Are you excited? Is there a slight frisson in your demeanor? Are you restless as a willow in a windstorm, as jumpy as a puppet on a string? Did you think it was maybe just spring fever? Well you’re wrong. It’s because this weekend ‘The Poor of New York’ is happening at the Connelly theater, and that’s pretty exciting. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “why is that so exciting, Anika?” Well cool your jets, people, because I will tell you. So, without further ado, why you should be excited about ‘The Poor of New York’:
1. It’s a melodrama, straight from 1856.
Oh sure, you’re thinking, a melodrama. Why is that special? We all know what a melodrama is. But do we really? This was the most popular form of theater of its time, and some of it is still in the DNA of today’s theater. And yet melodrama is almost never performed today, unless it’s mocked or just namechecked as a trait of bad theater. But there’s a disconnect there – how can a form that audiences loved so much in the 1800s, a form that is an illustrious ancestor of theater today, be so entirely dismissed? Have you ever actually seen a melodrama as an audience would then, taken seriously as a story told in front of you? Don’t you want to? Well now’s your chance. ‘The Poor of New York’ is one of the greats of the form, written in 1856 by Dion Boucicault, so popular that it spawned productions in other cities and countries. And it’s being done as truly as possible, without a wink.
2. It’s being done at the Connelly Theater
Melodramas were actually staged there when it was newly built! It’s blocks away from Five Points, where the play is set! You can see a melodrama from the 1850s in a miniature opera house from the same century! I’m not saying this is your chance to live your dream and wear a bustle dress to the theater, but this is your chance to live your dream and where a bustle dress to the theater.
3. It’s bizarrely topical.
The play is about the unscrupulous business dealings of a rich banker during the New York Financial Crisis of 1857, which lead to the world’s first global financial crisis. This is a quote from the 1931 program:
“Panics come and panics go, but the theatre
goes on forever. We doubt that the present
depression will last forever, either in the
theatre or out of it. When we hear the char-
acters of the play talk of “over-speculating”
“the fall of the stock market,” and so forth
in the Currier and Ives atmosphere of 1857,
a dim echo of recent conversations comes
down to us from the forgotten past. Thus
history repeats itself even to the failure of
the United States Bank in the time of Van
Buren. We should add that we have not
“doctored” the script in any Way, as might
be supposed from the almost startlingly
modern references, such as that to the United
States Bank failure.”
A little eerie, right? Melodrama gets a bad rap about only being about silly soap opera dramas, with cartoonish villains and delicate ingenues and dramatic twists. And while it no doubt is partially those things, it clearly also felt the same desire to make people look closely at their own cultural and societal realities that we feel in the arts today. In the never-ending conversations about theater’s role in human life, and politics and theater, and theater history, melodrama must be given a seat at the table. The form might be relegated to the musty halls of history, but the questions that it asked were as vital and topical as any asked by theater today.
4. You can say you knew them back when.
You know when you see something by a famous genius person, and you think, gee, I wish I had seen what they did when they were starting out, because then I would feel all cool and in-the-know and could brag about it forever. Tyne Rafaeli, who’s directing this, is one of those people. To meet her is to think, “this girl is the coolest,” to talk to her is to think, “this girl is the smartest” and then to hear her talk about theater is to think, “dang I’m glad I’m meeting this person now, because someday when she’s a famous genius person I will feel all cool and in-the-know and can brag about it forever.” The Producer, Michael Csar, is also one of those people, and I’m pretty sure will be running all European theater/opera someday.
5. Look how cute the poster is!
6. I don’t usually write about shows in this way.
If you’re a regular blog reader, you might be noticing that there is something unusual about this post – I don’t usually try to convince people to go see something. But I also feel it is my duty to bring your attention to something that you might otherwise miss. Plus, I am legitimately very excited about this, both because of the people involved and because, as someone interested in theater and its history, seeing a melodrama fully staged feels like an important piece of my theater-going career. So go here and buy tickets, and you can thank me later.