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Theater: Is Broadway Invulnerable?

By Wendy Caster
arttimesjournal June 17, 2017 

The original title of this essay was “Is Broadway Committing Suicide? And Does It Matter?” But the more I thought about it, the more I came to admire Broadway’s dogged longevity.

African-American singer-comedian  Bert Williams in blackface

Broadway survived the 1970s, when many people were frightened of Times Square, and numerous theaters were empty. It survived the 1980s, when attendance was low. It survived the 1990s, when some years had so few shows that Tony categories—including best musical—weren’t filled. It survived the 2000 season, when only 28 shows opened (in the 2016-2017 season, 45 shows opened, a difference of more than 50%). It survived 9/11, despite a dip in attendance and grosses. And, damn it, I suspect it will survive this decade, when prices are so insanely high that they approach people’s monthly rent.

I say “damn it” because I think today’s prices are disgusting, and I wish that they were damaging Broadway so that producers would cut them. However, while people are complaining, many are also coughing up the dough. In fact, according to the Broadway League, gross income in the 2016-2017 season hit a record $1,449,399,149. Yes, that’s almost one and a half billion dollars.

Many people consider Broadway a Disneyfied theme park, and that’s true up to a point. But quality work is presented year in and year out. For example, this year gives us an astounding range of straight plays. Interestingly, the four Tony nominations for best play were all written by American playwrights (two female, two male) who are on Broadway for the first time. The two women, Paula Vogel (Indecent) and Lynn Nottage (Sweat), both Pulitzer Prize winners, have had successful careers for decades, and many people believe that their Broadway debuts should have come years ago. According to the New York Times,

Both playwrights arrive scarred by the journey—each frustrated by how long it has taken, and still aggrieved that their best-known, and Pulitzer-winning works (Ms. Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive and Ms. Nottage’s Ruined) never made it to the big stage. But both are also thrilled to be here now, and savoring the sweetness.

Whatever Broadway’s limitations, it is Broadway. Not only does it vastly increase playwrights’ potential income, both in New York and around the world, but it also comes with an undeniable cachet and heritage. From the same Times article:

“The moment in which you walk up and see the marquee is absolutely magical,” said Ms. Nottage, 52. “We have been in the trenches, we’ve fought the wars, and finally arriving feels quite exhilarating.”

Ms. Vogel, 65, is also celebrating. “You feel the ghosts in a really great way,” she said, “and they’re the kind of ghosts that are saying, ‘Welcome home.’”

African-American singer-comedian  Bert Williams in blackface

Broadway also has those amazing buildings. I love all theaters. Holes in the wall. Black boxes tucked away in office buildings. Dingy rooms on scary blocks. Theatrical magic can happen anywhere. But Broadway theaters are gorgeous and full of history. Just entering one feels sacred. (When a church took over a Broadway theater, someone I know said, “But the theaters are already churches.”) And there’s a sense of community, of shared energy. I love when the curtain goes up and I know that down the block at Chicago they’re singing “All That Jazz”; that the enchanted and enchanting animal puppets at the Lion King are joining the “Circle of Life”; and that in Hamilton, Aaron Burr is asking “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten/Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor/Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

Most importantly, Broadway, even in these days of rising production costs, still takes chances. Producers risked money on Next to Normal (a brilliant musical about a woman with bipolar disorder) and Fun Home (a brilliant musical about a young lesbian dealing with her father’s gayness and his suicide), and both made money! Did the producers actually expect a profit? Either they did, in which case they are amazingly savvy, or they didn’t, in which case good for them for producing the shows anyway.

But there is still one problem: Broadway is not nurturing tomorrow’s audience sufficiently. When I was a teenager, you could work a part-time minimum-wage job and go to the theatre a couple of times a month; that’s currently far from true. Theater is accessible for rich young people, of course. And it’s also accessible for those who are willing—and able—to wait in line overnight for free or highly discounted tickets. But for many of tomorrow’s potential audience members, Broadway is out of reach, or it’s a once-a-year treat.

Nevertheless, somehow Broadway will survive, I suspect. It’s not invulnerable, but it is strong and frequently exciting. I just wish I could afford to go more often!