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The stage has always borrowed cultural currency


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Some people reject the notion that an endless train of movie-inspired Broadway musicals means that we live in decadent times.

Pop culture expert Robert Thompson of Syracuse University sees it another way. He believes that well-known novels, films and TV shows have become the "currency of our culture."

"We have cultural equity in them," Thompson said. "It's natural that anything with equity would be reprocessed. It's always been this way."

Thompson said we can look to earlier eras of the Broadway musical and find the same pattern. Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun," for example, premiered in 1946 and used as its backdrop Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show - a "hugely popular cultural phenomenon" that would have been within the memory of at least some of those theatergoers in the 1940s.

In even earlier eras, redundancy on the stage was common. David Garrick, the famed 18th-century British actor, specialized in certain classical roles and performed Shakespeare's "Richard III" repeatedly throughout his career. Audiences never tired of watching him play the part. Playwright Eugene O'Neill's father, the actor James O'Neill, toured for years in "The Count of Monte Cristo," which in the 19th century was a widely read novel by Alexander Dumas.

And almost all of Shakespeare's plays were based on older plays or other literary sources.

Moreover, Thompson said there really are very few original ideas in the history of entertainment.

"Whatever happens on television has already happened on radio, and if it happened on radio it happened in vaudeville," he said. "And if it happened in vaudeville it probably happened in the circus, and that takes us all the way back to about 1830."

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(c) 2005, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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