A couple of weeks ago, I started to get emails from representatives of the new musical, Loving The Silent Tears, inviting me to attend their red-carpet premiere that was held at the Shrine Auditorium this past weekend. In their words, “We would most appreciate a post-event editorial, complete with visuals, first-hand accounts, and all the magic of the ‘unprecedented musical experience!’” By all appearances, the one-time-only performance of Loving The Silent Tears looked to be pretty damn memorable. On the one hand, it seemed kinda tepidly but awesomely star-studded. The play featured the immortal Jody Watley (“Real Love”!) and the much more mortal Jon Secada, along with pop stars from France, Vietnam, Italy, Ireland, Korea, Israel and China. It was written by a truly impressive collection of composers, including those behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Dreamgirls, Footloose, La Cage aux Folles, and Saturday Night Fever. And the evening’s activities included pre-show performances by aerialists and Cirque du Soleil dancers, an art exhibit and a banquet. Swank.
On the other hand, though the show’s theme is described as being about “humanity’s universal search for inner happiness,” (which is arrived at “by taking the audience on a magical train ride through 16 countries,” not just a ride, people, a train ride), the evening seemed geared equally towards a pro-vegetarian agenda (from the press release: “The incredible evening was emceed by an enthusiastic group of vegan and vegetarian celebrities,” including, I should note, Cory Feldman (?!?!)) and a celebration of the 19th anniversary of something called Supreme Master Ching Hai Day. A cursory investigation into this supposed supreme master reveals Ching Hai to be the innovator of the Quan Yin meditation method, which is advertised as the “best, easiest, and quickest” way to attain enlightenment which seems rather counter-intuitive but then again, what do I know about enlightenment. And while Ching Hai’s humanitarian efforts are pretty commendable, they are somewhat offset by evidence that Ching Hai is not only a bit of a publicity hound but also a somewhat unscrupulous businesswoman, leading me to suspect that the participation of this star-studded team was probably, primarily, ahem, financially motivated. And also, though Ching Hai is 62 years old, she looks to be no older than 35 in every picture I can find which for some reason makes me very scared of her.
All of which adds up to what I can only surmise was a supremely weird event and one that I’m vaguely sad to have missed. “Vaguely” is the operative word here though because it’s worth noting that it would have been relatively easy for me to see Loving The Silent Tears. Ostensibly, I didn’t go because I was working that night. But I was working at a restaurant, the type of job people in Los Angeles take specifically because of its flexibility and the relative ease with which one can take a night off. It would have required barely any effort at all on my part to get the night off and go see this show. And yet even knowing what I did about the show’s bizarro make-up, I remained generally apathetic towards it, a response mirrored by pretty much everyone I talked to. We were all aware of Loving The Silent Tears. How could you not be given the truly stupendous marketing blitz that the production undertook. The number of billboards that popped up advertising the musical alone made it a ubiquitous part of L.A.’s most important subculture: our car culture. And there were the print ads, the TV and radio spots, the unceasing emails to theater bloggers of questionable legitimacy. So awareness wasn’t the problem. Except that it was. Because this widespread and very public effort towards awareness implies two things: a shit-ton of money and an open invitation for everyone to come see the show and this in turn denies the two things that would have made the show appealing to people like me. That is authenticity and exclusivity.
The former speaks to a weird and depressing bind that I suspect a lot of arts organizations face. That is the assumption that if you are financially successful enough to mount an effective advertising campaign, it means that you made your money by choosing to appeal to the lowest common denominator and if you did that, it means you sacrificed your integrity and your product is only going to appeal to the mouth-breathing cretins who have come to see Jon Secada and Jody Watley and magical train rides. Meanwhile, exclusivity equals coolness and coolness is a very valuable currency in today’s world. Exclusivity suggests that the product is there only to be found by those sufficiently qualified by their own intelligence and impeccable taste to go out and find it and it is then left to those tastemakers to make the thing popular, giving validation to those who judge their self-worth by the things that they like (a far larger segment of the population than anyone cares to admit and one that I have no shame in admitting I am a part of) and creating a more natural-seeming swell of interest in the product, thus bringing in those who have been conditioned to run from anything with even the slightest whiff of, yes, the inauthentic.
All of which is well and good but which also brings us to a paradoxical question that everyone in theater should be pondering over: how can you undertake the necessary, widespread effort at bringing awareness to your production when that effort and any awareness you might achieve automatically makes your production less than appealing to the demographic that you covet?
About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of Needtheater and the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company. He has worked with The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, Centerstage Baltimore, Native Voices at the Autry, the Network of Ensemble Theatres, Theatre Dybbuk, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble and LoNyLa among others. He can be found @dylansouthard.