The Death of Broadway

Ben Shapiro is a Senior Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and Editor-in-Chief of TruthRevolt.org. He is the author of the new book "The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against the Obama Administration" (Threshold Editions).


1.162050The Tony Awards this week demonstrated the continuing devolution of musical theater into a fringe phenomenon. Once upon a time, musical theater was an iconic American art form; now, it has been divvied into Disney earners and social issues vaudeville acts beloved by critics. Forget the days when Broadway offered something to everyone. Now, Broadway offers something to a few, and nothing to most.

How else to explain a musical titled Kinky Boots winning Best Musical? The show is a remake of a 2005 British film of the same name, with music by 1980s pop rock icon Cyndi Lauper and book by gay icon Harvey Fierstein. The plot revolves around a shoemaker who is forced to manufacture fetish shoes for drag artists rather than men’s shoes in order to save his business. Clearly, hordes of fans crying out for transvestite cobblers set to music created the need for this musical.

While fans of current Broadway musicals love to point to the high earnings of the shows running on the Great White Way, those stats aren’t inflation adjusted. Arguing that Kinky Boots may outearn Oklahoma! is like arguing that Transformers outearned Gone With the Wind. It may be technically true, but it’s leaving out a rather important piece of information. An average Broadway ticket costs upward of $70. A decent seat costs nearer to $200. That wasn’t true when Alfred Drake was pacing the floorboards.

Beyond that, the high prices guarantee a certain level of audience approval. Oddly enough, human beings hate to admit they’ve made a mistake with their money. So after shelling out $200 for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, most attendees will stand and cheer, justifying their decision; they’ll tell their friends how much they enjoyed the musical; they’ll point to the critics. Then their friends will attend, and the cycle repeats. Over time, of course, bad shows weed themselves out, but not before the Emperor’s New Clothes are worshiped repeatedly.

So, what’s on Broadway now? There are the kiddie shows – The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, Matilda. There are the gay shows – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Kinky Boots. There are the shows for people who think musical theater is supposed to be a rock concert punctuated by plot: Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages. The age of legitimate musicals – ones with original plot and music, with non-generic lyrics and actual heart – seems to be ending.

The proof is in the pudding. Of the longest-running Broadway shows in history, only one has premiered past 2000 that could be considered a traditional Broadway musical (Wicked). The others are all movie remakes (Mary Poppins, Hairspray), rock concerts (Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia!), or straight satire (Avenue Q).

Those are the safe investments. Aim at kids, and you’ll do fine. Rewarm the leftovers from 1968, and you’ll do fine, too. Or go edgy. Mental illness and suicide (the screamy Next to Normal) are thematically interesting, say the critics. So are AIDS (Rent, hilariously parodied in the far more entertaining Team America), and the travails of gay parenting (La Cage Aux Folles). And, apparently, the difficulties faced by shoemakers who stock drag competitions.

The one factor that used to separate Broadway from the rest of American entertainment was heart. Yes, the songs are less singable now than they’ve ever been (quick, hum a tune from Avenue Q). And sure, the plots are more dreary, or pumped full of desperate energy and smiles so fake you’ll think you’re watching the photo shoot for an eighth grade graduation. But what’s really missing is a sense of caring. We go for the show, not the characters. We used to laugh and cry with Tevye, or worry about Emile, or lust for revenge with Sweeney. But who cares about a giant puppet (Avenue Q) or a couple of shyster producers we’ve seen on film played better by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel (The Producers)?

We used to go for the heart, and stay for the show. Now we go for the show, even if it has no heart. It’s New York; we’re supposed to shell out the cash and give a Standing O. We’re a captive audience. And like the captive audience at Gitmo, our choice not to be tortured is severely curtailed by the tastes of our captors.

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  • leith

    so true. issues dominate not only all tv, music, broadway, but education too. Common Core is as much an atrocity in the making, its predecessors the talent behind “the issue” set to music. artists are taught to dance for the issues, paint about the sufferings of poverty, gender, sexism,racism, food justice, etc… disney channel and nickelodeon are merely platforms to explore the issues without mom knowing it imbedded within progressive stereotype slapstick banality. Creativity has been stolen. for the last 20 years, fashion has not changed, cars are the same, music keeps getting worse, pop stars are bizarre characatures promoting empty rebellion and creepy sexuality. magazines are now platforms for leftist prosthelytizing and opression. vogue, rolling stone, vanity fair, town and country, and more, little propaganda arms of the movement. all arts under the shadow of political correctism and nonprofit phony glorification of social justice and warped preachy faux charity obsession. Issue over substance. with parameters like that how could any beauty seep through? it is the 21st century dark age brought to you by creeping cultural marxism.

    • dizzyizzy

      I would rather blame union rules, which affect Broadway as well as the public schools. They are part of the great dumbing down.

  • ElizabethMC

    As much as liberals want kinky and aberrant to be mainstream, the majority of folks aren’t buying it.

    • Seek

      There are plenty of “kinky” conservatives. And we enjoy an interesting challenging Broadway show as well as a challenging movie.

      • ElizabethMC

        This isn’t something that I would want to see.
        It could be there aren’t enough people with your appreciation – or maybe it’s a bad economy – or maybe both.

  • tagalog

    Given the subject-matter of Kinky Boots, I would guess that before it received the Best Musical award, it had somewhat limited audience appeal. Oh well, so did Oklahoma!, I guess. Although everyone has heard of Oklahoma! and outside of New York and L.A. I’m sure that Kinky Boots is hardly a watchword. Maybe people are going around humming the tunes, right?

    • Jacobite2

      I have hope that the intersection of degenerate culture and Islamic jihad may turn out to be to America;s advantage. One terror group; one nuke; one parking space in Times Square, and America’s a much, much better place.

  • Gamal

    The gay culture has taken over musical theater

    • Digli

      Gays in musical theater?
      Who would have thought?

      • OfficialPro

        I know right

  • Palanisamy

    Sad news to musical lovers.

    Palanisamy

  • dizzyizzy

    There was a time when real intellectuals wrote for Broadway, whatever their limitations. I wrote about the disastrous SMASH (on television) as a perfectly liberal offering in tune with the times. See http://clarespark.com/2013/05/27/smash-the-perfect-liberal-backstage-musical/. This was the second of two pieces on SMASH. The first was here: http://clarespark.com/2012/05/18/smash-season-finales-and-the-demonic/. “Smash and the demonic.” I recommend both even if you didn’t see the series, which did have its devotees. The second one did emphasize the role that craft unions have had on innovation and experimentation. Now Broadway caters to the sure-fire hit, which means catering to the lowest common denominator.

  • The Dead Critic

    Now if Hollywood would just shrivel up and die already!

    • Seek

      Maybe you could die instead. Sorry if you’re fixated on Hollywood, but this piece actually is about Broadway. Even Ben has to step back a few paces and write about something different.

  • Kevin Jones

    Beauty and the Beast and The Producers closed in 2007. Rent closed in 2008. Hairspray closed in 2009. Next To Normal and La Cage closed in 2011. Priscilla Queen of the Desert closed a year ago. Mary Poppins closed in March of this year. Avenue Q moved to an off-Broadway theater in 2009.

    • Seek

      All stage shows “close” at some point. So what? These dates tell us nothing about how long the shows played or how good they were.

      • Kevin Jones

        Keep seeking, Seek. I’m pointing out that there was zero research done on this lame article. Shapiro talks like these shows are all open. Looks like there are very few who read this tripe that think before they comment.

  • NAHALKIDES

    This is a cultural tragedy. I can only suggest that we as conservatives need to mount our own “long march through the institutions” and begin to displace the cultural Left. When we bring back the values that ruled during the 40′s and 50′s, then we might see the same caliber of musical again.

    • Digli

      Bring back Cole Porter?
      He was indeed a genius but he was also Gay.

  • Kimberly

    This is an interesting theory, but very poorly researched. Middle-America fuels “Mamma Mia!” and “Jersey Boys.” When has the music of Frankie Valli not appealed to conservatives as well as more liberal audiences? The long-runners may skew mass-ignorance, but dozens of brilliant shows have opened, been adored (adult-and-kid appealing Tony-winner Peter and the Starcatcher, 2011, now off-Broadway) and closed–not running for 5-25 years does not signal a flop or classic new musical. Many fascinating “classical” musicals are shaping their way to bigger stages off-Broadway or regionally first…”Giant,” for example, as classic in format as “Oklahoma!” Zero mention of “In the Heights,” or the raunchier but still immaculately built “Book of Mormon,” the latter of which is one of the shows currently poised to be a long runner. No nod to the hugely successful “Chicago,” still running and still classic in style. Limited engagement runs, preset to close sooner, are more standard and financially viable than open ended runs seen regularly 30 years ago. And, most egregiously absent from the conversation–recognition that the classics are classics for a reason…their stories would be played out and isolating if repeated again and again in similar format, hence the evolution of work that tells love stories without sweeping farms and operatic ballads, but new landscapes and evolving musical styles. At one time, George Ballachine was considered the death of ballet. Now his is remembered as the father of modern ballet. It is too early to tell whether Broadway is “dead.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=853270082 Jacob Thompson

      Clearly the author left out anything that doesn’t support his thesis.

  • Sharps Rifle

    I never could stand musicals, so I’m shedding no tears if they vanish.

  • Keely

    I hum songs from Avenue Q all the time! “It’d be okay…if you were gay…I’d love you a-ny-way.”