by Sara Israel
In light of tonight’s finale of “The Bachelor,” season MCXVII, I think it’s an appropriate time to lay bare the mixed-message with which this venerable reality ”marriage” show supports the performing arts.
Wait. Do we need to back up a step? Let’s lay some groundwork for the rest of this conversation:
1. Yes, I have watched “The Bachelor”—and its companion piece, “The Bachelorette”—on and off throughout the years.
2. No, my defining it as “on and off” is not a cop-out. I completely own up to the degrees of which I watch and love/hate this show. So should you.
3. Even if you aren’t invested in watching tropical wedding proposals that devolve after a few weeks, chances are you’re a fan and supporter of the performing arts—you’re reading the Boston Court blog, after all.
Okay. Now let’s continue.
This past September, I participated in Directors Lab West. For me, the absolute was listening to Vincent Paterson discuss his journey developing the Cirque du Soliel show “Viva ELVIS” as its writer, choreographer and director. Typically I have a difficult listening to someone talk for several hours, no matter how remarkable that someone is. Until September, I had only experienced one transcendent listening experience in my life: sitting in a room with 12 others as Tony Kushner spoke about creating “Angels in America.”
Listening to Vincent Paterson was a tremendous honor. The passion with which he invested himself in “Viva ELVIS” joined with the enormity of his talent and previous professional experience (Michael Jackson’s “Bad” tour! Madonna’s “Blond Ambition” tour!) joined with the respect and affection that he showed for us while talking about it. . . Amazing. Vincent left us at 11pm. I wanted to jump into my car and drive to Vegas and see his show immediately. (And I guarantee you, this is the first time I’ve ever thought, “I want to jump in a car and drive to Vegas!”)
It turns out there’s another way I could have gained access to Vincent’s show. I could have participated as a “contestant” on this season of “The Bachelor.” In Episode 5, airing January 31, 2011, Brad Womack and his harem traveled to Vegas, which featured a “two-on-one” date where two women—both named Ashley—rehearsed with Brad for the opportunity one would receive to perform with him in that night’s “Viva ELVIS” production.
Yes, that’s right: perform. Actually, this Vegas News press release put it best, describing the event as Cirque du Soliel “accommodating” the reality show.
For more than four years, Vincent Paterson poured his talent, expertise, intelligence, sweat and heartache into that show. With just one day of rehearsal, Brad and one of the Ashleys would be deemed worthy of being in a featured dance duet to “Love Me Tender,” choreographed on harnesses high above the stage.
Several years ago, the Broadway production of “The Lion King” likewise “accommodated” the Bachelor franchise, when Ali (that season’s Bachelorette) and a guy named Roberto also harnessed themselves above the stage for an otherwise legitimate Broadway performance of that venerable musical. I think it’s fair to assume that Julie Taymor had absolutely no say in this matter.
My good friend, a very talented actress with significant musical theater experience, also saw that episode. “Now I know what I need to do if I want to make my Broadway debut,” she said.
Fun fact: Roberto went on to “win” that season of “The Bachelorette.” A quick Google search suggests that he and Ali are still engaged. Less fun fact, at least for Ashley H., who performed with Brad in Vegas: She was eliminated several weeks later and seemingly will never be his wife.
I feel torn when it comes to these dates/performances. On the one hand, “The Bachelor” producers present the experiences as high-risk, which I think is their way of respecting live performance. In both instances, the couple was nervous and anxious before they went on stage, and in both instances they spoke to the vulnerability they felt because of their stark exposure to a live theater-going audience.
On the other hand, the producers of “The Bachelor” clearly don’t feel like live performance is really enough—the couples had to be harnessed on high in order to make it really “be something,” the equivalent of other dates of bungee jumping, sky diving and flying in helicopters over mile-deep gorges (and all the awesome “taking a leap for love” and “flying high in love” clichés these dates engender).
It also pains me how easy “The Bachelor” makes the preparation seem. Yes, the daters talk about what hard work it is, and how much talent and effort it takes. That’s nice, and they seem to really mean it and admire the true performers in these shows. But then five hours later they’re in front of a live audience—performances that are framed as unequivocal successes! What kind of message is that? That someone like Vincent Paterson can spend a career building towards the creation of a show, that actors and dancers and singers and acrobats can spend their careers training to be worthy of performing in it, and then a couple of schmoes show up for a day and chomp on gum during their curtain call? (I’m talking to you, Ali.)
I fear that “The Bachelor” makes it all look too casual and too easily attained. It’s a delicate balance, isn’t it? We want people to come to live theater—we want that part of it to be easy and accessible and quotidian—but we also want an audience to appreciate that the creation of the experience was difficult to come by. Worth it, of course, but the product of many talents and many years that allowed for the culmination of this very night with them in the audience.
If “The Bachelor” can drives its viewers into theaters of any sort—even if they’re mildly delusional upon arrival—it’s probably worth it. But it’s up to us to set them straight, to keep them there, and inspire them to come back again.