The Broad-a-way Charleston

When the League of Broadway Producers shuffles some numbers and proudly proclaims we just had a great and lucrative season, I greet that news with half a smile, half a smirk. But yes: these are good times to be peddling dreck.

Yes, I’m aware of the snobbery of that statement, but I’m prepared to defend it. I’ll also acknowledge the inherent stink of sour grapes, because I’d certainly like a show on Broadway. I’m certainly not saying my shows are too good for The Boulevard. And one more acknowledgement: for musicals, this was a far better season than most years in the past quarter century: five shows premiered that are likely to be done again. I’m not complaining about Kinky Boots, Matilda, A Christmas Story, Bring It On and Hands on a Hardbody entering the repertory.

You have to look beyond the headline here to get the pertinent news.  This year continued a trend: seats on Broadway, to an increasing extent, were filled by tourists.  Now, I’m not about to launch yet another tirade about tourists – you know, those people who stop at the end of sidewalks, like Notre Dame linemen, refusing to let the natives cross the street.  Or when they ask cops for directions, as if I’d ever go to their towns and distract a police officer from keeping people safe.  No, I realize they bring a lot of money into the city.  Gotta appreciate, especially, the influx of simoleons into our fabulous invalid.  And today I stared at a box office sign that read “General seats: $135; Premium seats: $200.” Keep paying that, and the theatres will hire private cops to make up for the ones you distract.  (This actually happens.)

Allow me to cop to a personal weakness: Practically everything I know about writing musicals is based on Broadway’s old model. I’ve studied the twentieth century musicals that get performed across the country, again and again. But we’re in a new century now, and Broadway has a new audience.

Used to be, writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Comden and Green, Harnick and Bock, and the esteemed Stephen Sondheim tailored their musicals for a community of habitual theatre-goers, living in the New York Metropolitan area. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to them as the New York Mets. Also because I like the New York Mets.)

Now, industry statistics tell us, the Mets have been displaced by the tourist trade: people from all over the country, all over the world, who don’t regularly go to the theatre. They figure, they’re visiting New York, they might as well take in a show. And, given how scarce the Mets have become, it’s not so much do as the New Yorkers do as it is do as the New Yorkers did.

When the great musicals were written, writers understood what the New York Mets understood. They knew the language, the idioms, the allusions you could make. If shows were smarter then, it’s because they were written for a smarter audience.

I don’t mean to imply that people attending Broadway today are idiots. But a geographically diverse audience naturally doesn’t speak the same language. Idioms are greeted with blank stares. Allusions are lost. New shows are fashioned to meet the expectations of people from Peoria.

Which reminds me of the origin of the phrase “the lady from Dubuque.”  Way back when The New Yorker was born, the founders positioned their weekly as being the polar opposite of Time, the national magazine geared for all Americans.  They vowed to provide a higher quality of writing, a brilliance synonymous with the City, and stated that their magazine was not for the lady from Dubuque.

I wander around the theatre district today and find a lot of shows Dubuquers would find delightful, but not so much for New Yorkers. In musicals, that translates to a lot of familiar-sounding tunes, cliché-filled lyrics, and stories that are already familiar because we all remember that movie we sort of enjoyed a few years ago. Sure, this is a matter of taste, but as a New Yorker, I expect to be surprised every now and then: by a turn of plot, by a musical phrase taking an unexpected turn, by a wordsmith finding a fresh way of saying things.

And that’s how I write.  I write as if everyone who attends my shows will be one of those New York Mets, who attends theatre with some regularity.  Back when Backstage included theatre criticism (remember those days?), the following was written about one of my shows, a Critic’s Pick:

The show, however, feels far less like a period piece than a straightforward revival of an actual musical from Broadway’s Golden Age.
A wily wizard with words, Katz has created a show that, despite his tuneful, toe-tapping music, derives its primary entertainment value from verbal humor. This is the kind of musical that’s not been made for Broadway in a long time. With its witty references to literary figures and historical events, Such Good Friends not only emulates the creative techniques of musical makers of the past but seems written for Broadway audiences of a bygone era — those more homogenous, midcentury New York theatre audiences who possessed a common body of knowledge, a certain level of education, and shared cultural backgrounds and attitudes.

In a way, I’ve spent a lot of time searching for that kind of audience. And I’m sad to report that those smart New Yorkers have been given their walking papers. How does one fashion live entertainment for the tourist trade?  I’ve no idea.

And in one wacky irony, there’s a guy in Dubuque who’s trying to convince me I can find my kind of people there.


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