'Magic Mike' Can't Save Broadway

In case you hadn't heard, Magic Mike is headed to Broadway. The project has good people attached to it; the songs will be by the folks behind Next to Normal, and the writer has worked for Glee and the actor-Moloch known as Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. It will likely be good in the way that everything on the Great White Way is good. It will be solid and well-paced and the songs will be hummable and the actors will be fine.

But it won't be great, and I'm sick of talking about Broadway the way we ought to talk about Fords: They're dependable, they last a long time, and they come with a lot of chrome and bright lights. For God's sake, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway. A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway. A Chorus Line, which brought gay desire into living rooms across the nation three years before any gay people could get elected even in San Francisco, opened on Broadway. Broadway used to set the pace for theatre the world over, and now they're mounting (pun inten- … whatever, forget it) a play based on a Channing Tatum movie. This musical is just another example of Broadway's disturbing tendency to offer up cheesy musical versions of B-grade films rather than new, exciting theatrical experiences.

Not that there's anything wrong with Channing Tatum. But if Broadway, the citadel of the American stage, becomes nothing more than a clearing house for the bad ideas of Hollywood, than theatre in America is in serious trouble. It's already heading in that direction. Right now, you can go to Broadway and see a musical based on Matilda, a musical based on 9 to 5, and, I kid you not, a musical based on 1980s hair metal. For young people raised on the story of how the brave and noble Sir Cobain sacrificed himself to the high priests of MTV to save us from Thin Lizzy, this last one might be the unkindest cut.

Theatre shouldn't just recycle films. Every time it does, it slams another nail into its own coffin. It also shouldn't just recycle film stars, providing them with a soft place to rest on the slow slide into obscurity. It should stake out its own territory as a unique art form, indeed the original art form, home to some of the greatest minds in world culture and yet always new, every single night. It should always feel like what it is: bodies in space creating a new experience for a collection of disparate individuals who somehow cohere through the alchemy of live performance into a group. Movies, for all their excitement, don't do this. The exceptions, shows like The Room and Rocky Horror, mainly do so through incorporating elements of live performance.

This is not to say that these shows aren't fun, just that theatre should be more than fun, and lately a lot of people at the top of the game seem to have forgotten that.

It is also not to say that theatre is dead, dying, or bad. Theatre survived the Dark Ages. It survived the puritans closing down the Globe. It will survive Channing Tatum. And there are theatres all over the country, including in New York, including even on Broadway itself, that still do what Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Brecht tried to do: they show an audience something it's never seen before.

But Broadway by and large is not doing that. They're showing an audience something it has already seen, played by people they've already seen, singing songs that, while new, feel just like the same drivel from last season. I hope I'm wrong. I hope Magic Mike brings about, in the words of Lawrence Ferlighetti, "a rebirth of wonder." But I don't think it will. I suspect that Magic Mike will be conspicuously lacking anything that feels magic.