San Francisco couldn’t be more different from New York, so
why are we consistently being force-fed New York’s version of musical
theatre? How are Broadway musicals
relevant to our lives here? And if
they aren’t, where are the alternatives that ARE? You know what, SF—I got your alternative right here! (Continued from Part I.)
MONKEY BUSINESS by Tony Asaro (Composer/Librettist, and now Producing Artistic Director of the FOGG Theatre Company)
In San Francisco, musical theatre is not thought of with much reverence. Most Bay Area theatre companies either shy away from them entirely, or only do them rarely. Others trot out a tried and true musical once a year for the holiday season: a show with lots of adorable—read: “obnoxious”—kids in the cast that will bring in a lucrative family audience. (By that, I mean Annie.)
There are the Broadway tours, of course. Once a show has garnered some success on the Great White Way, a touring company will take the show on the road. After a lengthy run in Los Angeles, the show will eventually stop by San Francisco’s Golden Gate or Curran Theatre and run for a month or two. By that time, the show is usually two to three years old. The audience is mainly suburban families.
For San Francisco, (and, I would argue, for most of the country) musical theatre is diversion. It is nostalgia. It is irrelevant.
But this is not music theatre’s history. The operas of Verdi fueled revolutions. The musicals of Brecht and Weill embody the ideals of radical politics, preaching against the abuses of capitalism and the hypocrisy of the church. And even in our own American Broadway cannon we have evidence of musical theatre being at the forefront of social movements. A Chorus Line is by far the most successful piece of people’s theatre out there. Fiddler on the Roof not only tells the story of the Jews in exile in Russia at the turn of the century, it was about the changing dynamic of the nuclear family in the United States in the 60s.
But the musicals we see year after year in the San Francisco Bay Area bear little to no resemblance to these pieces that embody revolution. All we know are the dregs of contemporary Broadway: We get community theatre productions of Legally Blonde. We get the touring company of The Addams Family. We get Lestat.
It’s no wonder that a liberal, scrappy, politically pugnacious den of sin like San Francisco largely rejects a form of art that’s basically just frivolous, costly escapism. If we–I have an AWESOME team of people that I'm working with–are going to start a theatre company that does new musicals, we are going to somehow have to make San Francisco see the potential for the form. We are going to have to give San Franciscans a reason to care, a reason to get off of their couches, and a reason to buy a ticket.
I started thinking about what San Franciscans care about. I moved because I felt that SF’s ideals are nothing like New York’s. So what are those ideals? What makes San Francisco, San Francisco? Is it the Golden Gate Bridge? The earthquakes? The Sourdough Bread? Or maybe...
You can’t deny the liberalism of the Bay Area. Long before the hippies descended in the late 60s, there were the gold rush miners, and the prostitutes, and outlaws that came along with them. There were the turn of the century sailors, and the bawdy shows and men of ill repute they would frequent. There were the bohemians and topless bars of North beach post-Prohibition. The flower children of Haight Ashbury, the mustachioed clones of the Castro, and dot commers of the Marina have all left their marks. Immigrants from everywhere, especially the large contingents from Mexico, the Philippines, the Polynesian islands, and from countries all over Asia and Europe have brought different cultural traditions, and cuisines.
Our legacy led directly to our current value system, a system which includes: extreme left-wing politics, open-mindedness, progressive attitudes toward sexuality and sexual mores, permissiveness about marijuana usage and nudity, an appreciation for diversity, avant garde arts, delicious but affordable food that brings together different cultures, and protecting and preserving the environment.
This value system manifests in every aspect of San Francisco life—from the compost bins replacing trash cans in eateries, to the social services of Glide Memorial Church, to the way gays and straights hang out together—so much so that neighborhood bars no longer need to differentiate. And it manifests in the local food movement, the inspiration for our theatre company.
In the local food movement, local farmers grow and sell local produce directly to local consumers. By supporting local farmers, the community is creating a sustainable food system that protects the environment, bolsters the local economy, creates jobs locally, improves the quality of the food consumed (better farming practices, less time on trucks, etc.), works with the local vegetation of the seasons, and enriches the community as a whole.
San Francisco is by no means the only area that promotes local food, but it definitely manifests strongly here. San Franciscans have thrown their support behind the movement, both because of its benefits, and because we have the best food around!
Our theatre company takes the tenets of the local food movement and applies them to musical theatre:
- THE FARMERS—We will commission local creative artists: playwrights, composers, singer/songwriters, poets, directors, video artists, visual artists, etc. who either live in the Bay area or are from or connected to the Bay Area.
- THE PRODUCE—We will commission only local stories: stories that tell of our ideologies, our history, our heroes, our communities, and our concerns.
- THE CONSUMERS—We will gear our storytelling to the Bay Area, and the Bay Area alone. We will not aim to send our shows to New York. Our end goal would be to produce the shows here, for the audience that will most appreciate them. If shows go on to have a life elsewhere, that would be awesome, but this will never be a goal.
To be concise, we will make theatre that is LOCALLY RELEVANT.
How often do you hear San Francisco stories? Occasionally, a movie or TV show will be set in San Francisco, but usually, it’s a Hollywood-style romantic comedy like The Wedding Planner or The Five Year Engagement. Or the show is about the occult, so it gets set in SF where weird witch shit happens, like “Charmed” or the new Munsters remake “Mockingbird Lane”. These shows have about as much to do with San Francisco as French fries have to do with France. It seems that the nation at large has a romantic affinity for its image of San Francisco as an exotic backdrop, but doesn’t really want to hear the true voice of the Bay.
But San Franciscans love San Francisco. We delight in our successes. We love to learn about our history. We love to celebrate our heroes. (GO GIANTS!)
So to the rest of the nation and its entertainment industry, I say, “So be it. More power to you.” There’s little point in trying to compete nationally for airtime anyway. I’m less concerned about what the nation thinks, and more about what we think. Let’s tell our own stories, and let’s tell them to ourselves.
Really, the model we’re proposing is not new. This is how theatre worked when it was invented. In ancient Greece, the community would go watch plays to study itself; to learn its norms and mores, to honor its history and heroes, to grieve together. And of course, to celebrate their communal identity with pride! In this regard, San Francisco is not so different from Ancient Greece. We are a unique civilization of thinkers (surrounded by barbarians), and the thing we love and care about most is being San Francisco!
The local food movement is not popular because it is convenient, nor inexpensive. It’s popular because people believe in the importance and the benefits of a sustainable food system. Similarly, we need for the Bay Area to rally behind our movement.
So, it is without further ado that I present to you The FOGG Theatre Company.
We are currently in the process of becoming a 501C(3) non-profit. We have 7 board members, and are planning on presenting our first full production next year at this time. We want for education to be a large part of our company, and to that end, we have started the ball rolling on a youth conservatory and will begin classes soon. And we have our mission statement and vision statement:
The FOGG (Focus On Golden Gate) Theatre Company enriches, entertains and engages the San Francisco Bay Area community with professional productions that examine and celebrate our history, our cultures, our heroes, our concerns, and our ideologies. We are committed to commissioning and producing locally relevant stories created and performed by San Francisco Bay Area artists.
The FOGG is a collaborative venture building a locally based, self-reliant theatre system—one in which the creation of work, the production of work, and the consumption of work enhances the economic, environmental and social health of the San Francisco Bay Area. By telling locally relevant stories, and by using Bay Area artists, we are creating a theatre system that gives our audience a personalized, consequential and vital entertainment alternative.
"Personalized, consequential and vital"–that means that we will be producing work that is meaningful to your life, Bay Area residents. To the Bay Area artists and enthusiasts out there, we hope you see this as an opportunity for you, rife with possibilities. We are looking for people eager to get their hands dirty. Please contact me at the email address below if this post resonated with you, and inspired you to get involved. And please, pass this link around.
Stand up and take notice world: the FOGG is rollin' in!
TONY ASARO is a composer/librettist currently working on various musical theatre and opera projects including the award winning Our Country. To learn more about Tony's writing, please visit unrelentingmonkey.com. NEVER STOP SWINGING!