious of Broadway settings – Daddy Warbucks’ mansion doesn’t even compare.
And then my husband took me to American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle, a staple. Gillian Murphy danced the titular Giselle with David Hallberg as Prince Albrecht in a triumphant return to the stage after a near career-debilitating injury.
Grown women in the orchestra squealed with glee as Hallberg performed a series of exhausting “entrechat quatres” in beige tights. The ovations and “page bows” for the principle dancers must have lasted at least ten minutes. My husband dragged me from the theater while the audience lobbed white roses at the stage. The evening was, in a word: breathtaking.
I was struck by the contrast of my Metropolitan Opera experience with that of the hundreds of Broadway musicals I’ve sat through. While both are “theatre” in a broad sense, the attitude of the opera and/or ballet is quite different from that of the theater.
When you go to see a musical, it is easy to feel like the ushers are rushing you through the process of finding your seat and queueing up for the restroom. When the curtain falls, it’s indefinitely time to leave.
At the opera/ballet, one or more intermissions last half an hour. You are encouraged to swan about the red velvet-draped grand foyer of the opera house sipping $30 glasses of champagne. And extra fancy guests dine on a three-course meal in an adjacent dining area, with each course served in perfect timing with an intermission (my husband and I aspire to afford the Metropolitan prix fixe). Let’s be honest: at the theatre, you’re lucky to snag a bag of $10 M&Ms at intermission.
There’s also something to be said about the inimitable nature of the ballet. In the instance of ABT, the principle dancers perform the lead roles in rotation, with each prima getting one, maybe two opportunities to dance a role in a given season. Furthermore, the company presents a different, fully realized ballet per week for the duration of the season. The stakes are very high in this regard and there is little room for technical error, which is so characteristic of live theatre.
I don’t mean to knock theatre. It has served as the basis of my past twenty or so years, good, bad, or indifferent. But I can’t help but marvel at the magic that is happening twenty blocks uptown in the same tradition as the theatre. In this way, going to the ballet still feels like a homecoming. And all the bells and whistles aren’t so bad either.
Stephen Petrovich grew up in Newtown, CT. As a theatregoer, he has seen some 300 Broadway shows over the course of the past 22 years. He holds a BFA in Musical Theatre from the Boston Conservatory and resides in Jersey City with his husband, classical musician Harry Inglis.