Give My Regards To Broadway

Broadway is officially irrelevant to American culture, and it’s their own damn fault.

A half-century ago, Broadway fare provided rich common content for Americans of all classes, creeds and ages. It was rare when a song from a Broadway musical wasn’t on the Top 40. Cast albums were found in most households. Broadway dramas provided the sources for a high percentage of non-musical movies.

Books could be written and have been about the forces that sent The Great White Way reeling toward irrelevancy, from popular music moving away from forms that told stories taking musical scores off the charts for good, to TV supplanting both movies and live stage as  the primary source of drama. Substantially, however, the problem is financial. Unions drove the prices of live theater to an unsustainable level, to the point where most American have no opportunity to see a professional stage show and no desire to spend their resources so recklessly if they did. Broadway shows are routinely priced at three figures, and even far away from Broadway, like near me in Arlington, Virginia, single tickets for musicals often top a hundred dollars. Well, as the Ancient Greeks and Elizabethans knew, live theater is important cultural connective tissue, permitting common experience, group bonding, and mass emotional release. It’s healthy for society, and was once thought to be essential. No more.

The Broadway League has released the results of its annual audience survey, which are being called “good news.” I call the results death throes. The survey already cooked the books by only surveying Broadway ticket buyer, which is a tiny and shrinking percentage of the public.

Among the findings:

  • That good news was that the average age of the Broadway theatergoer last season was 40.6, the lowest it’s been since 2000. 15% of all theatergoers are under 18 years old,, with the average age at a musical at 39,  51.5 at a play. Got it: more very rich people are taking their kids to see Broadway shows. Meanwhile, the family-friendly shows are not teaching new things or breaking new ground, for they are mostly re-hashes of movies the less affluent kids can see for almost nothing, and are better versions too.. Here are current shows deemed “family friendly”: “Frozen,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” “Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants,” as well as the continuing runs of “Aladdin,” “Anastasia,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Hamilton,” “The Lion King,” “The Play That Goes Wrong,” “School of Rock” and “Wicked.” Let’s see: four adaptations of Disney animated films, an animated TV show, Harry Potter, two hit movie comedies about schools, teachers and parents, and a couple others.

So Broadway producers pandering to families seeking low-brow “culture” have succeed in masking the aging of the core Broadway audience.

  • The percentage of the Broadway audience made up of people from the New York area continues to rise, with 38 % of Broadway patrons were from the New York metro area, with 20% from New York City. Increasingly Broadway is a local phenomenon.

A question nobody asked: How many people from west of the Mississippi saw a Broadway show last year? Or wanted to?

  • The average annual household income of a Broadway ticket buyer : $222,120!

So these performers and artists who lecture us at the Tonys about diversity and inclusiveness exist almost entirely to serve rich people (who are also overwhelmingly white) with advanced educational degrees. (81% had a college degree and 41% had a graduate degree.)  Here’s another question I’d like to see answered: what percentage of people making the median U.S. household income of $59,000 could name three current Broadway shows, or hum a single song from a Broadway musical?

  • The Broadway audience is 8.2 per cent Hispanic, 8.5 per cent Asian, and 2.9 per cent black.

So much for live theater as a tool for unifying society.

  • Broadway-goers are 66% female. I would love to know what percentage of the audiences for musicals are heterosexual males who aren’t being dragged there by their wives. Broadway could have taken steps to ensure that its musicals didn’t carry the stigma of being a taste mostly acquired by women and gay males, but it didn’t, in part because gays dominate the industry, on stage and off, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The problem is that what was once seen as a vibrant part of the whole culture has pigeon-holed itself as a gay empire. Here’s another question I’d like to know the answer to: What percentage of straight males 25 or younger are interested in Broadway musicals today? I’d guess the answer is single digits, and gays in the industry apparently don’t care.

Listen to the hosts on the Sirius-XM Broadway Channel some time. I dare you.

Broadway had a tremendous influence on my interests and my life growing up, and the cultural touch-points I gleaned from my activities in theater and musical theater literally benefit me every day. The retreat of live professional theater on the highest level into the remote, elitist niches now occupied by vestigial cultural forms like symphony orchestras, opera companies and ballet will leave a large void in American society, as well as in the education and cultural literacy of our young, with consequences that are impossible to predict.

It all happened because those entrusted with keeping a cultural resource vital and accessible capitulated to greed, selfishness and arrogance.


8 thoughts on “Give My Regards To Broadway

  1. Thanks, Jack. You are chronicling a tragedy for all of us. You get right to the point.

    [I would nitpick at your use of the wonderful and dolorous adjective “vestigial” when describing opera and symphony and ballet though: my 19 year old daughter and some of her friends show us all hope for the next generation in loving these forms.]

  2. I must be an exception as a hetero and VERY conservative white male who still loves Broadway musicals, though I don’t go that often because of the price tag. Let’s not forget the almost complete death of the oratorio form, except for poorly rehearsed community presentations of “Messiah.”

  3. In the 1950s and into the early 1960s I attended many musicals in NYC. My father was a businessman who had no affinity for the theater or sports with the exception of boxing. Monthly we would go to NYC – usually stay and the Astor or Plaza – and my mother would take me to baseball games in exchange for me attending the theater. Did I love the musical theater? I tolerated it, but strange things happen and as I got older I would attend shows especially when Boston would host tryouts.

    I am now retired and have been for 12 years with no fiscal worries. I exposed my children to the theater and my daughter has certainly made a visit at least five times a year. The exception. Five boys have no interest.

    My granddaughter is turning seven and we have taken her The Lion King, Alladin, and a few other shows on Broadway and Boston. The idea is to cultivate an interest, to point out staging to her, the book, the dance captain and all the other filler that goes into a show. She actually is beginning to “get it.” And the important thing is she loves it.

    Locally Boston is an attractive place for the musical theater with college productions, local theater, venues such as Pricilla Beach Theater in Plymouth, and even some high school productions.

    I am not sure how you would classify “The Best” in musical theater, but little compares to Stanley Hollaway in “My Fair Lady” or even Lucy Ball in “Wildcat.” And of course an extensive list of the shows I saw as a teen from “The King and I” to “Bye, Bye Birdie.” But does today’s theater compare? For me it does, but it is cost prohibitive for most folks.

    The “Dishing Diva’s” is difficult to digest on Sirius, but still, some quality interviews do take place. Small doses are best when Seth speaks. I think, Jack, your mention of just the word “elitist” summarizes what has now become the exclusionary quality of the musical theater. My daughter and wife are attending Hamilton during the coming week and just how many Joe & Jane’s can dish out $300+ for each ticket in the balcony?

    Great article, Jack, and thank you for letting me take a trip down memory lane – I will avoid comments on how my mother would take me to Toots Shors after the theater.

  4. Jack, you are right: Broadway is out of reach of most common Americans in fly over country. We would have to travel to New York (already a strike for most here) and pay several car payments in room, food and ticket costs. After the lack luster economy of the Obama years, not many are willing to do so.

    The good news is that theater is alive and well: community theater is thriving, and ticket prices are reasonable. Saw a play just this weekend put on by the teen troupe of our local community theater (my daughter worked the sound)

  5. My introduction to Broadway came via my junior high school social studies teacher. Mr. Frank Scala from JHS 218, knew that live theater was an essential part of education. He arranged and chaperoned a “field trip” to see the late Ann Bancroft and Patty Duke perform “The Miracle Worker.”
    As a maturing adolescent and young adult, from a blue collar family, I saved my money to attend as many live theater productions as I could. As you point that is now a financial impossibility. In addition in the past Broadway production uplifted the human experience with comedy and pathos. Today, Broadway companies produce little in the way of that extols or exposes the human person. I am saddened about the devolvement of the theaters and the entertainment industry in general.

  6. I agree, and I’m personally frustrated with all the rehashing.

    That said, I’d like to add that while it has a very meme-y, late 2010s sensibility that probably won’t age well, the Spongebob Squarepants musical is way, way better than it needed to be.

  7. New York City is out of reach of most people I know. I think I have met only 2 people in the last 20 years who have gone to NYC. One went there for summer research paid for by the NSF, the other worked their as an attorney for a few years. To put the Broadway ticket buyer in perspective, less than 0.4% of the households in my state make $200,000 or more each year. My entire life, Broadway has been by, and for the rich and I never even thought about seeing a Broadway show. To put the ticket prices in perspective, I paid $35 to see Merle Haggard in concert in a theater seating only 1000 people the year before he died. I’m glad I saw him in person. Not everyone is willing to admit to diminishing skills as they age and few would sit down to change their work to make it fit their abilities, but he had and it sounded good. I only had to go 5 miles from my house to the concert.

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