I was at a networking event earlier this week and got into a conversation - one that I’ve had countless times with theatre professionals and audience members alike - where the central questions are:
“Should Broadway shows be about the art or the money?”
“Is there a place on Broadway for shows that are only light and feel-good? What about dark, depressing shows?”
“How do you expect to get new audiences if all shows look, feel, or sound alike?”
Now, I don’t find the mere asking of these questions to be problematic, but I do find the heart of this oft-had conversation to be problematic. Whichever side you fall on - and yes, there do ultimately seem to end up being two sides to this conversation - there is an insinuation that one type of theatre should exist on Broadway and another type should not.
But my big question is: Why?
Fun and Fluff
I often hear critiques from theatre professionals and lovers, which indicates that when a show is mostly fun and fluff it has no artistic merit and is not worth the time, money, or space on Broadway.
WHOA there! Hold on. What is this all about?
Okay, I think the argument is actually a bit more nuanced than this. Mostly because I can honestly say that I have never seen a show on Broadway (no matter the content) that had zero artistic merit. And I hope I would never encounter this.
If a show has made it all the way to a Broadway stage - with thousands of artists of all varieties having been involved over years of development - I can basically guarantee you there will be at least some fantastic art involved. To write off an entire production as containing zero art is, well, madness.
That being said, what I think people are intending to argue has to do with the contents of the script itself.
I can say that I have seen Broadway shows whose script or libretto lacked any depth. Sometimes this has been perfectly wonderful to experience. Other times it has not. What’s the difference?
Pander (v.) - To cater basely
The shows that have ultimately disappointed me have been those that have existed merely to pander to an audience, whether it’s the general theatre-going audience or a more specified group. This is where I think shows can go wrong and where their place on a Broadway stage might be questioned.
If the sole goal of a script or production is just to get people to give money and fill seats, completely ignoring the experience that follows that first step, then something is terribly wrong.
The experience of a show is what counts. It’s why we as artists make it happen. Money is important, of course, but if the experience itself is lacking in point, message, or merit, then it probably should not exist.
But really, how often does this occur?
Hey, Big Talker
Providing negative criticism for anything ever is incredibly easy. People love to talk smack. And put down. And find fault with.
This applies to the fun and fluff of Broadway as well.
Artists love to claim to be only “sErIoUs ArTiStS” who would never stoop so low as to be in the room with something that was meant to be purely enjoyable. GASP!
And that is total BS.
We all fell in love with theatre partially because of the fun and fluff! My first musicals were mostly musical movies and local productions, including: all animated Disney films, Annie, Little Shop of Horrors, Anything Goes, and shows made for young people to perform in schools. Even my first two Broadway shows were Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. I would not be here doing what I do, if it weren’t for shows that were mostly about enjoyment (though these do all have good messages as well).
And some people still like these types of shows the best, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I still enjoy many of these shows! And many artists will only admit this enjoyment under their breath, but why not shout it from the rooftops instead? Fun and fluff are…well, FUN! And who doesn’t like to have fun?
But the ART
Yes, I love the more artistic pieces as well. And many people do, both artists and non-artists alike. And to ask whether or not they have a place on a Broadway stage is really just silly. OF COURSE THEY DON’T!
High art pieces can exhilarate just as much as any light-hearted fun-fest. I mean, I wish I could go back and experience my first time through Sunday in the Park with George over and over again! That was a transformative experience for me.
So, at that networking event, one of the people said: “No one wants to go to the theatre and see something depressing or dark.”
I was like…WUT.
Of course we do! Sometimes, at least! Perhaps not every night.
Also, no one says this about any other art form - ever. We constantly see movies that we know will be depressing. How often do we put on sad music when we’re feeling down and just want to stare longingly at the rain? And I’ve certainly never heard of anyone telling a museum to take down all paintings that are too dark or have sad people in them. That’s crazy!
And let’s be real. Art isn’t going anywhere. The business exists because the art exists. And artistic merit will be found in any Broadway production. There is really no need to separate them out, but I understand the dichotomy that people are going for: An overall sense of fun vs. a sense of the artistic.
And both are great. Often, what you want to see depends simply upon your mood. Why is there a need to pick a side?
All of it has a place.
Broadway is a business. Broadway is art. Broadway is artist-driven. Broadway is audience-driven. Broadway is financially driven.
Broadway belongs to all of us. This is our town and our business - meaning everyone’s. Let us remember this always and choose to never discriminate.