The 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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