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.