Broadway Follies: Roth & Gerard On Jeremy Corbyn’s Arts Manifesto, Noble Flops And Harvey Fierstein

Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres majority owner and president Jordan Roth talk via email each week about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.

GERARD: Jeremy Corbyn has had a very rough few days as newly elected head of the Labor Party — some of which eerily echoes fellow progressive Bill de Blasio’s post-election stumbles here in New York. Nevertheless, have a look at his goals for culture in the UK here.

After marveling simply at the idea that he actually bothered to develop a coherent national policy, savor some of the specifics: “We pledge to develop a comprehensive national plan for the publicly funded arts, culture and heritage sector that complements the Creative Industries Council’s industrial strategy. This national plan, developed in opposition, must focus on a complete approach to securing the investment needed for sustainable creative and economic success, supporting full participation in a cultural life that celebrates the UK’s diversity and artistic richness.”

Corbyn’s proposals include restoring arts funding, decentralizing cultural support mechanisms, increasing funding for access and education, and creating legislation that protects artists from exploitation through sub-standard pay and benefits. The BBC, under constant attack from the right, gets its own section, insisting that its essential funding source, the license fee, be protected while also restoring program cuts.

Of course, this is all put forward by the new leader of a shadow government in opposition to the status quo. Britain followed the U.S. in the Reagan/Thatcher era culture wars that saw the suffocating and wholesale dismantling of the Kennedy-era initiatives including the federal arts and humanities endowments. We are supposed to be in an economic recovery. I know there are plenty of folks who think government should stay out of the arts. Not me. Just because public funding for the arts raises tough questions doesn’t mean we should abandon the ideal — any more than public funding of education or health care means we should leave everything to a market free-for-all.

ROTH: Your timing is perfect to be bringing up Britain, as I write from London where Kinky Boots opened last night on the West End. Fabulous cast, fabulous show, fabulous night!

488340846GERARD: OK, after mine last week, you get a shameless plug, too: Fabulous reviews as well. Not bad for an American musical based on a British indie movie. The reviews said the show is better than the film. But we already knew that.

ROTH: Back to our subject: It is indeed a wonder to see a complete national strategy for the arts, and not just as charity but as a fundamental cornerstone of society. As President Kennedy said, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.” We fail ourselves, our children and our future when we mistake art as a trifling snack for a few rather than societal sustenance.

I paused on your comment that public funding for the arts raises tough questions, remembering the culture wars that tried to hide the work of one of my favorite artists, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the debate about the line between art and pornography on the Senate floor. And then realizing ’twas ever thus. A few weeks ago my husband and I saw the magnificent John Singer Sargent exhibit at the Met, the centerpiece of which is the captivating Portrait Of Madame X. It caused such a scandal when it was first unveiled in 1884 that the painter had to leave Paris, yet now it’s one of the most revered portraits in one of the most revered museums in the world. The painting didn’t change, we changed.

A hundred years later, Harvey Fierstein shocked Broadway with a back-room sex scene in Torch Song Trilogy (though that didn’t stop it from becoming a hit). Ten years later, we changed enough to not be so shocked by the Rambles sex scene in Angels In America. Now all over the world, mainstream audiences including parents and their children are embracing the message of Kinky Boots: you change the world when you change your mind. We changed enough to stop being shocked and start seeing humanity. One day we’ll all be able to see the humanity that Mapplethorpe saw. And then there will be another artist ahead of us, ahead of our sensibilities that blind. Not to shock us for the sake of shocking, but to show us truths about ourselves that we may not want to see. To push us forward. To open us wider. That’s the place of the artist. And that’s why President Kennedy was right.

GERARD: Next subject. Amazing Grace announced last night that it was throwing in the towel after a run of about four months. It should have been a run of about four weeks at best; the $16 million show — $16 million! — got terrible reviews and played to sparse audiences at the Nederlander Theatre. I noted in my story that producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland said, “We are incredibly disappointed in the show’s performance at the box office on Broadway. Our successful engagement in Chicago led us to make the decision to bring Amazing Grace to Broadway.” The Chicago reviews pointed out some pretty fundamental problems with the show that clearly weren’t addressed. Its failure on Broadway wasn’t the fault of the audience.

Chuck Cooper, Josh Young in "Amazing Grace"ROTH: She’s not saying she blames the audience, she’s saying she wishes more came — which is what everyone who puts their heart into any show feels when it posts a closing, whether after four weeks, four months or four years. I’ve said it before: No one sets out to make a show that isn’t going to work, either creatively or financially. The fact that anyone external to it might have predicted it wouldn’t and then ended up being right doesn’t make the effort less honest or the disappointment less real. And there are just as many shows that those predictors end up being a wrong about. How many people who said A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder wouldn’t work are admitting to that now that it has posted closing notice after two years, a Best Musical Tony and recoupment? I thank Carolyn and her team for their heartfelt effort and look forward to their next.

GERARD: I admire your constancy in supporting Broadway dreamers on and off the stage. But where does dreaming end and naivete begin? (And I may be using naivete as a euphemism for irresponsibility.) Broadway eats good intentions for lunch. And only on Broadway does breaking even after two years constitute success. At least the Love And Murder folks have a quartet of Tony medallions to show for their efforts. Amazing Grace won’t make my list of noble failures, though it has certainly earned a spot on the wall at Joe Allen.

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