Featured Image from Wicked
If one follows Marx’s definition of a commodity as ‘an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another’ and in which its value is produced by ‘definite masses of congealed labour-time’ (2003: 43, 47), then theatrical performance is as much a commodity as a bag of rice, a car and can of Coca Cola. It could be argued that Marx’s notion of ‘congealed labour-time’ is comprised of the actor’s labour which is the hours of work put into perfecting characterisation, learning complex dance chorography or hitting and holding each note in an epic musical number; culminating in what appears to be an effortless performance. The notion of effortlessness, often perceived by the spectator as ‘natural talent’, hides the labour of the actor by appearing as though there is no labour involved. The spectator, therefore, comes to forget that they are watching someone work, that the commodity they have paid for is being created, utilised and satisfying their needs before them. Only in theatre’s failings when the reality of the ‘effortlessness’ is revealed does the spectator become aware of the labour involved which, as Ridout describes, creates a ‘discomfort’ (2006: 4). Thus great lengths are taken to hide the actor’s labour, from the way in which a production is marketed to the public to costume, set design and complex ensemble choreography. The globalised ‘megamusical’ epitomises these elements with its ‘lavish sets and a strong emphasis on choreography and other visual elements’ (Prece and Everett, 2008: 265). By hiding the actor’s labour and alleviating the discomfort that comes with such awareness, theatre’s place is consolidated, particularly that of the megamusical, as a bourgeois pastime.
In an era of global economics when identical McDonalds restaurants are as present in Japan as the United States, theatre is no different. Rebellato explains this where the theatre ‘has been affected by the globalization of the economy just as everything else has. We see this in the franchising of international ‘megamusicals’, such as The Lion King, which are given near-identical productions in dozens of different theatres across the world’ (2009: 9). Hence this type of global musical theatre coined the term ‘McTheatre’, where the standardisation of McDonalds restaurants is an indistinguishable parallel. In terms of theatre as a commodity, it can be suggested that the ‘human want’ of a spectator is the experience that only comes with live performance. As Wilson and Goldfarb state, ‘The experience of being in the presence of the performer is more important to theatre than anything else’ (2010: 6). However, in the globalised megamusical ‘liveness takes second place to smooth reproducibility’ (Rebellato, 2011). When buying the rights to a show what is purchased is ‘the original production: sets, costumes, direction, lighting, the poster, and all the merchandise’, effectively making all productions identical (Rebellato, 2010). It is through this global capitalist marketing that the labour of the actor is hidden as, for example, each time Wicked’s ‘Defying Gravity’ is performed the spectator expects the same ‘effortless’ performance. The standardisation of these productions hides the labour of the actor much in the way the products of globalised companies hide the labour of their workers. When buying a can of Coca Cola the customer has a standard expectation, a standard experience, they do not think of factory workers Spain or aluminium miners in Australia. While in the theatre, a spectator does not ponder over the hours of work put into creating that show-defining, heart stopping end riff in ‘Defying Gravity’ (Wicked, 2015). This may be because the spectator has been conditioned not to, where the standardisation of commodities as a by-product of globalisation presents the consumer only with the final product and not the labour process; affirming theatre as a capitalist leisure.
Prece and Everett describe the modern day megamusical as ‘‘larger than life’ visual and aural spectacles’ which ‘dazzle audiences’ (2008: 250). Such it is that show-defining visual elements erase the labour of the performers, where the ‘dehumanizing effect of working in McTheatre becomes part of these shows aesthetic’ (Rebellato, 2009: 45). The actor is dwarfed in the production, their performance never centre stage as the spectator’s focus is almost always drawn to the huge, surrounding visual elements. This is evident in Wicked’s ‘One Short Day’ where the spectator’s attention is drawn away from the chorus’s performance, their labour of performing a complex musical number and accompanying choreography, to the costumes they are wearing instead. As the song begins and the chorus enter, costume designer Susan Hilferty’s spectacle takes immediate precedent over the actor’s physical performance. The extravagant steampunk-esque style of oversized hats, skirts, feather boas and glasses, all adorned in various shades of green, is visually engaging; the spectator finds themselves watching what the costume is doing opposed to the actor. Wicked’s costumes are then taken a step further during the show-within-a-show Wizomania where three chorus members enter fully disguised in armless, caricature Wizard costumes. In this moment the actor and their labour is hidden under the costume, the spectator forgetting they are there, working to navigate the stage while simultaneously humouring the audience (Wicked, 2015). It is no doubt, therefore, why Wicked is described as an ‘eye-poppingly lavish show’ (Wicked The Musical, 2015), when visual elements such as costume function as ‘the stars, and the actors merely their operators’ (Rebellato, 2009: 45).
As Rebellato duly notes, the phenomenon of McTheatre is the ‘nearest the theatre has come to being mass-industrialized’ (2009: 40). The aesthetic of a globalised megamusical is visually the same from theatre to theatre, much in the way McDonalds brand runs through its entire chain, with set design as the most obvious element involved. This standardisation is an area which hides actor labour in performance because by replicating the sets theatre’s ‘liveness, the uniqueness of each performance, its immediacy, its ability to respond to place and time’ is removed (Rebellato, 2010). Each actor-set interaction has become identical the world over where, for example, Chris (Chris Peluso) leaning out of the helicopter in a final, desperate, searching moment for Kim is performed identically in London as it has been anywhere else, simply because the helicopter is identical everywhere else (Miss Saigon, 2015). Actor labour is hidden because identical performances can be seen around the world making it appears ‘effortless’ to play a GI ripped apart from his star-crossed love as so many actors have already done it, in the exact same way, from the exact same helicopter and will continue to. Therefore, McTheatre’s standardisation creates an unawareness of actor labour for the spectator, affirming theatre as a capitalist leisure and pastime to take pleasure in. Only when theatre fails, perhaps when the mechanics operating the helicopter breakdown and the actor must improvise, is it revealed that theatre does not roll off the production line ready-made.
As it has been aforementioned, being in the presence of a performer is one of the most important elements in theatre (Wilson and Goldfarb, 2010: 6). An interesting statement when applied to McTheatre as this presence, and its liveliness, is diminished by the replicability of the franchise. However, regardless of the replicability, for a spectator ‘Seeing enormously skilful dancers and singers performing complicated dance steps and hitting high Cs is an exhilarating live experience’ (Rebellato, 2011). This exhilaration again stems from the idea of ‘effortlessness’, whereby the actor’s congealed labour has gone on to produce a commodity that appears effectively labourless. From a marketing point of view it is logical to capitalise on this ‘effortlessness’ and the spectators experience of it, by hiding the labour of actor. Ensemble numbers being one of the most effective ways to do this as ‘Mass choral numbers, generally accompanied by inventive choreography suggesting a specific time and place, are central to the musical and dramatic structure of each show’ (Prece and Everett, 2008: 251). One such example of this is ‘The Morning Of The Dragon’ from Miss Saigon, a rousing celebratory street parade for the third anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam. Throughout the song the choreography mixes the unified, precise movements of the soldiers with a highly acrobatic dance sequence, reminiscent of both East Asian martial arts and rhythmic gymnastics (Miss Saigon, 2015). Effectively, the actor’s labour is hidden by the sheer scale of the choreography, where the chorus groups interweaving performances, coupled with the use of ribbons and a dragon as props, makes it impossible for the spectator to focus on any single actor. Thus, the spectator only seeing the big picture, the final product, the ‘vast theatrical mechanism to generate rapture, exhilaration and joy’ (Rebellato, 2011), rather than the individual actor’s work and effort.
In conclusion, in the globalised megamusical great lengths are taken to hide the actor’s labour from the spectator which is done so by making their performance appear ‘effortless’ or, where necessary, physically hiding the actor behind the sheer scale of a production’s ensemble and visual elements. This apparent ‘effortlessness’ is created in combination through the actor’s hours of work in rehearsals and the standardisation of the franchise itself, making performances of a musical or dance number identical across the globe. However, even these identical performances have the inherent risk of failure where the reality of their ‘effortlessness’ would be revealed to a spectator. Therefore, to minimise this risk the actor is hidden behind a production’s costume, set and ensemble choreography, all of which distract the spectator from the actor’s labour. There is the endeavour to hide actor labour because when it is revealed, in a forgotten line or misplaced dance step, the spectator becomes acutely aware that they are paying to watch someone work; this awareness creating a discomfort in them as they feel exhilaration from doing so. It reinforces theatre’s place as a bourgeois pastime, commodity steeped in capitalist leisure which situates the theatregoer in a powerful and thus uncomfortable position.
WORD COUNT: 1638
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Miss Saigon by Boublil, Alain. and Claude-Michael, Schönberg (2015) Directed by Laurence Conner. [Prince Edward Theatre, London. 21st November 2015).
Prece, Paul. and Everett, William A. (2008) ‘The megamusical: the creation, internationalisation and impact of a genre’ in Everett, William A and Laird, Paul R (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to the Musical. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 250-269.
Rebellato, Dan. (2009) Theatre & Globalisation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rebellato, Dan. (2010) Theatre & Globalisation. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/7771773/Theatre-and-Globalization.html (Accessed: 29th Novemeber 2015).
Rebellato, Dan. (2011) Does the mega-musical mean theatre’s bust? Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2011/jan/18/mega-musicals-theatre-west-end (Accessed: 29th November 2015).
Ridout, N. (2006) Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wicked by Schwartz, Stephen. and Holzman, Winnie (2015) Directed by Joe Mantello. [Apollo Victoria Theatre, London. 18th November 2015].
Wicked The Musical (2015) News & Reviews. Available at: http://www.wickedthemusical.co.uk/readnews.asp (Accessed: 17th December 2015).
Wilson, Edwin. and Goldfarb, Alvin. (2010) Theatre: the lively art. 7th edn. Boston: McGraw-Hill.