The Visit closed last night. The adaptation by Terrence McNally, Fred Ebb and John Kander of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s classic play shuttered after two months of performances, garnering a handful of Tony Award nominations without winning any. A sense of sombre regret hangs in the air, and musical theatre fans are posting on Facebook, Twitter and message boards about how much they will miss the show.
I wonder how I would have reacted to this closing five or ten years ago. I think I might have been genuinely angry to see a show that has something complex to communicate close so quickly, especially when The Visit appears to do this in a manner that doesn’t shy away from its complexities and achieves a remarkable level a musical theatre technique to boot. I may have lamented the latest victim in a world where simplistic musicals, with arid technique evident in lazy books and sloppy lyrics, crawl on into thousands of performances.
I guess it would be untrue to say that there aren’t echoes of that attitude wrapped up in my feelings about The Visit closing and, of course, there are sad practicalities like people being out of work each and every time a show curtain lowers for the final time.
But here’s the thing. Endings are part of a full life experience, no matter how difficult they are to bear. It’s a clichéd observation, but endings and beginnings are one and the same. Closing nights are a part of the natural order of things. A run in excess of 11 000 performances doesn’t indicate a show’s worth; it’s simply a reflection of the capitalist culture in which a show finds itself produced. We all know from our own high school experiences that the most popular kid isn’t always the one with the most integrity, although sometimes that can be the case. “Nice is different than good,” Stephen Sondheim wrote – and so it is in the theatre as it is in life.
What does a closing night mean for a musical? It can mean a new life. Theatre, after all, is an ephemeral transaction. Without closing on Broadway, The Color Purple wouldn’t be returning this year following what many are calling a production that goes beyond what its original staging achieved. And it was only after many closing nights that La Cage aux Folles found a similarly successful revisionist staging in the 2008 London revival.
Sure, we have yet to see a staging top the respective original excursions of West Side Story or Follies. Even in instances where, say, the former is criticised for not speaking to contemporary sensibilities, I’m unconvinced that there’s someone who can match what Jerome Robbins achieved along with his assistant, Peter Gennaro. Watching “Love and Love Alone” was such a beautiful reminder of the potential power of dance within the context of musical theatre and there don’t seem to be many prominent musical theatre choreographers like Graciela Daniele, who work in such detail to create a communicative language of physical expression on stage. Athleticism too often trumps storytelling.
So while I think it is appropriate to salute The Visit as it passes on, survived by video footage, photographs and its upcoming cast recording, I don’t feel the need to mourn it. The show will live on for as long as it has something to say. Any show will.
This post is inspired by and a response to “I’m Over Being Concerned About What I Shouldn’t Do” in Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That and Other Confessions.