Saturday, July 9, 2011

Krispy Kremed

Mmmmmm.  Krispy Kremes...

Here’s my theory:  The Shaggs was Krispy Kremed by New York.

Let me elaborate:

It seems I’m not the only one who was mystified by the rather blah response New York City had for the excellent musical play, The Shaggs, which closed early at Playwrights Horizons a few weeks ago. 

I slapped up a very hurried, gushing post about it, hoping that someone might read it and catch the last few performances, because I really thought it was great.

Since then, I’ve learned a few additional items about this musical play (thanks to a post by Art Hennessy over at Mirror Up To Nature).

First of all, the average critical response for The Shaggs in NYC was, according to the website Stagegrade, a C+.

So, it wasn’t just The New York Times blasé review that helped to bury the production (and cause it to close early): there was a collective “eh” going on with the NY critics in general.

The other interesting fact I learned was that The Shaggs is NOT a new musical: according to a responder on Art’s blog, The Shaggs has actually been kicking around for a while now: it had runs in Chicago and LA before coming to NYC.  (That should teach me to read my program more carefully!)

I am glad to hear that the show has had prior incarnations: I guess I always assume that a play at Playwrights Horizons is brand spanking new, but that's clearly not always the case!

The original album cover of The Shaggs only album, "Philosophy of the World"

But rather than adding to the mystery of why The Shaggs  - which enjoyed success and fine-tuning in other major cities - failed to find an audience or positive critical response in NYC, that last piece of information actually explains it (to me, anyway).

Allow me to clarify what I mean via a donut metaphor:

 A few years back, there was this craze for Krispy Kreme donuts.

For healthy people who might not know what I'm talking about, Krispy Kreme is a Southern pastry chain whose donuts are a delicious, obsessive thing: hot and gooey glazed little heart attacks that make the fillings in your teeth ache.

Just writing about them is making me drool.

My first encounter with a Krispy Kreme donut was during a trip to New Orleans.  It literally changed the way I think about donuts.  We didn't have Krispy Kreme donuts in Boston at the time (Dunkin' Donuts pretty much rules the roost here, and while I never really liked Dunkin' Donuts donuts, I enjoy their coffee immensely).  So I thought of Krispy Kremes as a local Southern delicacy, a pathway to the city's culture.

Hell, they were just freaking yummy.

So, when we weren't eating beignets, we were eating Krispy Kremes.

When I go to visit my sister in Raleigh, NC, you can buy them in her supermarket.

I mean, they're common.  In the South.

But like I said, there was a craze, and the Krispy Kreme traveled East.

And New York City was pretty keen on them for a while.

I remember going into a New York Starbucks, and there they were, in the pastry bin: 3 dollars for a raspberry-filled Krispy Kreme.

And the guy standing next to me in line said: "Oh, those donuts are SO good. You should really try one. YOU CAN ONLY GET THEM IN NEW YORK."

And I laughed, because I thought he was kidding. But he wasn't.  He was dead serious.

So I told him that in the Southern part of this country, you could eat a Krispy Kreme donut at pretty much any truck stop you might wander into.  For 69 cents.  And he was very surprised.   And he was also something else: he was a little annoyed.  Pissed-off, even. 

The notion that this donut existed outside of New York, that someone else - FROM somewhere else – had made this little pastry, and that other people – NON-New Yorkers, for God’s sake – could purchase and enjoy them, was unfathomable and insulting.

And that, to me, sort of sums up New York City: they are plagued with an arrogant, incurable myopia, an unfathomable insularity and a prickly xenophobia.

It's a city as narcissist: nothing exists outside of itself.  Everything is only an extension of itself. Or doesn't exist at all.

So, if something – a play, a donut - came from elsewhere, New York City either needs to reject it, or claim it as their own.  They chew and swallow, or spit out.  The idea of sharing is not on the table. 

New York is a bully: big, greedy and endlessly impressed with itself. 

They do not follow trends, they MAKE them, dammit!

So when some musical comes in from… “Where? – Los Angeles?  Isn’t that that place on the other side of the country, where they drive a lot and have no subway or culture and make TV?  Chicago?  What sort of hillbilly, Po-dunk place is that?  Oh, Steppenwolf!  Yeah, I heard of them.  But Steppenwolf is from New York.  Aren’t they?”

And I’ve experienced this phenomenon repeatedly.

On our last visit to NYC, Tommy and I bought some fun summer shoes by a Canadian company called “Native”.  Not that it mattered to us, but the gal selling the shoes echoed the same mantra that all denizens of that city drone, and seem to believe: “You can only get these in NEW YORK.  We are the sole distributor.  Unless, of course, you want to go to Canada.” 

And she rolled her eyes at that ridiculous thought! 

Canada?  Ha!  Does that place even exist?  Isn’t that some backward moose-country those South Park guys are always making fun of?

Of course, when we got back home, I saw the same shoes at a shop in Harvard Square.  “We’ve been selling these for 3 years now”, the guy at the counter quietly told me. 

Similarly, when gay marriage was recently legalized in New York, you would think that New York was the first state to do so, rather than the sixth.  The five other states - along with Washington DC -  that had legalized gay marriage before them, well: they aren't NEW YORK.

But just because you are the biggest and loudest and most ostentatious, doesn't necessarily make you the best, or the first, or better.

There is the hard fact: By legalizing gay marriage, New York has actually doubled the number of gay people who can marry in this country.  Just like that.  Don’t get me wrong: that is a wonderful thing!

But rather than feeling like NYC was joining, sharing in something that other states had pioneered - I felt as though they were taking something away.

The general buzz was: “Finally!  Gay marriage actually means something now!  Because New York said so!”

In paraphrase of The Times and Cuomo and New Yorkers in general: “New York is the most progressive state in the union, as well as the cultural and economic capital of the country…by legalizing gay marriage, other states will surely follow suit…” 

Blah blah blah…

But here's the thing: New York really ISN'T the most progressive state in the country.  If that were true, they would have been FIRST.   But they weren’t first.  Massachusetts was first, along with Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Washington DC and Iowa.

Yes, New York: Iowa beat you. 

It's a state in the mid-west.  Home of John Wayne, John Wayne Gacy, Michele Bachmann.  And gay marriage.

Going from that list, it would seem that New England is the most progressive area in the US, at least in terms of gay marriage.

But you would never know!  Gay marriage: you can ONLY get it in NEW YORK!

I don’t mean to make this a petty competition.  And perhaps New Yorkers needed to create this mystique about their city in order to justify choosing to live in such a notoriously difficult, expensive, crowded place. 

But it’s truly staggering how New York continually pats itself on the back and ignores or dismisses accomplishments from anywhere else on the planet.  I mean, I'm happy for New York, I really am, and it's an amazing city.  But really: can New York celebrate something without laying claim to it? 

Mike Daisy said it best in the opening to one of his monologues: “New York City is like fucking Paris Hilton.  While it's happening, you keep thinking: "Oh my god: I'm fucking Paris Hilton." And Paris Hilton is thinking: "Oh my God: I'm Paris Hilton."

There is a plus side to this thuggish culture, however: it’s great when you’re FROM New York.

New York has a fierce loyalty to those who survived and obeyed its rules, and it must be said: it takes care of its own.  Theatrically, that means that it will promote and champion the work of New York theatre artists over everyone else, and shun any infiltrators from out of state.  It's about as welcoming as a snake pit to an outsider.

This has created a cache that New York theatre artists enjoy more than anywhere else, especially outside of New York.  All our cultural saviors: artistic directors, playwrights, actors, designers MUST be from there.  And if you're not from New York, or working there, well, you're not a serious artist, are you?  You're just a grass-chewing yahoo.

So, that’s what I think happened to The Shaggs.  It was Kremed.  If the show had originally been nourished and wrought in New York, I think it would have received kinder notice from the New York press, better word of mouth, and perhaps found the larger audience that it deserved. 

I also think, as a side note, that one of its themes sealed its fate.

The Shaggs was, among other things, an eloquent examination of reaching for your dreams and failing.  Miserably. 

That is a hard truth to deliver in a city inhabited and built on the backs of hopeful dreamers all fighting and clawing for recognition and acceptance and security like crabs in a bottle.

It attempts to shatter the myth that New York champions and re-invents, over and over again:

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…

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