The Dumbing Down of Broadway: lamenting the closing of Children of a Lesser God

I hesitated to publish this. Speakeasy’s mission is to highlight the positive aspects of theater. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel like I could keep silent about the tragedy that is the closing of a Broadway show that is near and dear to my heart. Having said this, I realized that the very reason the play is set to close is due to the type of scathing reviews Speakeasy refuses to publish. Matthew Murphy erroneously wrote a review headlined “Joshua Jackson Mansplains it All for You”. Well bravo Mr. Murphy! You’ve managed to take a beautiful work of art about the human condition and reduce it to a cliche pop-culture term. So I’m up late at night unable to sleep because someone needs to speak up for a play that much like its heroine isn’t able to be heard and doesn’t seem to have a voice in a world of shallow white noise.

I realize I may offend some Broadway folks, but Stephen Sondheim said it before I did, “The dumbing down of the country reflects itself on Broadway. The shows get dumber, and the public gets used to them.”

I’m saddened beyond words to hear that Children of a Lesser God will be closing on Broadway after only 23 previews and 53 regular performances. For selfish reasons, it’s due in part to the Medoff family being a dearly loved unbiological extension of my family. Mark Medoff and my dad worked together at New Mexico State University from 1979-1983. We lived in the same neighborhood, and my sisters and I would babysit their children, Deborah, Rachel and Jessica. Mark and his wife, Stephanie are two of the most wonderful people, and I love them dearly. Mark shaped my life in ways he doesn’t even realize. I’ve read every brilliant word he’s written and even wrote a paper on Children of a Lesser God as part of my post-graduate work in Special Education at New Mexico State. For these reasons I am deeply saddened. I want to somehow pull a Dear Evan Hanson and cause a viral sensation that would drive up ticket sales and stop the inevitable from happening. Unfortunately, I’m but a humble entity who just started a blog 14 days ago and has a reach of about 2000 on Facebook and 400 on this website.

I’m also saddened as someone who has worked and advocated for people with special needs for the majority of my adult life. This play is an important example of accommodating for our special needs population. The show had empathetically considered the deaf population with closed captioning and ASL interpreters. As a special education teacher for 22 years and volunteer for disability services at Dragoncon in Atlanta for the past 5 years, I e-mailed the producers of Broadway Con in its first year to offer my expertise. I was given a short and polite response that explained all their theaters had “hanidcapped” (I shudder at that term) seating. Now we all know that said seating is usually in some partially obstructed aisle and cut out as an afterthought to comply with the ADA in a very minimal way, but Theatres’ ignorance of special needs accommodations in facilities is a topic for another article.

More than feeling melancholy, the underlying emotion that’s simmering is pure anger. I’m angry that a brilliant straight play of this intellect and magnitude which captured Broadway audiences in 1979 can’t survive on the Great White Way in 2018. Medoff’s extraordinary work won several awards in 1979 including 3 Tonys and 5 Oscars for the movie adaptation, and now in 2018 has been nominated for 4 Drama League Awards, One Tony, and one Outer Critics Circle Award (Outer Critics Circle is the official organization of writers on the New York theater for out-of-town newspapers, national publications, and other media beyond Broadway–so, basically entities like Speakeysie).

As an educator, I feel in my gut the American education system and the shallow media of our times are to blame. People are not equipped to appreciate the complexity and emotional beauty of a work like Children of a Lesser God. I have a feeling William Shakespeare himself would flop on what is today’s Broadway stageDon’t get me wrong–I like Spongebob and Jimmy Buffett (I enjoyed watching  Spongebob with my kids, and I’m a parrothead who’s stoked about Margaritaville’s opening on our Local Georgia Lanier Islands). Light entertainment is an important part of Americana; however, we need to balance our emotional palates with substance. Where Spongebob and Margaritaville are fast food, Children of a Lesser God is a gourmet meal. The complexity of this story takes a certain amount of intellect to appreciate. Considering the nation’s dismal test scores compared to those in 1979, it’s no surprise. In one review I read, the critic lauded the performances, but went on about the drabness of the  abstract set. In my humble opinion, that critic totally missed the point. Children of a Lesser God is a story that takes place inside the mind of the main character, James Leeds, as a memory–another reason “mansplaining” is incorrect in this instance — he is telling the story from his point of view.  It is a compilation of memories. In our own memories we often remember the people we interacted with more than our surroundings. While I wasn’t able to get to New York to see the play, I know it well (have dissected the script) and have seen it performed by local high schools. From pictures you can see the set is simple and encompasses several settings. The light design is beautiful and evokes the proper emotions. I guess that in today’s Broadway if you don’t have a set that looks like the inside of a Chuck-e-Cheese, you don’t have a noteworthy play. It’s unfortunate that critics missed the point entirely, but then, maybe some of them were not alive in 1979 and don’t appreciate the story in it’s historical context.

So here’s my grassroots attempt to save this play; America,  please prove my musings about the “Dumbing Down of Broadway” wrong. Don’t be a sheep and listen to the critics. Or if you’re easily influenced by pop culture, at least buy a ticket to this show to see guy who played Goose from Top Gun and Dr. Mark Green in ER (that’s my pathetic attempt at humor–I happen to be a huge fan of Anthony Edwards). It may not be the most flashy, feel good thing you’ll see, but it will make you FEEL (think This is Us type feels) something deeper than the temporary happiness of someone who lives in a pineapple under the sea. While you’re in Broadway digesting the fast food of theater, don’t forget to dine out and treat yourself to a gourmet theatre meal. Thanks for your readership and peace be with you.

–Jody Key — Managing Editor

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2 thoughts on “The Dumbing Down of Broadway: lamenting the closing of Children of a Lesser God

  1. Deborah K Gabe May 12, 2018 — 10:42 pm

    Thank you, so much, Jody! My husband and I saw COALG April 11, and were so very touched by it. It was AMAZING!!! When we saw the reviews, we were so disappointed! The set did not bother me at all. It helped me concentrate of what the actors were saying, and they were saying a lot!!! My husband and I were both brought to tears in several scenes. Thank you so much for your support and encouragement of Children!! Blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Deborah, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!! Please get the word out so we can make this movement viral. #savechildrenofalessergod

      Like

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