If I’m known for anything, it’s for taking intrinsically serious subjects and making light of them. (Such as the first comedy revue created in New York after 9/11, We Built This City On Rent Control.) Today, in a stunning reversal, I’m taking something written a few days ago just to be whimsical, and taking it for serious.
It’s a fun little blog entry by long-time Village Voice man-about-town, Michael Musto. For me, La Dolce Musto has long been one of the turn-to reads of the free weekly: bound to make me smile. The Voice, in its arts section, has the dean of New York theatre critics, Michael Feingold. I call him the dean because he’s been reviewing longer than anyone else, but also because he can take on a professorial tone, and, like me, wrote Columbia’s Varsity Show back in the day. I mention Feingold to underscore the idea that the Voice has serious theatre coverage in a different part of the tabloid; Musto’s strictly for laughs.
As a member of a certain kind of community (should it be called café society?), Musto’s aware that there are people and there are people. Broadway’s doing quite well in terms of number of tickets sold. But a distinction often gets drawn between out-of-towners, who may not be into theatre but feel Broadway attendance is an essential part of a visit to New York, and those who reside in the New York metropolitan area. Enough tourists are cramming into Broadway houses to make the comparative dearth of people-like-us seem unimportant.
“’Seems,’ Madame?” I don’t wish to sound like a snob, but, I accept it: I’m gonna. A Broadway designed for the tourist who’ll be visiting the city once a year or less is obviously going to be different than one fashioned for the more habitual stage aficionado. And I can’t mention this distinction without thinking about the issue of why so many theatre district restaurants are so awful.Businesses, generally, are looking for repeat customers. Eateries in my neighborhood do what they do as well as they can, in part, because they hope to see my face again. Those Hell’s Kitchen kitchens who cater only to tourists have no reasonable hope of any repeat business. Diners often choose them due to proximity to the theatre they’re going to that night.
Oh yes, the theatre: We’re supposed to be talking about Broadway shows here. Like the hapless hash-slinger, a show that’s catering only to tourists needs elements to attract out-of-town customers: a star who’s famous due to television, a title Joe Visitor will recognize, usually a recent-vintage movie name, a certain amount of flash, a good logo. In stark contrast, a show that caters to Metropolitan area theatre-goers must feature actors who are good rather than famous, intelligent writing that contains a fair portion of surprise, more subtext/less glitter.
Mining for punch-lines, Michael Musto quotes various New Yorkers on the subject of Broadway’s tourist trap shows. The thing of it is, these shows manage to co-exist with more adventurous fare. At a play, on Broadway, called Jerusalem, my mind reeled with the wide array of literary allusions. Felt like I was back in college. That’s not something many tourists are likely to appreciate. Elsewhere on Broadway, there are long-running musicals like Wicked, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys that you don’t need a college education to get. Musto’s second quote: “It’s hard to find really adventurous theater. So I’ll just stick to TV, thank you. And yes, I’m aware of my own ironies.” Whatever one thinks of Tony-winners Once, Next To Normal and Spring Awakening, it’s only fair to describe them as “adventurous.”
Since Broadway is a place where economics drives artistic decisions, the kind of audience that’s coming to The Street affects us all. Over my lifetime, there’s been an evolution from a theatre designed for habitual show-attendees from the New York area to a show-land increasingly geared toured tourists. For short-hand, let us say that the Baby Boomers became the first generation of New Yorkers with a certain amount of disposable income to opt to not go to the theatre. My parents’ generation, when it wasn’t summer, barely a week went by without taking in a play. My mother saved the Playbills to prove it. The Boomers, though, liked doing other things. Attending rock concerts became a much more common activity than listening to all kinds of live music had been before. The meal-as-destination idea (there I go on restaurants, again) was a new creation – the idea that you and some friends would go out to eat and that’s all you’d do in a night. Certainly, as Musto’s men and women point out, television replaced theatre-going in many people’s lives.
But what about the contention that the shows are no damn good? My parents saw Williams and Miller plays, plus musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Williams, Miller, R&H and L&L were able to thrive because they had a relatively homogenous cadre of smart repeat customers. Where are their likes today? Well, as Miller and Lerner lived to learn, the audience for their admirably intelligent works dried up. In order to make money, a smart writer has to look towards other media. I’ve mentioned before that writers of my generation who’d demonstrated a real talent for writing musical theatre, Joe Keenan and the team of Marta Kauffman and David Crane, chose to go out to Hollywood to write television. Their combined incomes over the years are roughly half a billion dollars, so it seems a wise choice.
Economic issues, such as the weak(-er) dollar, led to an increase in New York’s tourist population. Too much of the credit, about the revitalization of Times Square, has gone to credit-grabbing former mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But no one can deny the Theatre District has become a tourist-friendly Disneyland, complete with a store that sells nothing but M&Ms. And so the number of visitors is way up. And the number of tickets sold to Broadway shows is way up. Even if the prices are too damn high. As long as enough people keep paying those prices, there will be no market pressure to lower them.