Barbie and Oppenheimer’s Lessons for the Theater? Theater Blog Roundup

What does Barbie and Oppenheimer mean for Broadway?” Ken Davenport asks in his blog post, treating the two movie blockbusters as a singular phenomenon (hence the “does”) — yet for some reason eschewing the now-universal “Barbenheimer.”

The lesson for Davenport is that the “habit of going out to experience entertainment,” which was broken during the pandemic, can be reborn – and not just in movies. A “fun” experience “will also get people to consider the theater more frequently too.”

But why was the movie theatergoing habit reborn for those particular movies? (In the 24 days since they opened, “Oppenheimer” has sold more than half a billion dollars worth of tickets worldwide, and “Barbie” more than a billion dollars.)

The question has generated any number of movie think pieces. Some say the lesson is: Allow artists to pursue their vision. But the two most frequent explanations:

  1. Marketing. The marketing was extensive, but it wasn’t all paid for. That films so radically different were opening on the same weekend tickled enough people so that attention “went viral,” spawning t-shirts!

2. Variety. The two movies offered something other than the usual fare, one a playful, pointed, female-driven take on a popular toy, the other a serious, epic look at the dawn of the Atomic Age.

As Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair puts it: “…the amusing conflicting convergence of a big girl movie and a big boy movie opening on the same weekend in an otherwise barren second half of summer is probably a singular anomaly. But perhaps this simply shows that audiences want choice and variety—theaters shouldn’t just be the places where people go to see new Marvel movies.” 

Replace “Marvel movies” with ‘jukebox musicals and movie adaptations” and could it apply to Broadway?

A post in JK’s Theatrescene blog inadvertently addresses this: In “Is Fun Enough For a Good Broadway Musical?”, Jeff Kyler  recounts the many negative reactions to his negative review of “Once Upon A One More Times”: “ the most grating response, that I heard from multiple people, including a ‘legit critic’ from a popular Broadway website, is that I don’t like ‘fun’ musicals. “

He then elaborates what “fun” means to him.

Could Broadway’s dilemma be wrapped up in our confused conception of fun? The dictionary defines fun as “lighthearted pleasure” but also, more neutrally, as “enjoyment.” Maybe that’s a lesson of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” for the theater: Enjoyment can be varied, and substantive

Implicit in the reaction to the unlikely success of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” is a sense of relief, and hope — an acknowledgement that entertainment offered away from home has not fully recovered from the pandemic, and a fear that it may never.

Some tackle the theater crisis directly: Brian Eugenio Herrera does so in practical terms in his #Theatreclique post: “How Do You Sustain the Theatergoing Habit?);

Annalisa Dias does so more poetically in Decomposition Instead of Collapse – Dear Theatre, Be Like Soil, posted both in Rescripted and Lauren Halvorsen’s Nothing Like The Group. It’s prefaced with an author’s note: “One of the biggest obstacles to systemic change is the unwillingness to move beyond the current paradigm we inhabit. We won’t be able to identify solutions or viability / scalability of those solutions until we move beyond an economic paradigm driven by scarcity. This essay is for those interested in using the imagination to push past the limitations of our current social and economic containers. “

Halvorsen also writes in HowlRound about “The Artistic Caucus: How Four Theatres Joined Forces to Disrupt Curatorial Practices,” a methodical account by Halvorsen, who was hired to be the “project documentarian,” of the first year in the collaboration of the four theaters, each with a recently appointed artistic director:  Baltimore Center Stage (Stephanie Ybarra), Long Wharf Theatre (Jacob G. Padrón) , Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Hana S. Sharif) , and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.(Maria Manuela Goyanes) Its concluding paragraph: “This clash between disruption and sustainability—how to risk and innovate and optimize resources without draining institutional capacity—unfolds as several of the theaters are undergoing seismic change. In addition to Ybarra and Sharif’s exits, Long Wharf recently left its long-time theatre space and adopted an itinerant producing model. As these four companies navigate complex individual evolutions, they’re also discovering what an investment today in large-scale joint projects might yield—and require—tomorrow.”

Other recent blog posts

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2023 (Broadway and Me)

What Will New York City Congestion Pricing Mean For Broadway? (Davenport)

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Intellectual Property But Were Afraid To Ask – Part 1 and Part 2 (Onstage Blog)
Ashley Griffin leads us through an issue that’s been in the news lately, e.g. Theater Books for Summer Reading 2023″In August of last year, Netflix sued the Grammy-winning creators of “Bridgerton: The Musical” for copyright infringement. A few weeks later a Texas church (The Door McAllen and RGV Productions) had their production of “Hamilton” shut down after altering lyrics and adding text to the show to promote an evangelizing (and at one point anti-LGBTQ+) message. There are numerous musical parodies of well-known properties – some successful (and legal,) and some that have been forced to shut down for copyright infringement….”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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