Thursday, October 21, 2010

Zombie Broadway

We're in a strange time for Broadway theater. It's been declared dead for about as long as I can remember, for one thing. I believe this has something to do with the way productions are financed-- which is, even now, not too far off from the way it was done in the the Mel Brooks "Producers" days, with individual investors and such. Producing a major play or musical is incredibly expensive now and investors are far less interested in writing off a failure than they used to. So to help guarantee a successful run (and as a sort of sad reflection to public tastes) we're now in the era of the Movie Play.

Just looking at the current crop of productions in New York, we have live, even musical versions of The Addams Family, Billy Elliot, Driving Miss Daisy, Elf, La Cage aux Folles, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. In London, Gone with the Wind, Hairspray, The Sound of Music and Spamalot are currently competing for the theatergoer's hard-earned quid. (Sounds like the lineup on Starz, huh?)

Fine. If it gets people out to see live theater, why not? I could bemoan all the fine original plays that people should be seeing, but when you get right down to it this is all entertainment. For a blessed while highbrow concepts and intellectually challenging theater were Broadway's stock and trade, but that was a long time ago, in an era when intellectualism wasn't considered seditious. Still, if the success of a stage version of "Legally Blonde" gets folks excited about live performances, maybe they'll take a chance on something off-broadway-- something smaller and more adventurous. The Movie Play Era may seem like life support, but much like the aphorism about government, it's the theater we deserve. Zombie Broadway, dead but still walking around, if no longer seeking brains.

And then.. there's this. The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (about as far off-off Broadway you can get) is mounting a production of Plan 9 From Outer Space, the infamous cult-classic Ed Wood film from 1959. The one with Criswell, Tor Johnson, Vampira and the paper-plate flying saucers.

This is where a generally accepting approach to the Movie Play Era goes off the rails. How do you artistically stage a play based on a source that is generally known as a complete artistic failure?

Apparently, you don't have to try too hard: from The New York Times review:
Lines were bungled. Light cues missed. The pacing wandered almost as much as the performances, which ranged from the wooden to the flamboyantly hammy. In other words, the stage version of Edward D. Wood Jr.’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is just about perfect.
When the giddy, often self-referential, ironic world of off-off-Broadway tries to interpret a poorly made but completely sincere film, what is the result? If a bad film is lovingly and faithfully recreated for the stage, is it improved? If the attempt is made to turn a bad movie into a hit play, is there a point to this exercise? If the source film is mocked or riffed on or just plain goofed on, is the production inventively ironic or sort of cruel?

Regardless of what dubious theatrical truth comes out of The Brick Theater's Plan 9, I'm certain Edward D. Wood himself, were he alive, would probably be tickled pink at the honor such a production bestows upon his legacy.


  1. Plan 9 is old news aesthetically. Years ago I went to an equity-waiver production of Reefer Madness in Hollywood. Good songs, but to tell the truth the original was much funnier.

  2. Of course it was. Another baffling aspect is this whole deal stands your time-tested Remake Formula on it's head. Remaking a film with a flawed premise is one thing-- REEFER MADNESS is a cult film because of it's content, not it's execution. but re-doing a source with a bad premise and awful execution, where's the nugget of value? "Meta" campiness?

  3. Reefer Madness is a ridiculous premise redeemed by even more ridiculous execution. That is sheer magic. It's just like Plan 9 - everything about it makes your jaw drop in wonder that people would be crazy enough to keep on doing it after the first dailies.

    Same thing with THE ROOM - the most incredible thing about that movie is that only ONE cast member walked out in the middle of shooting, instead of ALL OF THEM.