Broadway looks for the weird, the wonderful and the reliable

The success of "Hamilton" finds Broadway headed down many different roads at once

By MISHA BERSON

In case you haven’t heard, “Hamilton” cleaned up at the Tony Awards (16 nominations, 11 wins), and remains the most coveted, hardest-to-score ticket since, well, the early days of “Rent.” So will Broadway soon be deluged with other rapping hip-hop musicals that deconstruct/reconstruct American history?

It’s more likely that “Hamilton” creator-star Lin-Manuel Miranda, his director Thomas Kail and other collaborators on this smash-smash hit are <em>sui generis</em> theater artists, who have blended musical idioms, pop culture stylings, ethnic diversity and historical fascination into an original secret sauce. And who would have the chutzpah, or know-how, to follow up their blockbuster with an au courant “John Quincy Adams, the Musical”?

Considering Broadway musical theater over the past decade, we appear to now be in a polyglot aesthetic era distinguished by two driving forces: the hunt for something boldly new and different yet broadly appealing; and the ongoing rebooting of and clinging to comforting classics from the past.

The Broadway musical "Hamilton" swept the Tony Awards and represents one of the trends on Broadway/Public Theater

The Broadway musical “Hamilton” swept the Tony Awards and represents one of the trends on Broadway/Public Theater

The thirst for newness does not, alas, extend to nurturing and showcasing more than an occasional contemporary American play. (I’ll be amazed if the best new drama now on Broadway, Stephen Karam’s blistering, Tony-honored family portrait “The Humans,” lasts an entire year on the Great White Way before it is rightfully snatched up by a regional playhouse near you.)

Of course, Broadway is constantly in a state of reinvention as is imperative in a market economy and restlessly shifting society.

Setting plays aside, one can roughly divide Broadway into epochs—from the incipient vaudeville-revue-operetta musical era of the early 1900s, to the savvy froth and Tin Pan Alley wonders of the ‘20s and ‘30s and the “Golden Era” of book musicals in the ‘40s-‘60s, through the British/French pop-opera phase of the 1980s, into the 1990s and early 2000s heyday of Disney transfers and jukebox shows, and of late, the craze for translating movies into live musicals.

But currently the trend is really no-trend, or all-trend. Everything is up for grabs; anything could be a hit (or flop).

While Broadway has always been a theater mall where variety and one-stop-shopping is key, it’s even more so now, as my theater trip to New New York City this spring confirmed. With production and promotion costs sky-high and the average face-value admission price exceeding $100 for a legit play (and much more for a hit musical), producers are intent on shoring up ongoing cash cows (“Phantom of the Opera,” “Wicked” and “Chicago” are now the longest-running shows in Broadway history ) and, investing in ostensibly “safe,” classy revivals of beloved old hits. (In the 2015-16 season, they included a sixth Broadway staging of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and next-season will usher in the fifth coming of “Hello, Dolly!.”)

But there’s also a feverish hunt on for the next brilliant, bankable maverick (a la Stephen Sondheim, Bob Fosse and now Miranda) to shake up the status quo and give more and different people reasons to visit New York’s vaunted theater center. And there is no choice for producers other than to stretch the definition of what a Broadway musical is, and gamble on experiments. Even musicals that come through our current expanding national pipeline, and have been critic- and audience-tested in regional theaters like Portland Center Stage or Off Broadway first, are a gamble in today’s boom-or-bust show mart. (According to one reliable source, an average Broadway musical costs $8-$12 million to produce; “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark” cost a whopping $75 million.)

The reliable white, older tourist and New York metro theatergoers, habitual attendees who consider Broadway a necessary luxury, are dwindling by attrition. And according to a recent Broadway League study, the average age of ticket buyers is now 44. Betting on shows aimed at younger, pop culture-savvy and to some degree more adventurous and open-minded patrons, many of them new to bigtime theater, is not only the right thing to do. It’s an economic (and cultural) imperative.

These coveted, restless Gen-X, Y, and Millennial patrons in their 20s through 40s (and their young children) are also essential to the even more lucrative spin-off business of Broadway national tours, which  fan out to West Coast cities including San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

Scanning the Tony Award winners and nominees for best new Broadway musical over the last decade, one finds plenty of revivals and conventional newer fare, but also a marked uptick in strikingly contemporary works that are groundbreaking in form and/or content.

Broadway is no longer squeamish (or shockable), for instance, about sexual candor in such shows. In 2007 the potent, graphic  tragi-musical version of the Frank Wedekind play “Spring Awakening,” about the sexual blossoming of repressed youth, triumphed at the Tonys over the G-rated Disney show, “Mary Poppins.” (The latter ran 2619 performances versus 859 for “Spring Awakening,” but there’s no doubt which property had greater artistic impact, or excited more teens and young adults.)

In 2008, performer-composer-writer Lin-Manuel Miranda made his first Broadway splash (and copped his first best-musical Tony) for “In the Heights,” a rousing, salsa-infused celebration of urban diversity set in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Though in format a conventional book musical, its incorporated rap dialogue was noteworthy (and a warm-up to “Hamilton”). And “In the Heights” was also, significantly, the first Broadway musical entry in 50 years (since “West Side Story”) to focus on Latino characters, among others.

In 2009, “Next to Normal” (a Tony winner for the Brian Yorkey-Tom Kitt original score), was a chamber-sized rock drama that unflinchingly confronted severe mental illness—opening the Broadway musical to the searching studies of family dynamics so prominent in American plays. In 2010, profane punk rock and George W. Bush-era discontent blasted through the Tony-nominated “American Idiot,” adapted from Green Day’s monster hit concept album.

“The Book of Mormon” smashed all notions of religious reverence on Broadway, with its antic, unbound take on Mormonism, drenched in populist comic irony. And last year the poignant  “Fun Home,” which scrambled time and narration in offbeat ways, frankly conveyed a bittersweet growing-up-lesbian story, and became the first Broadway success based on a graphic novel.

None of the above (with the exception of “Book of Mormon”) was the kind of cultural and financial phenom “Hamilton” has become, from its first instantly-sold-out premiere engagement at New York’s Public Theater onward. And all shared the Great White Way with more conventional new “book musicals,” like the current romantic comedy tuner “Waitress” and the faux-Elizabethean musical romp, “Something Rotten!.”

But while scattered sui generis musicals by American creators have always pushed the field forward, socially and aesthetically, Broadway is now more dependent on them for profits and prizes than on blue-ribbon revivals or retro-new works. The up-front sexuality, inter-racial and multi-cultural diversity are here to stay—whether in “Hamilton,” with its black and Latino founding fathers, or in a salsa peppered, bio-jukebox-revue like “On Your Feet,” based on the life and music of Cuban-American pop star Gloria Estefan.

There’s no turning back on this—how could there 0r should there be in a nation in which, by 2020 according to the U.S. Bureau of Census, more than half of U.S. children will be part of a minority race or ethnic group? But it’s just as imperative that the artistic boundaries get stretched. While I love a grand, timeless Golden Era musical like “My Fair Lady” or “Pajama Game” as much as any Baby Boomer critic with a showtune jones, it’s also clear we have a big stock of them in the archive already. And as tastes, expectations and social demographics evolve, so must the musical dramas and comedies that aim to regale millions of patrons, live and (in rarer cases) later on film.

One of the brightest developments on Broadway may be the stripped down nature of recent break-out shows. The century-old model of glitter and gloss, elaborate sets, large casts and special effects isn’t dead. But it’s not affordable in the smaller theaters that are incubating some of the most daring and thoughtful musicals. Nor is it necessary, or (consider the behemoth, super-tech bomb, “Spiderman”) reliably profitable.

Live theater is one of the few entertainment idioms left that demand the full attention and imagination of the audience. You have to fill in what’s suggested yourself, without (usually) the benefit of the hyper-“realism” achieved these days in films (which paradoxically is often accomplished by computer generated imagery).

In winning, ingeniously single-set shows like “Book of Mormon,” “Rent,” “Once,” “Spring Awakening,” “Hamilton” and more to come, it’s not elaborate visuals and glitzy kick lines that constitute the hip-hip hooray and ballyhoo of Broadway anymore.  It’s the fresh, vivid storytelling and vitality, the performers and the music, the now-ness that make the magic—and rejuvenate the medium.

Notes

The first national tour of “Hamilton” will come to Portland and Seattle as part of the 2016-17 Broadway Across American season. (Dates announced later.) The national tour of “Fun Home” will play at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, July 11 – 30, 2017.

Misha Berson is the former theater critic for the Seattle Times, a freelance writer for American Theatre Magazine, Seattle Times and other publications, and the author of four books about theater, including “Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination”

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