On Culture

We're Struck Dumb

Broadway musicals like
Broadway musicals like "Mamma Mia!" are escapist entertainment, and the stagehands' strike is depriving theatergoers of the chance to forget their troubles. (By Joan Marcus)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007

The strikes by Broadway stagehands and Hollywood writers are cutting into our consumption of entertainment that doesn't require brain activity.

In a complicated, multilayered world, we need simplistic, linear storytelling, jokes that call out for a rimshot and one-liners that require no sense of irony or familiarity with world events. There is a place for silliness that splashes across the surface and provides easy, painless amusement. And there is something cozy and reassuring about entertainment that can be summed up in a tiny, simple word: fun.

In New York, tourists over the Thanksgiving holiday were deprived of "Wicked" and "Legally Blonde." On Broadway, a billboard for the strike-shuttered "Mamma Mia!" taunted visitors for whom there would be no Abba singalong.

Generally speaking, there is little that is natural, nuanced or thought-provoking about these splashy Broadway musicals. With the rare exception of, say, "Spring Awakening" (on strike), the measure of a show's success seems based on the hummability of the songs, the volume at which they are sung and whether Mel Brooks is involved. (Brooks's "Young Frankenstein," by the way, is one of the few shows not affected by the strike and so the stage at the Hilton Theatre continues to be littered with jokes so obvious that thinking is a hindrance to getting the punch line.)

The Broadway musical is like cotton candy. Even if the thought of such a sugary treat makes one's teeth ache, the appeal is obvious. Few forms of entertainment have the ability to wrap an audience in such a thick blanket of warm, gooey sentimentality and kitsch. The goal for the ticket holder is to forget his own troubles, not parse those of some fictional character. Overture, solo, big ensemble number, finale, reprise. Troubles forgotten.

Similarly, the award show is cotton candy television at its most vacuous. There's no story line to follow. It's just a parade of famous people there for our viewing pleasure.

So pity the television audience that had to endure the dispiriting spectacle of late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel ad-libbing his way through the American Music Awards last weekend. Presenters were limited to announcing the nominees and the winners. There was no wonderfully awkward scripted repartee, for instance, between Christina Applegate and James Blunt. All viewers saw was Applegate nudging Blunt out of his stupor to tell him to read off the nominees.

The absence of prepared one-liners was so painfully obvious that Usher was reduced to reading the inscription on the international artist award he presented to Beyonc¿. It was like listening to someone stumble through a Wikipedia entry.

If the gods have any mercy, the writers will return to work before the full awards show season arrives, sparing viewers from Grammy and Oscar telecasts in which entertainers stand blankly in front of the camera like hollow-eyed zombies. What shall we do if there is no delightfully mortifying banter between presenters? No zingy insults of the A-list stars? Hosts might have to resort to juggling.

Remember when stars dressed for award shows without the help of professional stylists?

Remember what a good time it was to watch celebrities on the red carpet because you never knew when someone might arrive wearing a pair of bike shorts and a riding coat? The promenade down the red carpet was like a live-action cartoon. Stylists put an end to the aesthetic absurdity.

All that was left was the verbal zaniness. Without the writers, the award shows will be about as entertaining as an insurance adjusters' banquet. They'll be an endless Armani fashion show . . . during which the models speak. Oh, the horror.

Certainly there are more highfalutin losses resulting from these strikes. Broadway dramas with their erudite audiences will suffer financially.

Television shows that appeal to a more discerning audience -- or at least an audience that likes to define itself as such -- have gone into reruns. No "Daily Show With Jon Stewart." No Letterman monologue. Irony has gone off the air. Politicians will have to go elsewhere to prove they have a sense of humor.

We should mourn the loss of those shows that strive to appeal to our better nature, to our intellect and to our humanity. Shows that force their audiences to think about the world in new ways are imperative. Oh yes they are.

But there is a county fair quality to the big, gloppy Broadway musicals -- something communal, charming and old-fashioned. And on a rainy evening, with a bowl of popcorn, people turn to award shows because they can't resist a list, a countdown, a compilation of winners and losers.

People will continue to watch, hoping there might be a breathtaking performance or at least one worth uploading to YouTube. Maybe a starlet, in a dress cut down to her navel or with a woodland creature wrapped around her neck, will be the buzz of the Internet the next day. And maybe there will be a witty remark, just one perfectly written, snappy observation that makes the entire show bearable.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company