Peanuts in the Shell

Acclaimed director Michael Mayer, with a talented ensemble, tests the theater climate as the revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown heads for Broadway

As this revival of Charlie Brown makes its way to Broadway (with a stop in St. Louis this week at the Fox, Dec. 30-Jan. 3) there is the question of whether the Broadway musical audience -- grown accustomed to a diet of helicopters landing and ships sinking and staircases rotating as the music soars -- whether this audience will pay Broadway ticket prices to see an intimate, sweet musical they might have seen last year at New Rochelle Junior High?

Mayer believes such intimacy in musical theater will have its own appeal (Fox Associates, who are producing Charlie Brown, are crossing their fingers, hoping he is right). As Mayer speaks of this belief, his passion and conviction are evident: "I know in my heart and soul that there is an audience that is craving a very simple, intimate experience when they go to the musical. There's always going to be Phantom of the Operas, always. People want that too, but they also want an intimate, personal experience. A small musical can deliver that. Falsettos delivered that. But we haven't had a successful small musical on Broadway since then. It doesn't mean it doesn't belong.

"It's very interesting. The people who run the show in New York will deride the large megamusicals that do spectacle over substance, and yet they seem unwilling to allow for the possibility that the small, intimate musical has value. They can't have it both ways. At some point, we will win -- whether it will be with You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown or whether it will be with the next small musical, whether it be this year or next year. The audience will end up voting, and their vote will be louder than the vote of the critics. They will have an experience unlike any other experience they've had, and they will tell their friends that this is something special. That will translate into dollars."

What "something special" might be (Mayer and the Fox producers hope) is a rediscovery of the inexplicable power that makes an Our Town eternally appealing -- whether it's at Hinterland High or Lincoln Center -- or a Charlie Brown. Mayer puts this in the terms of a rediscovery of the appeal of theater itself. He mentions that he has just received a card from Christian Slater, who, after being in movies since he was a kid, has been drawn to the stage.

"He was thanking me for the miracle in his life of Side Man. He has been able to connect with the very thing that inspired him to want to communicate in this way in the first place.

"We'll never get rid of that. That this is what the theater will always be. It is the first place -- it is the first art. It's holy and magnificent and awe-inspiring for everyone who makes theater. And every now and then you can make something that really connects to an audience, and when you do that there is no better job in the world. It's the best thing you can do.

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