Los Angeles Theater: How To Make A Mecca
When people think of visiting Los Angeles, theater isn’t exactly on the top of their lists.
Search around the Internet and you’ll find there’s a genuine consensus why tourists come to L.A.
The Farmer's Market & The Grove
Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Universal Studios Hollywood
The Getty Center
Philippe’s (French Dip Sandwich)
“L.A. Theater” doesn’t come close to landing on this list. It not only gets trounced by moist roast beef sandwiches but also Pink’s Hot Dogs and Langer’s pastrami! But let’s face it. We’re not New York City or London. And yet, there’s an awful of lot theater happening here.
While touring company musicals like “Hamilton” and “Book of Mormon” have traditionally dominated the L.A. theater scene, on any given night there are a slew of productions happening all over town, the bulk of which take place in smaller venues. By golly, we even have a “Theater Row!” You may have even driven past it and didn’t even notice the nine theaters that run along the 6000-block of Santa Monica Boulevard.
Yep. This ain’t New York’s “Great White Way” with its 39 theaters packing in tourist crowds every night (except Monday.) And it’s not even close to London’s West End where, on any given night, you can see shows that will eventually make their way to Broadway… and then two years later to L.A.
To get a perspective, here’s what Broadway has grossed from 1984 to 2016. The 2016-17 season grossed $1.449 billion, 90% of which came from musicals.1
And in London, younger people are flocking to the theater. In fact, a higher proportion of people went to the theatre last year then attended a music concert or sporting event, with teenagers saying they are more likely to go than older people.2
So why can’t we replicate this kind of success and enthusiasm? Los Angeles may have the largest conglomeration of actors, directors, producers, designers, and overworked key grips than any other city in the world (with the possible exception of Bollywood). Nearly 1 in 8 of all private wage and salary workers in the L.A. Region (759,000 jobs) work directly or indirectly in the creative industries.3
True, most of these creatives come here because of film and TV; and it’s also true that there’s a lot of bad theater (and I have witnessed some of the worst) populated by Hollywood hopefuls who wouldn’t know their Pinter from a pint of craft beer. Why waste one’s time seeing off-off-awful theater when you can see “Our Town: On Ice” at L.A. Live?
But still! Why must theater continue to be the bastard step-sister of movie-making Hollywood? Is there a way, apart from divine intervention, to make Los Angeles a mecca for good theater?
After all, Los Angeles is no cultural wasteland. We’re swimming in culture, like happy streptococci in your kombucha. The Broad, our newest contemporary art museum and home to Eli and Edythe Broad's collection of 2,000 post-war works, is packing them in. Nearby, REDCAT, housed at magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall, offers new works of dance, theater, multimedia performance and music by leading artists. Downtown’s Grand Avenue has never been so grand.
But it’s not just downtown. Communities throughout the L.A. Region, from Burbank to Santa Monica, from Glendale to Inglewood, are actively developing arts and cultural plans.3
As the trite yet true aphorism goes: “If you build it they will come.”
Just take a look at the skyline of L.A. and you’ll see a gaggle of cranes looming over the horizon. There’s been a lot of building and renovating going on, and a good deal of it expands our cultural opportunities: The Marciano Art Foundation, the new LACMA building, The Wallis, and the Theater at the Ace Hotel. And in 2019, the Academy Museum (Oscars anyone?) will add to the mix.
And, not so “far, far away in a not-so-distant galaxy,” the highly-anticipated (George) Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will break ground in Exposition Park in January 2018 with an official opening in 2021.
Indeed, Los Angeles is experiencing a visual art renaissance (we have an Arts District for god’s sake!) and our music scene is more vital than ever, with much better strains of cannabis available than the ‘70’s. Cultural events and venues large and small are popping up all over Downtown.
So why not a theater renaissance?
Los Angeles has had quite a few World Premieres that eventually made their way to Broadway; but only these four plays were critical and commercial successes:
And that begs the question: “Is L.A. destined to be theater’s Triple-A farm team?” Perhaps. But while we may never draw a multitude of tourists to our theaters, we can at least be competitive.
How many tourists? A lot. Much more than London that’s for sure. And we’re closing in on New York. Take a look at this chart: (London is orange; Los Angeles is turquoise; New York is purple)
42.2 million tourists!4 So how do we get Bill and Martha from Columbus, OH flocking to our theaters?
A good way to begin would be to open a highly-publicized new musical here with no intention of taking it to Broadway no matter how successful it becomes. Imagine if “Hamilton” had premiered here and was now in its 5th season at the Ahmanson. New Yorkers would have to wait until the first touring company came to them. Touché.
Then another new musical opens and then another and suddenly L.A. starts to get some press as a “surprising new mecca for theater.” Then writers and actors and directors, when they’re not working on some great TV show on Netflix, start to think about the possibilities of doing something theatrical that people from all over the world would want to see. I’d be one of the first in line to see a musical penned by Shonda Rhimes. “How to Get Away with Murder, The Musical” is a hit!
But as it stands now, actors like Jason Alexander, Al Pacino, Helen Mirren return to the stage in New York because of the cache and prestige. It’s a kneejerk reaction. Los Angeles is an afterthought.
Another idea that could spark a revival would be a Los Angeles Musical Festival. Yes, I keep harping on musicals, but take a look at Broadway box office from week to week. All the biggest-grossing shows are musicals. So, if something akin to The New York Musical Festival (NYMF) could be successfully replicated, hundreds of first-time musical writers and composers, whose shows were accepted into the festival, would have a chance to see their shows professionally produced all over the city. Maybe the show that garners the most acclaim will find backers and have its World Premiere at the Mark Taper Forum.
It’s all about thinking way outside the proscenium and not accepting the notion that big theater is not meant for Los Angeles. It will take the backing of theater-loving Los Angelenos with deep pockets to get the ball rolling. And there are plenty of them here.
But mostly, what’s required is a change of perception. And that’s an even more difficult hurdle. Much like New York’s iconic “I love New York! campaign, L.A. theatre should have a multi million dollar promotional campaign that will attract tourists from all over the world. TV spots should be bought with movie and TV stars extolling the greatness of L.A. Theater. Maybe a campaign like:
Los Angeles is Dramatic.
Los Angeles is Musical.
Los Angeles is Theater.
And, if that doesn’t work… well, I hear “Cats” will be at the Pantages next year. Can’t wait. Meow!