I contemplated titling this piece “On The Objectification of Theatre Artists,” but decided against it for two primary reasons. First, because it is not my graduate thesis, and second, because people might choose to approach it more seriously than it perhaps deserves. I will say that I do not fundamentally support the idolization of men or women for their physical appearance, however as one who works in entertainment (with a particular background in marketing and public relations), I know that for all of the enlightenment our society has achieved over the years, we are still drawn in by attractiveness — it is both celebrated and idealized throughout the media. Lecture over.
Among the deluge of tweets, updates and posts I see every day, I have been amused, and at times startled, by the comments of two young women who communicate under the unified nom de plume of The Craptacular. They are avid theatergoers, but they express their enthusiasm most emphatically when they see what I can only refer to as “a hot guy”; they deploy much more colorful expressions, I assure you. I find their slang rhapsodizing over a variety of stage heartthrobs distinctive because, for the most part, what I see otherwise are die-hard fans debating the artistic skills of various performers, say comparing and contrasting various divas (including some long dead), rather than ever speaking of earthier appeals. Save for the ad campaign for Chicago, which has long celebrated the forms and figures of the countless performers who have done that show, I rarely see Broadway, or any theatrical production, for that matter, relying on something that we have been told, ever since the Mad Men era, is a surefire marketing tool: sex.
This certainly contrasts with the movies, which in so many cases are all about appearance. For decades, people have become screen stars based first and foremost on their physical attributes. In film and television, the emphasis on attractiveness can be a curse (I should be so stricken): actors like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Michelle Pfeiffer and Angelina Jolie and many others have had to work extra-hard to prove that they are more than just pretty faces and bodies. But in the theatre, talent almost without fail comes first; attractiveness is sometimes the bonus. I generalize, of course, but you get the idea.
That’s why I think the women at The Craptacular are on to something (I so want to call them gals, but I’m walking on eggshells here). Maybe theatre shouldn’t be afraid of flaunting it now and again, especially if we genuinely seek to be part of the mainstream of entertainment and not relegated to the backwater known as “the arts.” The fact is, whether you are male or female, gay or straight, theatre is not just a feast for your mind and your ears, but for your eyes as well. In theatre, talent can make the unconventional unexpectedly attractive, just as it endows more conventional beauty with more depth than your average movie ingénue.
There have been a few occasions when theatre folks, usually because of their work in other mediums, have drifted into the range of media that emphasize physical appeal. I recall Kristin Chenoweth’s FHM appearance and Laura Benanti’s Playboy showcase in particular, because a) I know both women and b) I never believed I’d ever know women who appeared on the covers of those sorts of magazines. I suspect theatre-centric actors have similarly graced female-oriented publications, but my gaze tends not to linger on that part of the newsstand; I leave it to you to recall examples that support me. Kristin and Laura may not have been chosen for these platforms primarily because of their remarkable skills as performers, but once they are put upon a pedestal, they reflect the spotlight back on the stage.
Jerry Mitchell tapped into the sex and Broadway link years ago when he created “Broadway Bares” for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS; he took an underused asset – the sexiness of so many performers – and put it to great use, raising money for an essential cause. It has become a tradition within the community; it’s frankly a shame that the annual extravaganza can’t last for more than a handful of shows and reach more of the general public, harking back to The Ziegfeld Follies, yet conceived for the age of Maxim. Certainly if Ben Brantley is to be believed, the runaway success of Hugh Jackman’s recent Broadway stand had less to do with the guy’s overwhelming talent and charm and more with his status as a figure in countless sexual fantasies.
I’m not proposing that theatre aspire to burlesque (even as that particular form of entertainment makes a comeback). All I’m suggesting is that in our relentless effort to court those attuned to higher aspirations of art and talent, we may be burying a valuable asset that was once unashamedly part of theatre’s fabric. Theatre is where the devil’s assistant Lola gets what she wants through “feminine wiles”, where Adelaide endlessly fronts a girlie show until she can settle down into domestic bliss, where Gypsy emerges from the chrysalis of Louise Hovick – and where the women who play those roles become stars. As I ponder this, I regret that the male characters who are physical ideals are all comic figures, villains or both: Miles Gloriosus, Gaston, even Kodaly. What’s up with that? Maybe some form of envy by their creators?
Sex sells, sexiness sells, beauty sells and theatre’s got all of that. Just as Las Vegas learned a lesson when it tried to rebrand itself as a family friendly destination, maybe theatre, and Broadway in particular, needs a makeover, needs to rough up its image, needs more leather and lace — just like Sandy at the end of the movie Grease.