Amid all the cash cows grazing on Broadway, its meandering course said to follow the pathways of European bovines traipsing up and down rural Manhattan, the Imperial Theatre presents the narrowest of faces onto 45th street. To the passerby it appears more a veal shed than an inviting pasture for dramatic entertainment, or, as the Imperial itself would have it, a place for “legitimate theatre.”
The Imperial opened on Christmas Day, 1923, as the fiftieth theatre in the vast empire of the Shubert brothers. They’d come down to the big city from Syracuse at the beginning of the century and set about amassing the most important constellation of theatrical venues in New York. The Imperial was designed by the Shubert’s favored architect, Herbert J. Krapp, responsible for so many Broadway theatres, now re-named after great figures of the America stage: the Ethel Barrymore, the Helen Hayes, the Eugene O’Neill, and the Richards Rodgers theatres, just to name a few.
In his plans for the Imperial, Krapp did what the Shuberts always demanded of him: he squeezed every bit of potential out of a miniscule lot. Krapp had immense talent for getting the most out of every inch of real estate his employers could got their hands on.
The foyer of the Imperial is twenty feet wide at the most, and through this cramped portal are ushered the nearly 1,500 paying customers attending each performance. One can’t believe there is actually a theatre behind this tiny fa?ade. For all its gold d?cor, a glittering reminder of the building’s Jazz Age origins, the entryway seems foreboding, even downright dangerous. How is it that so many people can get through this passage to the theatre itself, of which no sign whatever is visible in the entry way?
Swept in by the surge of fellow out-of-towners making their obligatory Broadway outing, one reflexively looks for emergency exits, which are by no means obvious. Nothing is more distracting or annoying than that red Exit sign except when you really need it.
I’m all for the thrill and thrum of the foyer, a place in which, as Theodor Adorno put it in his “Natural History of the Theatre,” the best essay ever written on theatre-going, “spectators are the players presented to an imaginary public. The auditorium has banished them from the stage. But here, eccentrically, at the edge of the theatre, they have made an entrance on a stage of their own. In the intervals they act out their own drama.”
Among the behaviors Adorno so trenchantly and humorously describes is the movement of the ticket-holder through the foyer during the intermissions: “They circulate ceaselessly. No one has ordered them to do so and yet they obey. Anyone who breaks ranks in order to reach his goal directly does so as a conscious rebel, and even worse, with a bad conscience.”
Adorno was thinking, nostalgically, about the grand opera houses of Europe, not the money sluice that is the entrance into the Imperial. There is no space for circulation or other foyeristic rituals of an evening at the theatre. One can only be swept through the Imperial’s golden canal towards the show, the current powered not only by the desire for live theatre, but just as much by the longer-term satisfaction of ticking another New York “must” off the list.
The musical Billy Elliot has been in residence at the Imperial since 2008; the show won ten Tony Awards in 2009. Still outrageously expensive, these tickets are a tad less desirable than those for other current hits, but the show is nonetheless still vigorously earning its keep on Broadway.
Based on the 2000 movie by Stephen Daldry, who also directed the musical first produced in London’s West End, Billy Elliot tells the bittersweet tale of a young boy in an English mining town who becomes fascinated with ballet in the midst of the UK miners strike of the mid Eighties. The title-character is supposed be in the boxing club, but becomes fascinated by an all-girl ballet class, which also uses the town’s sports center.
As Billy’s father and brother are being unmanned by Thatcher’s assault on the unions, Billy secretly pursues his ballet dreams and therefore, too, an alternate vision of masculinity. It is a dangerous course, given that ballet is condemned by the male miners as a pursuit only for “poofs.” The movie introduces a cross-dressing boy in the village named Michael. He has a crush on Billy, who is already man enough not to reject his friend for such desires. Transgressive sexuality is conveniently off-loaded onto this melancholic figure, who finds joy only when he’s putting on a dress. In the musical, Billy and Michael have a great time in women’s clothes in the duet, “Expressing Yourself” with its Victorian musical hall campiness, which allows ample space for some snazzy tap dancing, and raucous striptease music at its conclusion.
After being beaten by the union-busters, Billy’s father sees that way the forward for his son is not heavy industry but a lateral move into the arts. Dad even joins the ranks of the scabs to piece together the bus fare for an audition at the Royal Ballet School down in London.
The film’s denouement has Billy’s father and older brother finding their seats at Covent Garden to watch Billy dance the lead in Swan Lake. By miraculous coincidence, Michael, sporting some over-the-top ladies headgear, is seated nearby with his black boyfriend. The ballet-dancing Billy’s manliness is kept intact by the cheap trick of othering Michael.
In light of the mining theme of Billy Elliot it is entirely fitting, though no less claustrophobia-inspiring, that the Imperial foyer is about as capacious as a mine shaft. At the back of the long narrow corridor, one is guided up cramped and disorienting stairs to the seats. At a mere $135 ours are way up in the steeply raked auditorium, steep raking being a Krapp specialty, the inclination of the tiers mimicking the ascending line of Shubert profits.
For Billy Elliot veteran ushers shout orders and encouragements at the tourists, ticking them off for dawdling while also extolling the superior merits of the high altitude seats: “Don’t want to be too close for this show!” The employees rush the slow-footed elderly and the hormonally antic school groups to their seats, shouting down all those trying to take a snapshot of their evening in the theatre “No photos! Put that camera away! You with the cell phone!” The barking attendants echo the vibrant banter of the Vaudeville days the spawned the Shubert’s empire and the Imperial itself.
The guilded plaster work of the auditorium is a bit dulled in luster, and the seats show the wear from having welcomed the wallets and buttocks and of all those millions thrilled by such shows as Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy, Carnival!, Oliver!, and Les Mis?rables to name only some of the most celebrated and lucrative of the works staged here.
The Easter holidays and the weak dollar have brought huddled masses of footsore Europeans to the Imperial for their Broadway night out. Our section is dominated by Spaniards. Once again, Adorno is instructive on the experience of the balcony, “whose natural history only reveals itself fully in the South. You have to have experienced the wild excitement of the bullfight, the foam on the waves of enthusiasm which splash up from the upper balcony towards the [domed ceiling].” Indeed, the Iberians are giddy with excitement before the show, and still more animated once the production numbers exert their magical power. The fake Northern accents on stage, coupled with the Spaniards’ own weak English has them translating furiously amongst themselves, commenting vigorously on the plot and characters, and reflexively calling out to the stage. In this clash of theatre-going cultures, hushing and harsh looks from the Iberians’ neighbor has little effect on their exuberance.
The show is brilliantly paced and directed, with artful, but not heavy-handed, touches that seamlessly appear to engage the audience at the beginning of each act, but in fact segue directly into the unfolding of the story. After the fumblings before the world camera at the recent Royal Wedding, Elton John’s score for the musical shows the composer to be much more at home in the make-believe of working class song and dance: failsafe is his ability to evoke the rock ‘n roll abandon of his working people when cutting loose in songs such as “Born to Boogie.” Equally as bankable is his gift for poignant sentimentality as in the folksy lament for Billy’s dead mother, “Deep Into the Ground.” In the individual performances, ensemble chemistry, and choreography one sees why Broadway retains its earning power, even in the face of soaring ticket costs.
The part of Billy is played by Alex Ko, a fine ballet dancer and gymnast who must be one of the few people on the planet who can pirouette endlessly and then launch into full-on tumbling runs traversing the entire diagonal of the stage.
When Krapp and the Shuberts opened the Imperial back in 1923 the accursed practice of miking the onstage performance was still many decades away. This deplorable technological crutch paradoxically distances the audiences, rather than bringing them more intimately into the vivid world created on-stage. It also allows for weak singers to go on with the show. Aided by the fool’s gold of the microphone, Ko, who is probably not a strong singer at the best of times, could nonetheless do the part even though he’s in the midst of his voice changing. The teenager croaked and creaked through Sir Elton’s catchy and endearing tunes, then launched into dancing feats that went a long way toward making up for the queasy wobbles of his singing.
Rather than a trip to the Royal Opera house, the musical version of Billy Elliot ends not as it should, with the men going down in a lift into the mine and a dark future, but rather with a romp of a curtain call in which even the tough guy miners put on tutus and prance around the stage. The frivolity undermines the compelling image of the defeated miners and therefore of the demise of industrial Britain, one etched in the memory by Rick Risher’s glaring, unforgiving lighting. In the person of Billy we see the New Britain sashay from the coalfields of County Durham to the soot-free cosmopolitan world of theatrical glory in a European capital.
The Imperial gold mine dictates that one can’t take gloom out of the theatre. In the end a musical should be about fun not darkness. After the tutu romp had concluded, the balcony dwellers were herded down through a side staircase that screamed firetrap, the miners’ darkened world suddenly eclipsing the radiance of the lieto fine.
There’s plenty of valuable ore still to be pulled from the venerable Imperial, but let’s hope no one ever has to scream “fire” in this crowded theatre.
David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org