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Festval: A Celebration Of The Arts : Breaking Down The 'Fourth Wall'

August 16, 1987|ELIZABETH McCANN | Elizabeth Ireland McCann is executive director of New York's Big Apple Circus as well as co-producer of such Broadway plays as "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Liasons Dangereuses."

The circus, by virtue of its extravagance, humor, design and legendary personalities, has provided considerable material for the American musical theater. Moreover, the circus possesses exactly the right mixture of drama and comedy that makes for satisfying musicals.

Creators of musical comedies usually portrayed the circus with all the opulence and splendor of its three rings. For Sigmund Romberg's 1927 operetta, "The Circus Princess," set designers constructed a circus on stage. The cast included a popular clown named Poodles Hanneford in addition to a host of acrobats, jugglers and equestrians.

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart scored a musical comedy triumph in 1935 with "Jumbo." Under the supervision of theatrical impresario Billy Rose, "Jumbo" brought the sights and sounds of the circus to New York's Hippodrome. New York theater critic Percy Hammond called the show "an exciting blend of folk drama, harlequinade, carnival, circus, extravaganza and spectacle." Theatergoers enjoyed this "circus-on-the-stage" for 233 performances.

In 1938 a musical reached Broadway that, although its story had nothing to do with the circus, drew upon the circus performance style. Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson's "Hellzapoppin" combined vaudeville comedy routines with the antics of circus clowns. The performers habitually left the stage to dance in the aisles and on the seats. The only thing missing from "Hellzapoppin" was a small car with 15 comedians piling out of it.

The most recent musical to bring a circus into a Broadway theater was "Barnum," a 1980 musical comedy that chronicled the career of P. T. Barnum from 1835 to 1880. To create a feeling of authenticity, the musical's producers employed performers from New York's Big Apple Circus to train the cast members.

But the circus' contributions to the theater are more significant than simply providing a link to musical comedies. Most of us grew up viewing theater framed by the proscenium arch; it was a spectacle based on illusion. We were in one room while the actors performed in another.

With the circus, however, we behold the spectacle in our midst, and we become an integral part of the whole. Circus performers work their wonders all around us. Although aerialists soar high above our heads and several exhibitions occur simultaneously, the circus' center ring and ringmaster give the spectacle a sense of unity.

In the 1960s and 1970s, some circus professionals reduced the extravagance of their craft by restoring the circus to its original form: a single ring, 40 feet in diameter. Paul Binder at Manhattan's Big Apple Circus and Guy Laliberte at Quebec's Cirque du Soleil each achieved a unique intimacy between performers and audience when he conceived his circus.

Contemporary theatrical practitioners may have sensed that their audiences wanted to experience this same intimacy in the theater. In the 1970s, theater in the round, hardly a new concept, found renewed popularity. By and large, regional theaters constructed in the last decade adopted the principle of the open-thrust stage.

Director Harold Prince drew upon circus traditions when he restaged "Candide" in 1974. By placing his audience in bleachers surrounding the performance space, Prince formed a circus arena. A scaffolding of ramps, bridges and stairways linked several smaller stages.

In keeping with the circus form of presentation, Prince broke down the imaginary fourth wall that, in the theater, separates performer from spectator. With "Candide," the director involved his audience in the spectacle, something the circus has done throughout its history.

Peter Brook, regarded as one of the theater's most innovative directors, gutted his Parisian stage to create a simple dirt ring for his 1981 production of "Carmen." Like his circus predecessors, Brook tried to give his operatic presentation an intimate sensibility.

Today, many theatrical spectacles owe a great debt to the performance style of the circus. Increasingly, Broadway productions have retired the house curtain. "Cats," "Starlight Express," and the epic "Nicholas Nickleby" take their mesmerizing illusions far beyond the confines of the proscenium arch.

In "Nicholas Nickleby," a chorus of muffin men--reminiscent of circus clowns--throw their baked goods at the audience and encourage the spectators to throw them back. The felines in "Cats" and the roller-skating trains of "Starlight Express" travel throughout the theater and remind one of the various circus entertainers who perform all over the circus arena.

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