It’s Not the Audience
Who goes to Broadway shows? According to The Broadway League, about 70% of Broadway tickets are sold to tourists. Twenty-one percent of these tourists are from countries other than the United States.
Most of these visitors to New York City take in a show after a long day of ascending to the top of the Empire State Building, ferrying over to the Statue of Liberty and walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. In addition, international tourists may speak English as a second language. They are tired, footsore and a bit confused.
Is it any wonder so many of these weary, overwhelmed people prefer a light musical over a penetrating, perhaps disturbing drama exploring social problems or pushing the boundaries of conventional theater?
Theater aficionados often deplore the poor taste of people who are paying for the tickets that keep the seats full in Broadway theaters. What they should really be doing is marveling at how many people are willing to squirm uncomfortably in those seats.
Although The Visit closed far too soon, this revelatory musical that challenged us to examine boundless greed and the limits of love was seen and appreciated by many theatergoers. This season dramas tackled problems from autism to racism. Perhaps the cognoscenti should be paying more attention to those producers who lure unsuspecting tourist and New Yorkers into third-rate shows by casting big-name stars in roles they are either unprepared for or cannot save from triviality.
Constellations featured Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, movie and television actors with little to recommend them for live theater other than their fame, endlessly repeating the same scenes in a variety of ways and discussing why it’s impossible to lick your elbows. The principle merit of The River, another play with philosophical pretensions, was watching the formidable Hugh Jackman prepare a fish for dinner.
Creating theater that is entertaining and thought-provoking is not impossible. The Greeks did it. Shakespeare did it. They understood how to speak to people honestly. Some believe making money and making people think are antithetical. George Bernard Shaw in the UK and Arthur Miller in the US proved the contrary.
There’s room for everyone on Broadway. Grandma is not so easily shocked. Junior is smarter than you think. Laughter co-exists with tears. We don’t need better audiences. We need producers who respect the audience as much as their pocketbooks.
September 28, 2015