Thursday, October 27, 2016

How long is 90 minutes?

There is currently a revival on Broadway of the 1928 classic play, THE FRONT PAGE written by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur. (There have been several movie adaptations, the best by far being HIS GIRL FRIDAY, which switched one of the main characters from a man to a woman.)

The current version starring Nathan Lane and John Slattery is getting lovely notices. One thing struck me in one of the reviews – it mentioned that Nathan Lane doesn’t even enter the play until two hours in. When he does he’s great, yada yada, but still – TWO HOURS? How long is this damn play? (Actually, I find that hard to believe. I wonder if Lane was in the first act but the critic just slept through it.  Or showed up an hour late.)

THE FRONT PAGE is in three acts, meaning two intermissions. Now that was the style of 1928, and I suspect with radio in its infancy and TV still just a gleam in the CBS eye, a theatergoer was happy to be entertained for any length of time.

Today, of course, it’s different. We all have the attention span of a gnat. Late night shows are measured in click baits.

And the theater has had to adapt over time as well. By mid-century, plays evolved into two-acts with one intermission.

Today the trend is one long piece, no intermission, running roughly 90 minutes. There are advantages and disadvantages.

Uber Playwright, Tom Stoppard, doesn’t like intermissions. He feels it's like asking the audience, “How am I doing so far?” I must say that’s how I felt during intermissions for A OR B? when it played at the Falcon Theatre. I’d stand inconspicuously in the lobby trying to assess from the conversations whether the play was going over or not.

During one early preview we had an audience that – to use Larry Gelbart’s line – the mean age was deceased. We got zero laughs. When I told the house manager I thought we were bombing he said, “Oh no. They love it.” I said, “How can you tell? No one laughed.” He replied, “They all came back for act two. Nobody left.”

What I don’t get about this new trend is that theater owners seem to be all for it. You'd think they’d be unhappy giving up all the intermission concession sales. Yes, no intermission means people don’t leave halfway through, but so what are far as theatre owners are concerned? They have the customers’ money.

But it’s the trend so it’s what I’ve followed with my latest play, GOING GOING GONE (tickets available here). No act break, just a brisk 90 minutes. As a result, the storytelling changes. No longer do you build to a big crisis act break and then resolve – now you design a story to just build and build and pick up momentum leading you to your conclusion. And that’s okay. Just be aware that concessions to this new format must be made.

You’re also now obligated to keep your play in the 90 minute range. It was easier staging a longer play when the audience was given a break. But what a contrast from FRONT PAGE where one of the two main stars doesn’t enter until two hours in. (I still don’t believe that.  The critic might have had amnesia.)

I can’t speak for other playwrights, and perhaps in dramas it’s different, but to me keeping your play down to 90 minutes is a good thing. The theater offers more free license (or at least it did). Your plays could be as long as you wanted. No restrictions. But sometimes restrictions are a good thing. Haven’t we all spent a brutal night (or twenty) squirming in a theater watching a play that was not only terrible but endless? There’s an old saying about musicals: “Take out twenty minutes and run two more years.”

On the other hand, especially on Broadway, audiences are paying big big money for tickets. I saw a play last summer that was a one-man show starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson (from MODERN FAMILY). He was terrific in it, but the play was like 70 minutes. I walked out saying, “I spent all that money for this?”

This debate will continue I’m sure. The ultimate answer lies, as with most things, in the bathroom. Can audiences go 90 minutes without having to go? They do for movies. In fact, a 90 minute movie is considered short. (Of course at one time long movies also had intermissions. Only Tarantino does that today but that’s because there’s not one single frame of the brilliant HATEFUL 8 that could come out.) Personally, I think the answer is yes. But not 95.

On the other hand, can we go 90 minutes without texting? Hmmm. Just to be safe my next play will be 83 minutes.


Carol said...

the play my husband and I saw in London, The Painkiller, had no interval. That surprised me; especially being a community theatre type person; I couldn't imagine not having a break between acts. Ultimately I didn't miss it, the play was amazing, and the action zipped along. Felt a bit sorry for the concession stand people, though.

My director when I was in the Shakespeare company liked intervals, because he said the theatre should be a social activity, and the interval gave people time to interact. (of course, to be fair, it's impossible to get a Shakespeare play any lower than 2 hours at best. You NEED an interval.)

Unkystan said...

When Les Miserables originally opened on Broadway it ran over three hours but was soon cut because the unions got double time after 11:00pm! (You can actually hear some of the missing material on the original London cast album).

drdiandra said...

To answer your question, Ken, The Front Page is two hours and forty-five minutes, and a great lesson on how plays have changed since this was written.

The first act is forty-five minutes of set up, mostly featuring supporting characters (it's like a 27-person cast!) planting facts that seem irrelevant but that are going to come together in service of the third act. It's like a comedy version of Agatha Christie where you get toward the end and start to realize "Aha! So that's why they made such a big deal that the blonde studied chemistry in college -- she knows about poisons!"

If a writer today presented this for production he/she would been told to drop the entire first act and trim the cast by half.

The intermissions were necessary -- especially when you consider the average age of Broadway audiences. The older people ran for the bathrooms and the younger people for the bars.

Andrew said...

I wonder if there will be a backlash to all the "no attention span allowed" kind of life we're living now. Watching young people on their phones scares me a little. They can't even read an article for one minute, they have to scroll to something new. They click on one hyperlink after another until they don't even know how they got there. (And yes, I do that too sometimes, but it's not my life.) Among the younger generation, will the time ever come when they learn to love works of art that require disciplined focus over a long period of time?

Lately I've been listening to the symphonies of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. Even one movement can be a half-hour. It requires total immersion, but the payoff is spectacular and transcendent. But who is willing to take an hour-and-a-half off to listen to classical music? Usually a live audience for an orchestra concert is virtually devoid of young people.

I know that music and drama are very different, but I still hope that at some point this next generation learns to put away their phones and wireless connections, and seek out large-scale works of art to challenge, move and inspire them.

I don't mean writers (including playwrights) and composers should deliberately write long and tedious works. But perhaps the "instant fix" kind of mentality will get tiresome, and the pendulum will swing the other way. I hope that young people will eventually seek out more contemplative and intricate artistic expressions. Ones that last awhile, where you have to pay attention for the payoff.

Covarr said...

As an actor, I love intermissions. It gives us a break, a chance to catch our breath after that long and exhausting dance number, a chance to relieve ourselves if we drank too much water before the show, a chance to change into our next costume at our own pace instead of rushing to have it on in time for our next entrance. Our stage ninjas love it too; they can rearrange all the sets so that the things they'll need in the second act are easier to get to.

I've yet to act in a show without an intermission, and frankly I don't know that I want to. 90 minutes with no breaks may be the current trend, but I'm simply not convinced it's a good trend. Maybe for a kids' show, but certainly nothing else.

emily said...

From Telecharge:

The Front Page Quick Facts
Running Time:
2 hours and 45 minutes, including 2 intermissions

Wendy M. Grossman said...

My assumption was that it was a typo, or that they meant two hours of stage time, but from the review in question - which I've identified as this one: - it's clear that this production has Lane entering at the end of the 2nd act, though his voice is apparently heard on the telephone. (Must be a long performance.) Is Lane simultaneously playing in a nearby show where he only appears in the *first* act?

The cast looks great, but the reviews I've seen have been mixed.

Personally, I don't understand why anyone today would put on a production of THE FRONT PAGE without making one of the leads a woman. Even the original playwrights, Ben Hecht and Charlie McArthur, said they didn't do it because they didn't *think* of it. HIS GIRL FRIDAY is so *much* better, and I think they thought so too.


kent said...

Einstein said it, an hour with a pretty girl seems only a minute while a minute on a hot stove seems an eternity. If the play doesn't drag, the duration will seem just fine.

iain said...

We recently saw "Fun Home," which clocked in at 110 minutes with no intermission.

It worked well, although maybe the small but outstanding cast contributed to that.

Unknown said...

At this moment, Nathan Lane, John Slattery, and John Goodman (whom you somehow forgot was in this) are on The View, plugging Front Page.

Right off, Lane mentioned that he doesn't come on stage until two-thirds of the way through; if memory serves, that means he's playing the process server who has the pardon from the Governor, which triggers the wild action in Act III - this makes him the Special Guest Star.

When I read about this revival, I figured that Goodman would be Walter Burns and Slattery would be Hildy Johnson; my thought was that Nathan Lane would be the prissy Bensinger.
Now I hear in the talking that Robert Morse is also in this, so I'll guess that he's Bensinger (correction welcomed).

I'm writing this from Chicago.
If these guys have a tour in mind, I'll be first in line ...

Ted said...

We saw your play Sunday afternoon - great script performed by an excellent cast! When it moves to New York, as it must, we hope all four actors move with it. The no-intermission thing works in your play because the story itself is about a long evening. But confess - you actually wrote a sixty minute play, and the actors had to pause for a half hour of laughs!

Dave said...

I more or less understand how men deal with relieving themselves at intermission; the men's room utilize trough urinals. Though if you suffer from bashful kidney, better to find a potted plant in a dark corner of the lobby.

But what do women do? If you have a crowd of 200 elderly women from St. Agnes' Home for the Socially Bereft, is it a kamikaze dash to the three available toilet stalls?

And who is the lucky guy who has the Motorman's Friend concession in the lobby?

Gary Benz said...

Ken, having just seen The Front Page on Broadway last week. The first two acts are 50 minutes each and the third is 45 minutes. I can tell you that Nathan Lane doesn't come in until halfway or so into the second act, just because of the role he plays as the editor. When he does, both the pace and the energy of the play really pick up. The first act, frankly, dragged and could have been cut substantially but I suspect they wanted to be true to the source material. At the end of the first act, I thought the pace was excruciating and wondered how I would take another hour and 45 minutes of it. But the second and third acts sparkled, showing the power of a really good actor (and John Slattery was excellent as well)and the pace significantly quickened to the point that even if the play had started at that point and had been two acts long with one intermission it would not have seemed unreasonable at all. In other words, the length of the play is both theoretical and practical for the most part. The other thing that really struck me about the production was the sheer size of the cast. Maybe a dozen and a half actors and several of them were pretty big names. Very expensive.

bryan north of seattle said...

Hamlet in 90 minutes?

To me, if I am spending big bucks, I shouldn't get out so early that I have to go and find something else to do afterward.

MikeN said...

Dave, I read many years ago that there was a concert I think in New York, where the women got fed up with the line and just invaded the mens restroom.

richard said...

In the UK many venues charge the producer if there isn't an interval (due to the lost revenue sales) meaning there are a number of shows which suffer from having an inappropriate interval crow barred in..

Julia Littleton said...


"Kamikaze dash to the three available toilet stalls" pretty well describes every women's restroom at every arts venue I've been to. If you have an aisle seat and a strategy for bypassing the many slow walkers at every available opportunity, you might get to take your turn on the throne before the theater lights blink to beckon everyone back.

If there are two intermissions, you get two chances. I like that idea, as long as the show's worth watching.

Unknown said...

Slattery is Hildy... and, as you might expect, Lane is Burns! From The Observer's review:

"... and his unscrupulous editor, Walter Burns (Nathan Lane), whose only interest is getting a front-page exclusive, no matter how ruthless. Lane doesn’t enter until almost two hours of a nearly three-hour play have gone by..."

Wow. I almost wanna see it now, just to see how they structured it, with Burns entering so late.

James said...

I saw the play in New York in October in previews. To put it in perspective, Slattery is playing the Rosalind Russell role from My Girl Friday, Hildy Johnson, and Nathan Lane is playing his boss, Walter Burns. John Goodman plays the corrupt sheriff, and the process server with the governor's reprieve is played by Robert Morse (remember him from 50 years ago, he starred in "How to Succeed in Business without really trying"). The staging is also spectacular, there is only one set, and all the action off stage is described by a one sided phone conversation.

My short review would be spectacular cast and staged. First 20 minutes lags because there is a newspaper writers chorus that engages in a lot of explanation, rather than action. And Lane is off stage on the phone, but doesn't make a physical appearance until late. And Goodman is quite impressive as venal and corrupt. Also stars Dann Florek from law and order and Holland Taylor of many TV shows.

Darth Weasel said...

@ Andrew who said "I know that music and drama are very different, but I still hope that at some point this next generation learns to put away their phones and wireless connections, and seek out large-scale works of art to challenge, move and inspire them.

I don't mean writers (including playwrights) and composers should deliberately write long and tedious works. But perhaps the "instant fix" kind of mentality will get tiresome, and the pendulum will swing the other way. I hope that young people will eventually seek out more contemplative and intricate artistic expressions. Ones that last awhile, where you have to pay attention for the payoff."

I get where you are coming from but think two things. First, there are plenty of people who were making that same complaint 40 years ago when I was growing up. The kids had no attention spans, attendance at the things that took too long like a baseball game or the endless holiday not much new to report there, just different ways to react to the tedium.

Second, when something is truly entertaining people will always be found to watch/listen/participate in it. Baseball finds attendance just fine where good baseball is being played. Entertaining movies still find audiences for their 3 hour runs. The symphony here in Portland still charges premium prices and gets plenty of attendees well south of their forties.

It all comes down to is it entertaining for the consumer.

Yesterday Ken had heavy response to what tv shows people had stopped watching and one that came up several times was the Blacklist. It cracked me up because the very reason I quit watching was the only reason some people were still watching it...Spader's over acting was such a drain on the show I did not find it watchable and dropped it early. Clearly I am not the intended audience and did not find it entertaining.

At the same time, I would go back and watch Psych on continuous repeat and I am willing to bet a large majority of people on this blog would hate it.

Both shows have their audience that likes it and will show up whether it is a 5 minute youtube clip or a 2 hour weekly long as it entertains THAT audience

D. McEwan said...

"James said...
the governor's reprieve is played by Robert Morse (remember him from 50 years ago, he starred in "How to Succeed in Business without really trying")"

Ah, I think most people can remember Robert Morse for something a little more recent than How To Succeed. Over the last six years he was nominated for Emmies five times for Mad Men.

I like intermissions. I like the break. When watching long movies at home, especially ones based on plays with intermissions, I usually take an intermission.

And at my bladder's age, I just do not drink beverages before a play or movie, nor at intermission, as I don't want to have to sprint out for the bathroom mid-act/movie. And though I no longer smoke cigarettes, which made intermissions a blessed relief, the intermission is still always welcome.

Mind you, I have a good long attention span. I saw all 8 1/2 hours of the RSC's Nicholas Nickelby in a single day (Two normal intermissions, plus an hour-long dinner break) and was still energized by it when it ended. It was 9 hours plus (When you factor in the intermissions and dinner break) of pure bliss.

VincentS said...

I think the length of anything - play, movie, TV show - depends on the quality of the writing, acting, and direction as well as the story that's being told. As far as attention spans, my then 8-year-old nephew had me sit through the video version of the last LORD OF THE RINGS movie which was four hours long! He didn't seem to mind the length. When I went to see Hal Holdbrook's MARK TWAIN I was so mad when it was over. Not because it was too short for the money I paid, but because this master actor and his material were so good I could have sat there and listened to him all day! Moreover, I didn't hear a single cough, cell phone or watch alarm and this was a hot summer matinee. Granted, there is a commercial reason for intermission but it also allows the audience and the actors to take a breath. I think the length of a play is a judgment call made during the rehearsal process just as the length of a movie is determined in the editing room.

sanford said...

I saw the Book of Mormon a couple of years ago. I believe there is an intermission in that. I have listened to most of the cast album on spotify which from what I have heard is the entire musical. Not much talk from what I have heard. The album is 2:22. I don't know if that includes times for the ads. But I would assume they have an intermission in that.

flurb said...

The criticism of THE FRONT PAGE's supposedly slow start seems silly to me, whether we're talking now or in 1927. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were not dummies, and that is why their play still has legs, whether it's Roz Russell or John Slattery playing Hildy.

All great comedies, even one-acts, start slow. Period. No exceptions. How funny are the first acts of THE ODD COUPLE, and NOISES OFF, and SLY FOX, compared to their second and/or third acts? Amusing, perhaps, but not funny. There's a lot of set up that needs to happen, or there can be no payoff. Complaints about plays not being a laff riot from the rise of the curtain strike me like this:

COMIC: Guy goes into a bar -

CRITIC: Not funny. I'm bored.

I'm with VincentS - good stuff is worth the time. I've seen a lot of plays that didn't justify their lengths, sure, but I've also seen a lot of one-act, one-set two-actor superficial playlets that didn't even get into their subject matter long enough or deep enough to even get interesting. Now, I'm sure that Ken's new play is fantastic, because he's so smart... Still, the idea that shorter and smaller is automatically better is just as suspect as the reverse. More saleable? In this economy, sure, but not necessarily better. To each his own, of course, but if I have to choose, to switch genres, I'll keep Charles Dickens, and you can have Raymond Carver, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Here's as forced a segue as ever appeared in this blog. Speaking of the front page, Did you see the front of today's sports section? LA's major daily has the story about Wednesday's World Series game below the fold while the headline and big photo are about the upcoming first game of the 17-65 Lakers. I know baseball isn't the national passion it once was, but come on...

Is this a sign of the times or just a sign of The Times?

Maybe I'm just more sensitive to this sort of thing at the moment because I'm reading Bill Bryson's book ONE SUMMER: AMERICA, 1927. The chapter on baseball and the truly unbelievable accomplishments of Babe Ruth is required baseball-fan reading.


Unknown said...

OK, I asked for corrections, I got corrected, and I thank you one and all.

Just out of curiosity, who plays Bensinger?

cadavra said...

I saw the show Tuesday night, and checked my watch when Nathan entered: 1:40 into the show, though we hear his voice over the phone several times prior. The problem no doubt arises form the fact that most of the film versions are re-written to bring Burns in near the start, and thus lies the confusion. (Somewhat similar to the "Glengarry Glen Ross" issue.) In fact, they've apparently had sufficient complaints that the ushers now tell folks that Nathan doesn't enter until Act II; I assured ours that we already knew this, and she seemed relieved. As far as the overall length goes, I can only slightly paraphrase Gene Siskel: "No great show is too long; no bad show is too short." This was perfection throughout, with a cast unequaled in recent Broadway history.

Mike Doran: The marvelous Jefferson Mays plays Bensinger, and he steals whatever scraps Nathan leaves on the table.

Kaleberg said...

The first 90 minute no-intermission play I saw was Talley's Folly. It opens with a monologue about the brevity of the play and the lack of a bathroom break. It moved pretty swiftly from there. I felt I got my money's worth.

Andrew has better eyesight than I do. As far as I can tell, people who are glued to their smartphones seem to have long attention spans. They rarely take their eyes off their phones, even when they are driving. I can't see their screens at any distance, so for all I know they are reading Tolstoi. That and those tiny screens would explain a lot of the frantic finger activity.

Unknown said...

Jefferson Mays, from Law & Order Repertory - I can picture him now.

Were I a traveling man (I'm not, but that's another story), I'd be booking a flight now ...

Craig Gustafson said...

I work mainly in community theater. If you tell people that "The Odd Couple" has three acts, the blood drains from their faces and they gasp, "How long IS it?!"
The script runs two hours. If you take two ten-minute intermissions, it's no big deal. But some directors get antsy and take one intermission, usually after Act Two. This gives you an hour thirty-five first act and a 25 minute second act. It also means that the stage crew has one minute instead of 10 or 15 minutes to change the apartment from a disaster area to pristine. After a disastrous decision to do "You Can't Take It With You" with only one intermission - and the act break landed with a thud - I learned my lesson and always fight for the playwright's intentions. They built in two intermissions (or one, or none) for a reason.

Conversely, when I directed "The Drowsy Chaperone," a musical with no intermission, the theater talked me into putting one in. After the first weekend, I took it out again because it completely killed the librettist's intentions - all the jokes at that point are about the fact that there is no intermission.

Xorandor said...

I'm not a robot

Roseann said...

I just saw a production of ACT OF GOD in Tucson, AZ- I think it was not a tour but mounted by the Arizona Theatre Company. It was 80 minutes without an Intermission. It worked that way. I"m glad it was a preview and I didn't pay a whole lot for tickets....

Andrew said...

@ Darth Weasel: Points well taken. Thanks for commenting. Maybe in my old age (well, I'm 46) I'm just Clint Eastwood talking to a chair. "Those whippersnappers with their smart phones..."

@ cadavra (or anyone): My stupid question for the day. What is the "Glengarry Glen Ross" issue? Loved the movie, but not aware of any issue. Except that they said the f-word a lot.

@ Kaleberg: That's an optimistic way of looking at it, that they're reading great works of literate. Let's hope. But I have two teen daughters so I go to lots of events (sports, music, school, etc.) What I often see among the kids (and sometimes the parents) is constant skimming through something. Their thumbs on their phones are moving up and up perpetually. Often it's photos or brief videos or a "vine" or a "snapchat." Then a quick break for texting. Then back to scrolling. Maybe it's a multi-media version of Tolstoy...

"I grow old... I grow old... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."

cadavra said...

Andrew: Not stupid at all. Anyway, for the last 20+ years, whenever GGR is revived--even on Broadway--there will invariably be angry complaints that the Alec Baldwin character had been cut out. It then has to be explained that he was written specifically for the movie and was never in the play. It is axiomatic that any property will be seen by far more people on film than on stage, and that becomes THE version in their minds, even when there have been considerable changes. (It's always fun to attend a stage revival of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and see how people react when they learn what Brick's "real" problem is.)

This is also true of movies > TV shows. I went to see THE ODD COUPLE (the movie) a few years ago, and much of the audience audibly reacted when it opened with the beloved Neal Hefti theme song, which they'd always assumed had been written for the TV series. And there's a possibly apocryphal story--perhaps Ken can confirm--that sometime in the '70s CBS decided to run MASH the movie as a sweeps stunt, and the switchboard supposedly lit up with furious callers demanding to know why Alan Alda and the others had been replaced!

Todd Everett said...

Cast and crew of "The Front Page."

Andrew said...

Thanks, cadavra, I appreciate the explanation. That never occurred to me.

That was a great scene, even if it was written only for the movie. I've never seen the play, so I don't know if it could be added without affecting the flow. I wonder if anyone has tried to insert it. Are there legal issues involved? Or does it just not fit? Or maybe Mamet considers it only viable on film.

Maybe they could let members of the audience reenact the scene, like a sophisticated Rocky Horror Picture Show.

What it must be like to be a Mamet, throwing something like that together? "Sure, I'll just add a small scene here." I still hear it quoted at work, i.e. "___ is for closers!"

cadavra said...

Inserting it would take a lot of work, since it would require taking a lot of dialogue out of the text and putting it in the mouth of the [off-screen] character who was being quoted. Mamet says he only wrote the role because Baldwin pestered him to be in the [already-cast] movie; whether that's true or not I don't know.

Colleen said...

I also saw in previews. Though I enjoyed it, I agree with the critics, it really only picked up when Nathan Lane entered. It could have definitely been cut. For a play it was a bit too long. Great cast, but too much setup.

mike said...

As a performer and a spectator, I don't like intermissions. I like to prepare for the performance and then do it without having to ramp up my focus again. Same with watching. Let me see it, then I'll go. I see the point about restroom breaks, though.

Betty said...

Darth Weasel, I'm with you. I can watch "Psych" reruns at the drop of a hat.

Tim Dunleavy said...

As Peter Filichia writes in his excellent book "The Great Parade: Broadway's Astonishing, Never-to-Be-Forgotten 1963-1964 Season":

One reason that two intermissions were the norm then and non-intermissionless shows reign today? That can be gleaned from what Thornton Wilder's Stage Manager in Our Town says as Act One comes to an end: "You can go and smoke now, those that smoke."