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This Day in My History


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3 April 2006

Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.

showboat.jpg (34018 bytes)It wasn't Camelot that we had just seen, it was Showboat, but we were sitting at Downtown Joe's American Bar and Grill, near the Napa Opera House and we were discussing the glory days of theatre (especially community theatre) and wondering if we would ever see its likes again.

Walt and I had not "partied" after a show in a very long time.  But at the conclusion of The Lamplighters' concert version of Showboat we had wandered around in the lobby talking with old friends.  Most of the Lamplighters we see on stage now are new faces for us, but there are still folks that we remember from when we were more intimately involved with the company.  In this case, it was mostly members of the orchestra.

Diana, who is the contractor for the orchestra, and who gave Jeri some clarinet lessons for a brief period of time, when Jeri lived and worked in the Bay Area and was looking to better her technique, has been a friend for a long time.  She mentioned that "everyone" was going to Joe's after the show and why didn't we come along.

Since we had only stopped at McDonald's for dinner, the thought of "real food" was a good one.  Also, I was looking forward to having the chance to visit with Kathy, the oboist, one of my favorite people whom I haven't really seen, except from afar (because I'm too lazy to go down to the orchestra pit at intermission), in probably several years.

It was kind of fun to sweep past the long line of people paying to get into the place.  It felt like whispering "Joe Sent Me" at the door to a speakeasy.  The mention of "The Lamplighters" gave us free entree into the place and we met with everyone else in the special area where people from the show were slowly trickling in.

We sat at the musicians' table, of course, had a great "roast garlic ceasar salad" (which we didn't realize meant ceasar salad plus a head of roast garlic), and shared Lucy's garlic fries while we talked about music and theater.

Karl Pistner, the conductor, had joined us and was commenting on the sold-out house for this performance of Showboat.  He then added that if The Lamplighters sold out every performance of the show, they would not break even, much less make any profit.  The production costs of a royalty show, even one which is performed in concert version, as this was (so as to save on the cost of building sets), which is accompanied by a live orchestra of 22 (which must be paid according to the very strong musician union guidelines) are astronomical.

It explains why so many shows these days are going to electronic music, synthesizers, or scaled back pit orchestras (note to Jeri:  we're curious about how big the pit orchestras you play in around Boston are generally). We wondered if the days when community theatres could perform with a full orchestra are a thing of the past.

What with the combination of astronomical production costs and a lessening of interest in live theatre by the younger generation ("People don’t value live theater today," said costumer/actress Charlotte French when I interviewed her here in Davis recently), it makes me wonder if the "golden age of community theatre" has passed, or is passing.

The Davis Comic Opera Company is in the process of closing its doors for many reasons, one of which is lack of sufficient community support to justify the cost--and DCOC is able to perform with a volunteer orchestra (if you can find people who are willing to play for free any more, that is), which you cannot do in a strong union town like San Francisco. 

LOTS (Light Opera Theatre Sacramento) is also closing its doors, leaving The Lamplighters as the only Gilbert & Sullivan theatre in this area.   You can do full staged version of G&S with orchestra because there are no royalties to pay, but choose something like Showboat and your start-up costs skyrocket.

(The copyright for a show usually lasts, if I'm not mistaken, 100 years, so anything written after 1906 still has royalties attached to it.)

When you add all the production costs together and calculate what you have to charge for a show, the ticket price is often so high that nobody wants to pay it for a community theatre show.  This semi-staged concert version, without sets, was $35 for balcony seats.  Even if Mom and Dad can afford to pay that, who is   going to bring all the kids at those prices?  But then you realize that the seats were all filled and the company would still be making nothing on the show and would probably go into debt on it (which is why your local theatre company has fund-raising events).

So perhaps we have seen the glory days of community theatre, perhaps community shows with full live orchestras are a thing of the past.  Even Broadway is going for synthesized music in many cases.

Theatre is changing.  I don't know what the kids in my friends' grandchildren's generation are going to bemoan when they look on the changes that are taking place in the theatre that they know.  But maybe they won't know community theatre at all.

Perhaps the one shining moment that was the big live musical theatre production is slowly passing into memory.



showboat8.jpg (43703 bytes)

Rick Williams as Capt'n Andy
Christine Macomber as his wife Parthy


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