You might have heard that over the last few years, Broadway has experienced something of a renaissance. Box office records have been broken and new shows have been both critical and commercial successes. Those who not so long ago suggested that American theatre wouldn’t survive in the age of digital home entertainment and spectacle on demand have been proved decisively wrong.
Why Broadway Theatre Matters
Amidst the general explosion of theatrical talent in the US, Broadway has maintained its position as the place where the very best is on show, and where creators still aspire to work. Broadway has moved with the times, and these days it includes shows that are every bit as cutting edge and experimental as those to be found in an East Village loft- just with more professionalism and higher production values.
Although known for feel-good productions and all-singing, all-dancing spectaculars, Broadway has never shied away from tackling sensitive social and political issues. And at a moment when all eyes are watching the latest developments on Capitol Hill, Broadway once more seems to have its finger on the pulse of the nation. Hard-hitting political drama is the order of the day, and even if these look at historical events, contemporary resonances are hard to avoid.
The Great Society, produced by Louise Gund at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, deals with the last years of Lyndon B Johnson’s presidency, from 1965 to 1968. These were years of great turbulence, marked by race riots, assassinations and the escalation of the Vietnam War, yet Brian Cox plays Johnson as a flawed idealist and ultimately a tragic hero. Robert Schenkkan’s script shows a very different kind of president to the one America sees today: an old-fashioned politician who combined cunning with moral purpose.
Closer to our own times, Heroes From The Fourth Turning by Will Arbery is an ensemble piece that looks sympathetically at the concerns of a group of conservative Catholics as they return to their old college. Their viewpoints may be far from those of typical liberal NYC theatregoers, but the characters are portrayed as having humanity and intellectual rigour as they debate and disagree with each other, uniting only in their perhaps surprising disdain for President Trump.
The musical reborn
Broadway is also re-inventing the American musical for a more complex era, and audiences that won’t settle for the simplistic platitudes of yesteryear. Today’s theatregoers expect to see stereotypes questioned and contemporary issues addressed, while also enjoying a visual spectacle that measures up to the standards of the latest cinema blockbusters and Netflix shows that they consume daily. But more than anything, they still want to hear a great song.
The likes of Alice By Heart, Ain’t Too Proud, Be More Chill, Hadestown and Moulin Rouge are set to follow in the footsteps of breakout successes like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. The musical theatre now encompasses far more variety and diversity, in terms of subject matter, format, staging, casting, and creators. Today’s musicals aren’t afraid to tackle politics and prejudice head-on and to apply a traditional, potentially old-fashioned method of storytelling to a modern narrative.
Michael R Jackson’s A Strange Loop looks at issues of race and sexuality while creating a musical within a musical, via an ingenious meta-narrative that’s suggested by the musical’s title. Be More Chill adds a contemporary pop score to a knowingly retro-influenced science fiction tale about high school bullying, peer pressure, and nerd culture. Described as a “maximalist pop fantasia” Be More Chill is unashamedly about style first but it also has plenty of substance.
Ain’t Too Proud is the latest in the current trend of musicals based on the songs of major heritage pop acts, in this case being built around the hits of the Temptations. These musicals succeed in two ways: they attract an audience that is already familiar with the songs and comes out largely to hear them performed, and they also rejuvenate interest in the back catalogue of the artist in question. Although the songs featured were not written to be included in a musical, they are worked into a narrative that casts them in a new light and, in the best examples, reframes our relationship with the pop culture we grew up with.
Ultimately, Broadway theatre has won out not by competing with TV, movies and online entertainment, but by playing to its strengths and giving audiences the things they can only get from live shows. Broadway at its best is visceral, vibrant and an unforgettable live experience. In our mediated age there is a huge craving for art that is experienced at the moment and feels real. Broadway satisfies this need in a way that other forms can’t. When you go to a Broadway show you know you are going to get theatre that is of the absolute highest standard in the world. It is the gold standard of a rejuvenated art form.