Toward the end of Martin Guerre, the big-budget musical currently making its American premiere at the Guthrie, a wooden bulwark representing the French village of Artigat bursts into flames. As actors rush about and an orchestra keeps martial time, sparks shower across the stage and threaten to send the whole theater up. It is a scene of exquisitely choreographed chaos, and will no doubt be hailed as a technical marvel when the musical finally reaches Broadway in the spring of next year. Beneath the clatter and the kindling, though, the immolation of Artigat is a curiously meaningless exercise--a rarefied version of what is called, in less refined sectors of the entertainment industry, "the money shot."
For spectacular climaxes, today's musical rarely disappoints. Think of the outcast feline ascending to kitty heaven at the end of Cats. Or the deus ex machina of a helicopter swooping out of the theater's rafters in Miss Saigon. Maximalism is the order of the age, and none practices it better than Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the composer and librettist behind both Miss Saigon and Les Misérables. So it is with their latest effort, an operatic reworking of an old French tale about a soldier who returns mysteriously to his home village after many years at war to reclaim his wife and his position in society. As it turns out, however, he may be an impostor.
Yet long before its fiery denouement, Martin Guerre raises an even more intriguing question of shifting identity: What is a big-budget, Broadway-bound musical doing at the nonprofit regional theater that Sir Tyrone Guthrie founded in 1963 as the antithesis to Broadway's perennial deluge of dreck? Have the thieves come to roost in Sir Tyrone's temple of high culture?
On the surface, at least, the Guthrie's pairing with British theater producer Cameron Mackintosh looks like an odd coupling: The baron of the Broadway musical teaming with a remote dramatic outpost founded explicitly as an alternative to commercial theater. The link between the two is Martin Guerre director Conall Morrison, an associate at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, where Dowling served as artistic director. Like Morrison, all of the actors in the Guthrie's current production are imported, as are the key artistic staff; many come from the musical's recent British incarnation. For an outlay of less than half the $2.1 million cost of staging Martin Guerre, the Guthrie will secure a percentage stake in all future productions of the musical, as well as proceeds from the cast recording (soon to be released by DreamWorks). And the return on the theater's investment carries minimal financial risk--certainly an attractive option given that the Guthrie's last foray into big musical theater, Garland Wright's swan song Babes in Arms, lost $1 million.
For Mackintosh, the arrangement means an audience grateful for fresh product, and a partner with whom to share the considerable financial and artistic burdens of mounting a new musical. "I wouldn't have a career but for nonprofits," Mackintosh explained during a break from rehearsal. "But there's also a right way for a commercial production and a nonprofit to collaborate. These liaisons should only happen for artistic reasons. When you do it to make money or cut costs, those collaborations fail every time."
Returns are never guaranteed, but symbiotic alliances between nonprofit regional theaters like the Guthrie and for-profit producers are becoming increasingly prevalent in the business of show. The Center Theater Group, which runs the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles (where Martin Guerre will appear in February), is collaborating with Jujamcyn Productions, the Broadway player which also produces shows in Minneapolis as part of the Twin Cities "Broadway" season. Elsewhere, regional theaters band together to produce plays--Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit, for example--that are eventually transferred to Broadway. It is a reversal of the old order, in which plays were developed in New York, then shuffled out to the rest of the country in touring incarnations. Broadway is now the petulant child demanding to be fed, and the regional theaters, founded in many cases out of dissatisfaction with the high-stakes, low-quality Broadway game, are the fertile ground where producers sow the successes of the future.
"Broadway is irrelevant," says Guthrie managing director David Hawkanson succinctly. "Everything significant that's happened in the last five years has come out of the regional theaters."
According to the common wisdom, spiraling production costs and the pressure of manufacturing an instant success mean that only deep-pocketed corporations like Disney, with its marketing tie-ins and family-friendly material, can afford to produce new theater on Broadway. And even Disney and Jujamcyn Productions developed their recent The Lion King in the Twin Cities. "Broadway has changed a lot since I started," says Mackintosh. "The whole idea of Broadway is merchandising. These corporations keep a show running come hell or high water, whether the audience likes it or not. I think they'll eventually get bored with that and go back to doing whatever they were doing before.
"Theater should be about mavericks," he continues. "The best writing [and] the landmark productions always come from left field. They're successful because they're unexpected."
In many ways, however, it was Mackintosh himself who set the gears of the Broadway machine in motion. With Cats and Les Misérables, Mackintosh perfected the franchising of music theater--operating touring productions while simultaneously producing the same show in London and New York. While the arrangement certainly brought theater to the masses, Mackintosh's success also demonstrated that musical theater could be an enormously lucrative venture when adapted to economies of scale.
The scale of Martin Guerre is undeniable. And yet, on the whole, the musical is at once moodier and shallower than either Les Misérables or Miss Saigon. The tragedy here is not that of war or star-crossed love, but of mere circumstance; outrageous fortune is the villain buffeting these poor players. In this case, the title character, played by Hugh Panaro, falls from grace with his fellow villagers when he refuses to impregnate his young wife, a provincial beauty named Bertrande (Erin Dilly). In another time, his reticence and ponytail might have been interpreted as something altogether different. But since this is 16th-century France, Martin's solution is to rush off and kill Protestants in the War of the Reformation.
In the play's opening scene, we find Martin lounging with his comrade in arms Arnaud (Stephen Buntrock) and singing an ode to friendship. Except for a surfeit of blue smoke, the stage is empty and cast in shadow. All at once, and with a crash that fairly shakes the walls of the venerable Guthrie, a party of ragged soldiers comes rushing in, a cannon dragging behind them. There is a short, confused melee, and Martin is run through by a sword while trying to shield Arnaud. With what appears to be his last breath, he engages Arnaud to find his beloved Bertrande and beg her forgiveness by proxy. Presuming his friend dead, Arnaud goes him one better, and returns to Artigat to claim both long-suffering Bertrande and Martin's name for himself.
The village, as evoked by set designer John Napier and director Morrison, is not the disease-plagued backwater that history would have it. The villagers dance frenetically around a Maypole woven from flowers, leap about in animal masks, and spin giddily through their daily labor, waving scythes and rakes like the batons of a well-rehearsed marching band (David Bolger's vibrant choreography suggests that the average Renaissance slob could have found work as an Arthur Murray instructor in our age). When the peasants are not dancing, they are looking for a reason to burn someone--anyone--at the stake. First they scapegoat poor Bertrande for a drought. Then, when Arnaud's arrival in the guise of Martin Guerre brings rain, they fall into Dionysian revelry. When the real Martin returns, wounded but not quite dead, they scapegoat the village Protestants, a local idiot (Michael Arnold in an endearing comic turn), Arnaud, and anyone else they can get their hands on. The masses have never been so plebeian or so fickle.
The message, it would appear, is that the rule of the mob creates a society steeped in distrust. The production goes to great lengths to suggest, also, that prejudice and stupidity are closely related. By the mob's fourth or fifth volte-face, however, the villagers have come to seem downright silly. And indeed, beneath the veneer of humorless tragedy, this Martin Guerre seems a tragic comedy waiting to emerge.
But then who couldn't use a tragic comedy with a catchy tune? Those who would accuse the Guthrie of compromising its artistic mission by staging Martin Guerre will find themselves in the awkward position of advocating for elitism in this most prickly of populist cities. But if not for elitism, what is to distinguish the Guthrie from venues that stage nude ice shows of Toni Morrison's Beloved?
The modern musical as exemplified by Mackintosh's oeuvre may be endlessly concerned with class anxieties, but as a form, it is populism made manifest. Perhaps the most apt analogy for the musical's current role in culture is that of opera--now considered the exclusive realm of the leisure class, but once popularly derided as the height of gauche spectacle.
While a big-budget musical with an imported cast would seem a subversion of Sir Tyrone's original dream of a classical repertory theater, Sir Tyrone is long dead, and the world in which he founded the Guthrie has passed. The Guthrie now competes with the touring shows that Jujamcyn regularly stages as part of the Twin Cities Broadway Season, and although the founder and the current head of Jujamcyn are both members of the Guthrie's board of directors, the struggle for audiences means that the Guthrie can hardly afford not to change--or, as Sir Tyrone put it, "condescend to 'popular' taste."
"We're all competing for audiences," Dowling says. "Everyone's looking for as large a slice as they can get. But we're also competing with the orchestra and all other sorts of entertainment. We want to be successful, like everyone. It would be insane to say we didn't want to be successful."
Still, success is not significance, and spectacle is not substance. By the dramatic denouement of Martin Guerre, the musical's defining visual tableau, the wall of fire, has come to seem particularly apt. This is a production that, while hell-bent on burning down the house, mainly produces smoke and heat.