Always Leave Them Wanting More

October 27, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in Concerts | Leave a comment

“Always leave them wanting more” – P.T. Barnum

As I write this I am in the middle a run of playing in “the pit” for a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  By now it’s a “warhorse” of a show.  To be sure, the music, particularly its repetitiveness, is often ridiculed by sophisticated musicians.  But amidst its formulaic four bar phrases, it has its charms.  The story is familiar to anyone that remembers Sunday school.  The characters are campy and endearing.  The throngs of children are adorable (and ensure an automatic audience of parents and grandparents).  The tunes are catchy and memorable without being grating.  And most importantly, it’s SHORT.  Indeed, each act will usually run between 40 and 45 minutes.  Even with a generous intermission, “Joseph” will have you home in time for the evening news (or Saturday Night Live, or whatever it is people want to be home in time for these days).  Nobody but the dancers leave a performance of “Joseph” exhausted.  But that attribute of the production has become a rarity.

In a time when the live performing arts are struggling for audience, visibility, support and funding performances themselves are getting harder and harder to consume.  Like the most entrenched addicts, we have become both compelled and victimized by our obsession with over programming.  We are not content to play a concerto before the intermission and a symphony after.  We must add a rousing overture and an obscure set piece that contrasts ever so smoothly with the main attraction.  By the time we are done, a third of the audience has deep vein thrombosis, a third is struggling to keep their eyes open and a third has reread the program five times.

This has become common throughout the performing arts.  Certainly, there are times when program length must be longer.  The Nutcracker doesn’t work well in “highlight” form.  A much as you might like to, you can’t really perform a Cliff’s Notes version of The Ring of the Nibelung.  And despite our best intentions, Bruckner Eight is Bruckner Eight.  But in most cases, we fall victim to our need to “say just one more thing” – adding one more dance number, one more song for the chorus, one more serenade for the string section.

Why does this happen?  Perhaps shrinking audiences have compelled programmers to “say” as much as possible while that have the audience there.  After all, you never know when you might get another chance.  Perhaps we have trouble focusing on who our audience is.  Is it the public?  Is it the initiated music fan?  Is it our peers?  Is it the critics?   If we throw something for each group in every program, we’ll be over programmed every time.  If we cater (pander?) to the initiated and to our peers we almost guarantee that the performance will be too long and that it will be a turn off to the masses.  Perhaps the question is, do we want a bigger audience or do we just want our audience.

I have read a few columns that discount the notion that performances are too long.  After all, if people can happily sitting through The Lord of the Rings or a long sporting event, surely the problem isn’t attention span.  But, in my view, that misses the point.  The point is that people will sooner sit through those long events than sit through a classical music performance.  What are we going to do about it? Do we want an audience or do we want to be right?

When we have an audience, we are giving something to them certainly.  But we are also asking something of them.  An audience is much happier for the experience and much more inclined to think the performance was worth their time if they don’t leave feeling too much was asked of them.  Indeed, I wouldn’t hesitate to guess that an audience will perceive a merely competent performance of a reasonable length as a better performance than many virtuosic performances that run overly long.

Classical Music, Jazz, Dance, Musicals, Plays, Opera – it’s all “show biz”, regardless of how high minded we might be about it.  The quintessential master of street psychology and show biz, P.T. Barnum said “Always leave them wanting more”.  They will most certainly come back for more if we don’t wear them out the first time around.


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