I haven't been a fan of New York recently. I still think it's the Greatest City in the World, but it's also one of the toughest places on earth to live. Like London and Tokyo, the cost of living is beyond the means of way too large a percentage of its population. Most of us exist on credit or thievery. We stay because it's the Greatest: the Button District, fifty gay bars, Lou Reed walking his dog in Central Park, the Empire State Building and the New York Times. But you have to put up with $7 pints of Guinness, rat-infested subway platforms, a cult of slumlords, the deafening echo of 9/11 and the New York Post. Struggling in this city is deliberate and, to me, silly. I breathed a sigh of relief as I jetted off to Cincinnati for Thanksgiving. I was leaving the Blue for the Red, Freedom for Oppression, Godlessness for Christ Obsession, but at least I could afford a beer.
Cincinnati wasn't nearly as oppressed during the presidential election as we in the Righteous States of Kerry would like to believe. While visiting, my anti-W button drew friendly strangers, and I only saw one Bush/Cheney bumper sticker, on a beat-up pickup truck. The entrenched progressives on the coasts may be worrying about secession, but in Cincinnati the Democrats are still fighting to recount the election. The dinner-table conversations were encouraging. And then last Friday, as I was driving through downtown on my way to one of the city's dozen (!) gay bars, my car was trapped in a mob of theatre-goers leaving a production of Miss Saigon at the Aronoff Center. The bombastic, somewhat cheesy show, which closed in New York four years ago after a ten-year run, is about the fall of Saigon-from the Vietnamese perspective. Not something you'd expect our ignorant red states to embrace, but the show's still packing in audiences on tour. Back in New York, I told my friends that complex thought was alive and well in Cincinnati, a place I've attacked with vehemence for as long as I've been capable of speech. A few of my more entrenched friends raised an eyebrow at my regressive stance. Clearly, I was trying to slam New York by praising its enemy.
After I returned from Ohio, I went to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes. There are few symbols of New York more old school than the Rockettes. They are a throwback to the vaudeville houses, to the Ziegfeld Girls; in fact, they were created in 1925 as a taller, hotter, tap-dancing version of Ziegfeld's famous chorus lines. The Rockettes started out in St. Louis as the Missouri Rockets, but within a decade they had been brought to New York by Roxy Rothafel and renamed. Originally, there were sixteen leggy robots, and now there are thirty-six. For seventy-two years, the Rockettes have been the house dancers of Radio City Music Hall, which is the largest theatre in New York and one of the most beautiful in the world. Every time I go, I'm amazed by the soaring Deco arches, the towering balconies and, well, the classiest bathrooms in the world. I was excited to see the Rockettes at Radio City because I wanted to be taken back to a more innocent time, to a Judy Garland movie, preferably Ziegfeld Girl. Everything was black and white then. Ideas were simple, and we knew who our enemies were.
I quickly realized I wouldn't need to quiet anyone. Before the curtain rose, dueling blue-glitter-clad organists tried to kill us with an overture louder than a rocket blast.
The press office gave me an amazing seat: in the centre of the orchestra, about fifty feet from the stage. As good as the seat was, I still had to share the theatre with several thousand other people, many of them squirming children. A little boy behind me kept escaping his mother's lap and climbing over the empty seat to my left to sit next to me and bounce in the chair, cackling. He had a weird cracked-out flashlight that blinked gold and glitter; the things were sold in the lobby as souvenirs. (A souvenir of what? The Christmas Star?) Another boy, a little older, escaped his parents to sit by himself on the aisle and play his Game Boy. All around me, babies cried, girls screamed and their parents yelled at them to shut up. I told myself not to shush them during the show. I hate making enemies of an audience.
I quickly realized I wouldn't need to quiet anyone. Before the curtain rose, dueling blue-glitter-clad organists tried to kill us with an overture louder than a rocket blast. I saw several small children cover their ears with their hands. I've always thought that the louder the show, the more likely its producers don't have confidence in its quality. The audience can't notice it's bored if it's been knocked over by 267 decibels. The same goes for mixing film with live theatre. Instead of respecting the confines of the stage, lazy directors will throw up a screen and show a movie to explain away difficult-to-direct events, like the chase scene in Sunset Boulevard or the fabulousness of Leigh Bowery in Taboo. Or Santa's sleigh ride in this year's Christmas Spectacular.
That's right, the opening of the show was not a hair-raising, show-stopping kick line. It was a five-minute computer-animated movie of Santa buzzing the Manhattan skyline, "shot" from the cockpit of Santa's sleigh. And it was in 3-D. I had wondered what the cardboard glasses glued to my program were for. Isn't the point of live theatre, though, that it's already in three dimensions? That it's real? If you already have living humans on the greatest stage in the country, why cheapen it with theme-park special effects? Worse, the audience cheered for it, and a couple in front of me tried to reach out and touch the optically illusionary sleigh more than once. (The screen was used again later for a singing weather report-snow!-from New York's TV weather people.)
Once that travesty was finished, Santa came out on stage, danced with a cross-section of young urbans and then introduced the "World Famous Radio City Rockettes." (He repeated the moniker several times, so apparently he had no choice but to call them by their trademarked name.) As the dancers came on stage, they were bathed in the flashes emanating from the audience, despite the fact that we were told not to use flash photography during the show. Every time the Rockettes did anything, flashes went off. Maybe the MC should have told the audience that flashes can distract the dancers and make them screw up, trip, break a leg. Oh, why bother? The Rockettes don't screw up. They're perfect. For their first number, they came out dressed in green elf costumes and kicked high and long. The crowd went wild.
I was surprised to discover the show actually had a plot: Santa was late for his ride because he came to New York to pick up a present for Mrs. Claus. (He has hundreds of elf slaves, but has to shop for his wife at Macy's. Whatever.) On his way home, he treats us to various Christmas scenes, like a girl dancing with toy animals. This number went on forever, and I can't imagine how hot the dancers in the bear suits must have been. Or how smelly the suits were after the show. The Rockettes came back, too, for Santa's favourite number, their toy-soldier lock-step-athon. More cheers.
It was around this point that I fell asleep. The repetitive sound of marching is sleep-inducing, and I was hot and bored and tired. I woke up when the audience started cheering again. This time it was for an army of Santas. It was impossible to count how many, because the backdrop was a mirror, doubling their number, à la Chorus Line. But there were enough to keep me awake, especially when the hydraulics started up, lifting sections of the stage to form a Busby Berkeley-inspired wedding cake of dancing Clauses. Thrilling. I cheered.
Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, Mrs. Claus is getting worried. There's a storm a-coming and Santa's late. Also worried are several elves, played by dwarfs and midgets. When Santa arrives, the little people and the Rockettes join forces to sing and dance around Santa's workshop. The Rockettes were dressed as rag dolls and the audience cheered when the dolls spelled out "Merry Christmas" with giant letter blocks.
After Santa took off, the show downshifted. Gone were the Rockettes and the little people and the silly Christmas joy.
I was given another boost of energy when six male dancers came on stage in lederhosen, bare legs and all. Everyone else at the North Pole was in furs, but not these lithe lads. (Thank you!) They seemed to be employed to tend to the reindeer, which-to the chagrin of feminists everywhere-were played by harnessed Rockettes, wearing antlers wrapped in blinking Christmas lights. Cheers for the light bulbs.
After Santa took off, the show downshifted. Gone were the Rockettes and the little people and the silly Christmas joy. Instead, we were presented with the Living Nativity. A voice-over told the story of Christmas as the stage slowly filled with wise men, camels, donkeys and the First Family. As stunningly gorgeous as the tableau was-and I cannot praise enough the beauty of the costumes or the lighting or the staging-I was stunned even more by the evangelical nature of "One Solitary Life," the prose poem that was projected on a scrim and printed in the program. Here's the last stanza:
Over two thousand years have passed,
and today He is the central figure for much of the human race.
All the armies that ever marched and all navies that ever sailed
and all the parliaments that ever sat
and the kings that ever reigned,
put together, have not affected the life
of man upon this earth as powerfully as this
"One Solitary Life."
The crowd went wild. Only once before has my jaw actually dropped open in the theatre-it was during the Cats rip-off number in Dance of the Vampires. This time, however, I wasn't amused. "One Solitary Life" was the sort of thing I would expect at a Sunday school production of the Christmas story in Texas. In fact, it was freely adapted from a 1926 sermon attributed to Dr. James Allan Francis-not that Francis was credited or anything. Proclaiming the supremacy of Jesus in a church would be expected and barely noticed, but in a mass, corporate entertainment, it struck me as chauvinistic and offensive to anyone who has a more liberated view of religion.
But I was less offended than I was disconcerted. What the demographics of the audience were, I'll never know. They couldn't all have been tourists from Oklahoma, which would have simply confirmed the split between the red and the blue. Even if they were my sworn enemies, it was Radio City, that most New York of all New York icons, that cheered them. Cincinnati proved to be much more liberal than I had ever remembered or imagined, and I was thrilled. But New York has proved to be just as complex, and that scares me. The famously divided United States is not divided by geography; it's divided by streets and hallways. Secession is not an option.
When Ted Gideonse was seven, he saw Richard Harris in Camelot. He doesn't remember any of it. Alan Cumming in Cabaret, however, is embedded in Ted's hippocampus. Ted has written about the arts (and other stuff) for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Salon and the Advocate. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. (I Am) The Fourth Wall appears monthly.