David Rohde, a talented theater profession in the Washington, D.C. area and one of the smart ones too, has some thoughtful observations on the performing arts world’s adjustment to the Wuhan virus. Here is his Comment of the Day on Item #2 in “Sunday Ethics Warm-Up, 8/1/2021: Simone Biles-Free Zone Edition!”
I’ll be back at the end to return is volley on the future of live theater…
I agree with you that the universal masking requirement at Broadway theaters is likely to depress sales, even among those patrons who don’t yet think it matters. When they actually decide whether to go or not, hesitation is likely to creep in. I’ve been to several masked (and, in these cases, distanced) performances of things during the pandemic, and a universal feeling among the performers – who, yes, sense the audience even if there’s a “fourth wall” involved – is that it’s an odd atmosphere because they can’t read facial reactions.
It appears that performing arts presenters in general are trying to get “through the moment” by issuing clear, simple rules to get their institutions reopened. But if you really want to see a furious reaction, check out what happened after the Metropolitan Opera followed up its earlier announcement of required proof of vaccination with an edict that all children under 12 would simply be banned from the building. (As opposed to Broadway’s approach that families can bring proof of a negative test for their kids who are not yet eligible for vaccination.)
You can argue that fewer operas are geared toward attendance by children of those ages than musicals. But the Met’s announcement appeared to touch several cultural third rails, from an accusation that the opera company was acting in almost a Salem Witch Trials manner to a reaction that the Met was killing all global efforts to prove that opera isn’t only for old people. People posted photos on Twitter (I know I know, Twitter) of having taken 10-year-olds to the Met to introduce them to opera, and numerous people pointed out that actually quite a number of famous operas feature children’s choirs somewhere within their plots. The Met actually has a number of distinct challenges in opening its season on time, and this reaction, even leaving aside the obvious trolls and Twitter fakers who are reacting on that platform, is yet one more hurdle.
All that said, one thing I’ve never understood, Jack, is your frequent assertion that live theater is in big trouble in America. If you want to assert in general that the live performing arts outside of popular music, especially as it tends toward the classical arts, often struggles to renew and replace its audience in America, and has to huff and puff to maintain its viability under the American model of little public financial support, then I understand. But in fact Broadway, far from struggling, was booming before the pandemic. Opera companies around the country, to save their finances, now tend to fill out their season schedules with musicals, starting with perceived artsy pieces like Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” but now even including “Oklahoma” and “The Sound of Music.” High school theater programs over time have gone from a perceived geekiness to a cooler place on the teenage cultural spectrum. At the risk of pointing to my own work, I explored all this in an article that I used to initiate my Medium channel last November. It’s titled “Six things that classical music can learn from Broadway after the pandemic” and I think it holds up fine. You can find it here if I’m allowed to link it, thanks:
I’m back, but only to address David’s optimism about the future of live theater. Several decades ago, a survey indicated that more Americans had called a phone psychic than had ever gone to a live theater even in their entire lives. Yes, I know, but even if that stat was exaggerated, I see nothing to indicate that participation has improved in the intervening years. I find it interesting (and telling) that the theater industry hasn’t done any publicly released surveys on the matter sine 2013. Why this is should be obvious: the entire industry feeds at the government’s teat. It’s already welfare for the rich, like PBS. Theater professionals don’t want to advertise the fact that live theater, once a mainstay of community, society and cultural cohesion, is increasingly a fringe activity for the wealthy, the elderly, and the stubbornly cultured.
Broadway is the Mecca for elite theatergoers, and at this point barely relevant to the discussion. Ticket prices are prohibitively expensive; even half-price tickets are expensive. Road versions of Broadway shows are only slightly less pricey. Meanwhile, even before the pandemic, the symptoms of cultural decline were beyond dispute.
Who is an acclaimed and well-known playwright whose works are eagerly awaited and guaranteed of success? There aren’t any. What was the last nationally known non-musical hit that the average American might recognize? I’d guess “Angels in America.” It premiered 30 years ago. Who took over for Neil Simon as the preeminent writer of stage comedies? Nobody. Who are the current Broadway musical creators with a string of hits and more likely to come? Jerry Herman is dead. Stephen Sondheim is in his nineties. Andrew Lloyd Webber hasn’t had a hit since the 20th Century. Lin-Manuel Miranda created “Hamilton”, of course, but he isn’t committed to live theater, and is pursuing projects in TV, movies, and as a performer.
Once upon a time there were theater actors and actresses who were household names. I can’t think of one today. The best known Broadway performers are celebrities from other mediums, like Hugh Jackman, aka “Wolverine,” who with luck will soon be starring in a revival of “The Music Man”—the most eagerly awaited Broadway musical in the coming season, and it’s 63 years old.
Meanwhile, many critics and observers are predicting that going to theaters to see movies is in a hopeless decline, thanks to laziness, “Bowling Alone” and streaming. And yet live theater will thrive? This is magical thinking. It is in the process of taking its sad place alongside ballet and opera as elite amusements for a tiny percentage of the population, kept alive by charitable largess and government subsidies. Sure, there will still be high school musicals, college theater clubs and community theaters, but they will become rarer and more irrelevant to the culture as the years pass, especially as political correctness makes all entertainment attempts dangerous.
I am not happy about this development, and I am certain we will all be poorer for it. Nonetheless, I think denying the evidence is just that…denial.