Vaudeville may be dead, but the show must go on

I blame my father for infusing our young lives with timeless musicals. As kids, we knew all the Roger and Hammerstein songs and their corresponding dances. So don’t be surprised when I get nostalgic about theatre. Because even though I had never been to one till I was 25, it had always been just around the river bend.

Today I watched Babes in Arms, a classic frothy story set in the great depression era. I took a front row seat and drank in the performances. Many times I felt the actors would fall on me and some times I could feel the wind from their movements on stage. But they played to my wide eyed admiration perfectly. So much talent and yet….there will never be a golden age for theatre.

Cut to five hundred years ago. There was the freak show…I am not saying it was one, they called it a freak show. There were animals, mutilated people, dwarves, bearded women…it was strange and freaky. Deviants and vagrants that trickled down from professional circuses and magic shows formed a motley crowd that would do show and tell.

Let us fast forward to three hundred years ago. Swarthy men dressed as women acting like women, closeted sexuality, garish makeup and elaborate story lines. And yet, these talented actors were outcasts of the society. They were a little weird, always traveling, never stuck with family when the road came calling. Theatre companies became these concentration camps of talent, hard work and thankless pay.

Cut to the present. Men play men. Women play women. They are given decent residences, some of them have day time jobs and they don’t come off as freaks or stand out in the general population. They are almost resected for their art. But does that mean, they can finally rest on their laurels. Nope. Still a struggle. “No one comes to the theatre anymore….it’s a dying art form, we need more young people”. These words are heard throughout the board rooms of theater revival committees across the world. So why hasn’t it ever had a golden era?

What could be that strange about a bunch of real people giving their sweat and blood to a two hour performance that you’d rather watch Hollywood massacring by making it a musical? I think the answer lies in man’s fascination with movies. Long before movies existed, man was obsessed with them. He just did not know it.

Humans beings have always been fond of pictures. A visual representation of facts and imaginations have adorned ancient caves across continent 😉 Kings and queens had their faces immortalized by capturing them on canvas so everyone could see them even when they weren’t around. This concept of capturing an idea for later use is the key to what drives the human race forward.

The theatre had been up and running for thousands of years before photography came around. And photography was only a small improvement over drawing, sketching and painting. But moving photography! Now there was a latent need filler if there ever was one. This could change everything. And it did.

Moving pictures were so amazing and instantly liked as a concept that people would pay good money to drive far away to an enclosed space with a screen to watch it on MUTE! It didn’t matter if they couldn’t really hear what the pictures were saying as long as they moved. And move, they did. Physical comedy was never explored better than in the silent movie era. Forget overtures and opera singers, this was better. People could watch it everywhere, all you needed were prints of the film and a pianist. Of course, theatre wasn’t dead, it just sulked in the background like it does now.

And when these moving pictures started playing sound, the possibilities were endless. The general population now had an inexpensive way to experience their theatre classics. The best actors could play the roles and the best performance of these best actors could be cut out and strung together and shown everywhere.

But, somethings never changed. For instance, scripts still say ‘fade in’ and ‘fade out’. Most filmed scripts are set on an immovable scene for its majority like it were a stage. Theaters still charge four times a movie ticket and the common man will never fully embrace it. And as I look around at the sea of septuagenarians in the audience, I know that I was wrong in thinking I was born too late. Theatre will always be a cultivated taste.


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