Reaction in the Madison arts community to new Civic Center director Robert D'Angelo's 1991-92 season varies widely from enthusiastic support to extreme disappointment.
D'Angelo himself admits that the new season is more conservative and less risky than past ones because of the economic times. Although he's bringing in innovative acts like the American Indian Dance Theatre and Reduced Shakespeare Company, a hefty chunk of the season is filled with proven-though-tired perennials, Broadway road shows and middle-of the-road balladeers like Maureen McGovern, John Gary and the Fifth Dimension.
D'Angelo argues he's not in a position to dictate people's tastes. In choosing the new schedule, he has said, he wants to "build a constituency among those who do not have classical educations, among those for whom the Civic Center is not necessarily an educational or enlightening experience, but purely an entertaining experience."
Ellsworth Snyder, a prominent local musician and musical director of the First Unitarian Society, doesn't like D'Angelo's approach and criticized it in a letter to Isthmus published this week. He complains D'Angelo is still programming as if he were managing the Akron, Ohio, performing arts center, his previous job before replacing Ralph Sandler at the Civic Center.
Says Snyder, "With a major university in town and the wide variety of community arts organizations, it's not like we're living in Pumpkin Center. I'm very concerned that the most important thing for him in planning a season is the budget. In the arts you have to take some risks. If you can't take some risks, the arts are dead.
"Certainly, you have to be careful not to be elitist," Snyder adds. "At the same time there's too much of the thinking at work that the arts are only entertainment, that they cannot also be challenging, both intellectually and emotionally. I don't believe we can get used to new things and new artistic challenges unless we come in contact with them."
Jazz composer and pianist Joan Wildman is also troubled. "I think D'Angelo is selling the citizens of Dane County short," she says bluntly. "It's objectionable to think that he has to cater to these poor dumb Dane County people who don't know anything. It's unfortunate that the director of the Civic Center isn't leading the community toward a wider and higher artistic focus. Instead, he seems to be looking for the common denominator. Getting the most people in for the biggest buck.
"To me, the season seems like it's filled with tried-and-true, middle-of-the-road acts that were popular among a lot of people's grandparents," she complains. "The Four Freshmen? John Gary? C'mon!" However, Madison Civic Music Association head Robert Palmer says D'Angelo is doing the right thing in his first season.
"I would not call it either backwards or retrogressive," Palmer comments. "Safe is a more appropriate description. It's just going with the national trend that in times when there's so much competition for leisure time and the leisure dollar, you have to market for mainstream audiences. I'm employing a certain amount of conservative choices of artists and music here as well."
Union Theater head Michael Goldberg observes that, to some degree, the difference between Sandler's supposed progressivism and D'Angelo's "Bottom Line Bob" reputation is simply a matter of differing public perceptions.
"The truth is that Ralph did shows for everyone too," says Goldberg. "He brought in Connie Francis, David Copperfield. But even so, there was never the sense that the community owned the Civic Center. No matter how much mainstream stuff he did, it was always perceived that the Civic Center was being programmed with innovative, cutting-edge work. And you know, there is a large percentage of taxpayers who don't care anything about [dancer] Nina Wiener, people who simply believe that the Civic Center's getting a million dollars a year of their money.
"Now Bob is being perceived as a more populist programmer than Ralph," he continues. "The reality is that the Civic Center's got to reflect all of the city. The reality is that Bob's got to get the ticket-buyers paying his bills whether people think he's booking high art or crap."
Perhaps D'Angelo's most surprising defender is Joel Gersmann, artistic director of Broom Street Theater. "Artistically speaking, I don't think [the season] is anything to get upset about," Gersmann reflects. "The Civic Center has nothing to do with art, and it never did. It's never been anything more than a marketplace for entertainment.
"And it's very cruel to blame him, because he's not the cause of the problem," Gersmann adds. "He's just here to make the thing work."