To innovate or not to innovate

Okay, so the title is a little cheap, but it gets my point across.  This was a week for theater, and I experienced two remounts of Broadway shows that are decades old.  One was performed in a very traditional manner with few innovative tweaks – just enough to strengthen the storytelling – and the other was such an innovative production it felt like it left the original source material behind.  However, in retrospect, the latter (which was The Ladder) actually grounded us in the source material behind the source material.  Okay, enough pontificating.  Here’s what I experienced.

On Thursday, we began our urban adventure of the 5th Star Expo with the Neo-Futurists’ Chalk and Saltwater: The Ladder ProjectThe Ladder was the longest running failure on Broadway.  It ran for two years, often to completely empty houses.  The show lost nearly $15.9 million in today’s currency.  The Neo-Futurists were compelled by this story and studied over a year and a half the play and the story behind its production.  What they delivered to us was an innovative and entertaining blend of theatrical performance, storytelling, testimonial, improvisation, comedy, music, and lecture.  As you can imagine, the play itself is so bad that had they tried to remount it, we would have gouged their eyes out.  Instead, they delivered something that took us on a journey where we learned, we experienced, we laughed, we marveled, and we were touched.  This kind of educational, testimonial, presentational art rarely happens in an entertaining way.  There is much to be learned from these cats.

On the flip side (and the next night), we ventured out to the suburbs for Drury Lane’s production of Sweeney Todd.  What compelled me out there was word that the production was fairly traditionally done – not the minimalist revisionist revival produced most recently on Broadway.  This is a piece of theater so strong and full that I don’t believe it needs revisioning, just constant remounting.  This production proved that for me.

So, as we explore innovation this fall, and as a boy who LOVES things new and different, I need to continually be reminded that sometimes how its always been done is how it should keep being done unless it’s a piece of crap.  The questions is: how does one tell the difference?