Audiences are briefly taking center stage in more than a dozen Broadway and Off Broadway shows such as Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, and Thwak. Even in the long-running musical Cats, some of the actors who play felines mingle and "cat-er" (chatter) with audience members. And at the just-opened Broadway mega-musical Saturday Night Fever, theatergoers experience the inside of a dance club as a mirrored ball spins above their seats.
Aaron Frankel, a Broadway director and theater historian, says the recent upsurge of interactive shows is "partly a reaction to the seriousness of many of the Broadway plays in recent years, including revivals of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh.
Veteran Broadway press agent Adrian Bryan-Brown says that the audience participation that used to be a tradition at fairgrounds and vaudeville was lost once television arrived. This give-and-take is making a comeback in theater.
"I think the reinforcement of having a live experience like in Dame Edna is what keeps the theater vital and what keeps it different," he says.
In the Broadway show Dame Edna, the central character picks an audience member to incorporate into the show. Recently, Dame Edna (played by Australian comedian Barry Humphries) invited Henry, a New York-area college professor and an avid theatergoer, up on stage. Dame Edna then phoned Henry's babysitter, who was home with his daughter.
While others might have been embarrassed, Henry says it was one of the high points of his theatergoing experience. "I loved it. It was my birthday, and I loved being on stage. It was thrilling, something I'll never forget," he says.
But others cower in their plush seats as if trying to make themselves invisible." I loved the show but was scared the whole time she was going to call me. If I see it again, I'm going to sit in back of the theater," said one recent theatergoer.
Veteran producer Joe Corcoran, who's currently co-producing three interactive plays, including the long-running Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, is seriously considering opening an interactive Off-Broadway theater center to develop more such shows. He hopes that they might be co-produced by others around the country.
The Spirit of Broadway, slated to open at the Lyceum Theatre next year, will have at least one interactive element. Because Spirit is also aimed at showcasing Broadway's heritage, audiences will tour backstage areas of the Lyceum, built in 1907, where the late producer Daniel Frohman lived in a rooftop apartment.
In Epic Proportions, a behind-the-scenes look at the bit players in crowd scenes during filming of a silent movie, Tony Award-winner Kristin Chenoweth (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown) acknowledges the audience at the Helen Hayes Theater. She refers to them as "extras." Every so often,audience members get up the courage to answer her back.
The granddaddy of all current interactive shows on or off Broadway is Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, which will celebrate its 13th year off Broadway on Feb. 14, 2000. Some who have been to the show before bring mock "gifts" to the festivities; others talk to Tony 'n' Tina family members as if they were old friends.
Producer Mr. Corcoran, a former New York City bond trader, says that interactive shows are popular because "they give the audience some sort of ability to control what's going on stage to a small degree."
It also offers an entertaining alternative to a big Broadway production. And with the high cost of an evening out--tickets, parking, babysitter--"There's an awful lot of burden on the show to entertain them considering what they've paid and what effort they went to get there," he says.
"With a show like Tony 'n' Tina they can talk to their friends, get themselves something to eat [dinner comes with the show], and feel like they're part of it by talking to cast members [who remain in character]," Mr. Corcoran adds.
Here are capsule reviews of a few of the current interactive attractions in New York:
Dame Edna: The Royal Tour (Broadway, Booth Theatre, 212-239-6200) is funny, funny, funny. Barry Humphries, whose comic timing is flawless, is the closest thing to the late Jack Benny around today.
Epic Proportions (Broadway, Helen Hayes Theatre, 212-239-6200). Sweet, sporadically funny, and suitable for the entire family. More like a TV sitcom than a play, it also might be much better in a smaller Off Broadway venue.
Saturday Night Fever (Broadway, Minskoff Theatre, 212-307-4100). Based on the 1977 John Travolta film, the timeless story of a young man trying to better himself, and terrific Bee Gees disco music and dancing, make for a great Saturday night out.
De La Guarda (Off Broadway, Daryl Roth Theatre, 212-239-6200). This off-beat mixture of carnival and circus high-jinx makes use of space above and beside you. But dress "down" because a light mist rains on all.
Finnegan's Farewell (Off Broadway, St. Luke's Church, 212-279-4200). With a mock funeral procession to a nontraditional Irish wake, complete with a fabulous troupe of young dancers, the musical is lighthearted fun.
Thwak (Off Broadway, Minetta Lane Theatre, 212-420-8000). Two Australians, who call themselves the Umbilical Brothers, are reminiscent of the young Steve Martin. Zany sight gags and uproarious vocal acrobatics.
This article first appeared in a recent issue of The Christian Science Monitor