Songs for the Struggling Artist

Why I still give a shit what they do on Broadway
October 30, 2012, 12:00 am
Filed under: art, business, theatre | Tags: , , ,

I know it’s commercial. I know it’s market driven. I know that the handful of people that produce the majority of shows are a handful of lunatics. I know that the process that Broadway shows go through to make it to the stage is so antithetical to art that it’s a miracle that anything of value ever makes it to the stage at all. I know there’s no overarching body watching over what happens there and the themes are no one’s responsibility. And I still give a shit.
Here’s why:

Our entire theatre culture is aimed at Broadway. We are built to look toward Broadway as the ultimate goal of all that we do. This is partly to do with tradition, in that it has always been thus and partly to do with the fact that there is nowhere else to look if you’re looking for the top of the theatre mountain. We don’t have a national theatre. And as Americans we can’t help but look up. Our culture is aspirational. The American Dream is built on climbing a mountain and Broadway is the only mountain we have.

One could argue that regional theatres were set up as a way to create other more local, community appropriate, non-profit mountains. They were set up to do this. But they don’t. Not most of them. Not anymore.

Regional theatres are now the stepping stones to Broadway: the old out of town try-outs of yore, but sneakier. Shows are sent through the regional system by Broadway producers with enhancement deals. A Broadway producer with an interest in a show will bring it to a regional theatre, along with a whole lot of cash, and suggest that they produce it. If Broadway is the factory, the regionals are the parts manufacturers, getting things ready for the assembly.

Broadway is the ultimate expression of the theatre culture, if not in the theatre makers minds, then in the minds of the general public. Introduce me to a practitioner of theatre and I’ll introduce you to someone who has heard, “Can’t wait to see you on Broadway someday!” – to their delight, if that’s where they want to go or their horror if it’s not. As far as many Americans are concerned, the only theatre that exists is Broadway and the only value our work will ever have for them is when it “makes it” there.

The average American believes that Broadway represents the best that American theatre has to offer. He perhaps imagines that some invisible committee has looked at all the theatre in the land and decided what is the best, most worthy of the resources available. When he sees something that he doesn’t much care for, he might assume that he just doesn’t much care of theatre in general, since he assumes that what is on Broadway represents the best of the litter. The average American believes in a meritocracy of theatre, that the cream rises to the top and that top is Broadway. Those of us IN the theatre recognize that this not only ain’t necessarily so but is sometimes entirely the opposite. But even then it takes a good long time and a lot of exposure to shake this belief.

Broadway is a little bit like the USA TV network. Occasionally, it will make a sort of interesting piece of work like Monk or Burn Notice or something (I haven’t actually seen these shows, I’m just going on hearsay) but mostly it produces re-runs or takes mediocre ideas, irons out the interesting unusual bits and throws a lot of money into polishing and marketing up the turd.

So I give a shit what they do there on Broadway because it represents what the rest of the world thinks about American theatre in general. And what happens on Broadway trickles back down the theatre pipeline as well as effecting things on the way up. Work that made it to Broadway will next be seen at the regional theatres – the ones that didn’t get a shot at the thing on the way up. From there, it will make its way to community theatre, then universities and schools. What happens on Broadway dominates both sides of the mountain it sits upon – so when commercial producers make work that is sexist or racist or just dumb – that pollutes the entire American Theatre Pool. And I’m a little bit tired of that pool being so full of shit.


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