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Tuesday, 29 June 2010 21:38

Broadway Opinion: The State of the Art

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If you haven't been paying attention, the backlash associated with this year's Tony Awards has not abated.  It's two weeks plus after the Tony Awards and the discussion is still going strong.  While this is an important discussion for the theatre community to have if it is to stay viable as an art-form rather than merely a form of entertainment, getting to the root of the actual problem is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Broadway veteran Hunter Foster started the tsimis with a Facebook group, Give the Tony Awards Back to Broadway that takes on the Tony Awards for the predominance of Hollywood stars on display at this year's show and on Broadway in general.  The problem is that the Tony Awards are just the most visible manifestation of an insidious problem plaguing the theatre world, the corporatization and commercialization of theatre.  Unfortunately, it would seem that the only way to be able to afford to produce a Broadway production is to be a large corporation producing a project that can delivery safely in spades.  Whether we are talking about the heavy presence of Disney in the Broadway community, the Roundabout's ambitions to take on the Shuberts in a battle for premiere landlord status, or another Hollywood actor dipping their toe into the glow of Broadway's footlights, taking on the Tony Awards is not directly taking on the real issue.   

I don't have the answer to this problem.  But it would seem that to truly address this you have to look at cost.  At first it would seem that it is a multi-headed monster much like Hydra, the mythical serpent who would grow a new head (some say two) for each one cut off.   But you start with the cost of attending a Broadway show and everything else seems to eminate from that one point.  It comes down to that old campaign adage "it's the economy, stupid!"  With just about anything we buy we find the cost of goods has outpaced inflation nearly two-to-one.  Just getting by day-to-day is nearly impossible for a large number of average Americans.  The idea of an evening out at the theatre costing $500 plus (including parking, dinner, etc.) is not an option for most folks.

In 1943 the cost of an orchestra seat for Oklahoma! was $4.40, that's $56.22 in 2010's dollar.  When it opened in 1975 an orchestra ticket for A Chorus Line was $15, that's $62.41 in today's dollar*.  If you look at the Broadway grosses you will see that the top ticket price now on Broadway can reach the stratosphere recently topping out at a breath-taking $425 (Fences).  The problem is, there is an audience for this.  When the League released their figures on May 24th for the 2009-10 season, gross receipts were at $1 billion.  Unfortunately many of those who helped to bring that figure to a billion aren't the daring theatre-goer whose interest in art exceeds their interest in being entertained. 

In his article for the Village Voice, Michael Feingold articulates this problem succinctly saying "I have a certain pity for Broadway. Artistically, it has almost nothing to offer New Yorkers, few of whom can afford its insanely escalated prices. Yet this city couldn't live without either the tradition it represents (however shabbily) or the huge sums it pumps into our economy. Caught between its fast-rising costs and the demands of the affluent tourist market to which it increasingly caters, it doesn't allow much wiggle room for art to thrive in."

In the 1950s a typical Broadway show budget might reach $500,000.  Even adjusting that figure for today's dollar ($4,575,190) we are still looking at Spider Man, the new musical delayed until this fall, sporting a budget ten times that.  The purported budget for that show is in excess of $45 million.  That will buy a lot of spectacle. 

The other fact is, tastes change.  Evolve or die.  Imagine trying to put on a vaudeville show or an operetta in this day and age and expecting it to sell out.  Never mind that, try putting on a 1947 musical revival like Finian's Rainbow and expecting it to sell out.  'nough said.  The musical of 1947 is NOT the musical of 2010, nor should it be. 

Several musicals have succesfully stepped out on a new and different limb and were lucky enough to find success both artistically and economically, think Rent and Next to Normal.  Others have not been so lucky, think Fela! which is still struggling to find an audience and will be a hard sell for its producers in the "fly-over" land where national tours traditionally touch down.  That is a true shame, Fela! is a daring gambit about a talented but controversial figure who most folks have never heard of and it's for an exciting evening of theatre.

So yes, tastes change, unfortunately, they aren't always for the better.  The dumbing down of America is very real.  As far as the Tony Awards goes, they are just doing what will get them the best ratings and keep them on the air promoting Broadway.  Despite the Wing's stance that the Tony Award stands for excellence in the theatre, while it does frequently reward such excellence, other times it's like picking the last member of a high school sports team where the least egregious choice gets selected. 

Writing in the NY Post, Michael Riedel lays the problem squarely at the feet of the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League for legitimizing mediocrity saying "60 years past the civil-rights movement, Broadway and its 700 mummified Tony voters still think a musical about integrating the high-school dance is cutting edge. What's really going on here is the corruption of the Tony Award, which once upon a time really did stand for American theater at its best."  He is referring to Memphis here.

Furthering the argument that "it's the economy, stupid," the arts have been relegated by many to the status of "luxury item" for years.  This includes diminished funding for the arts and more importantly diminished funding for teaching arts in schools.  This is the first thing to go when times get hard.  I wouldn't expect to find any solution to this problem from a federal or state agency any time soon.  The theatre community needs to find ways to educate the audiences of tomorrow themselves without having to rely on the government to do it.  The government is either unwilling or just not interested enough.  Oh, but wait, we have a war to fight!  Where are my priorities.

* Ticket prices taken from "Opening Night on Broadway - A Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of the Musical Theatre, Oklahoma (1943) to Fiddler on the Roof (1964)" by Steven Suskind

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Last modified on Tuesday, 29 June 2010 22:16
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