What Theater Taught Me

Dear June,

Ah, there it is again! Young people don’t go to the theater, and what can we do about it?

You’re right that this season was a field day for longtime AARP members. Dennehy, 68; Langella, 69; Redgrave, 70; Plummer, 77; Seldes, 78; Lansbury, 81. Yes, many audience members share the years of their birthdays.

You wrote that at Spring Awakening, “I felt relatively young, and I’m in my 40s.” I started going to the theater at 15, and I didn’t care a whit that the person next to me was four or five times my age. I was fascinated by the experience and the content. I’m a better person for learning the lessons a mature theater had for me. How I felt for characters, both in hits (Laura in The Glass Menagerie) or flops (the young soldier in Mata Hari who knew he was doomed in the next battle). I believed Irene Molloy in Hello, Dolly! when she said, “Isn’t the world full of wonderful things?” and I still, 40 years on, agree with her. Company taught me that being married meant feeling both sorry and grateful. Sweeney Todd reminded me that grudge-holding could destroy a person.

As a teen encountering a Broadway play, I simply rose to the occasion. In 1963, I better understood my parents’ terrible marriage after seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In 1964, I learned from The Subject Was Roses that a son needn’t wait for his father to say he loves him—he can go first. In 1965, the racism I was carefully taught as a child was tremendously lessened when I heard Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun say that she would strap a child to her back and scrub floors night and day to leave her slum apartment for a decent living space. Friends I took to The Boys in the Band in 1969 stopped making gay jokes after they saw it. I exaggerate not one bit about any of the above experiences. They all came from adult-themed shows that made me more of an adult.

This obsession with youth to which even the theater has now succumbed has not helped. Why does the theater so crave the young people, anyway? Why is their money worth more than older people’s money? Why must we cater to people who, for the most part, have less life experience and less-educated standards? The “art” that’s created for them could very well be of lesser value. So, Spring Awakening is the odds-on favorite to win on Sunday night. Nevertheless, nobody is going to convince me that the lyrics are even passable, let alone good. They’re written in an uneducated fashion, and kids don’t know any better and accept them wholeheartedly. This is what we want from our theater? This is what we’ll do just to seem “hip”?

“Broadway is also hellishly expensive,” you write. Indeed. Always has been. But most live events are expensive. Many tickets for sporting events aren’t much different in cost from theater tickets—though they shouldn’t be, because thousands more people can be accommodated than in a Broadway theater, they have TV and radio revenues to subsidize them, and they shouldn’t be paying ludicrously out-of-whack salaries to their athletes.

“Am I wrong to be worried about American theater?” you ask. Of course not. But in the 46 years that I’ve been obsessively following this art form, there has never been a day when I’ve heard people say otherwise. It’s always been “dying.” But in the ‘50s, if I told you two of the following three things would disappear by the turn of the century—Broadway plays and musicals, the drive-in movie theater, and the TV western—you probably would have guessed the first item on the list. But it’s the other two, once wildly popular, that have disappeared. People want the experience of sitting in a theater and seeing people enact, right in front of them, the stories they want to hear. Especially as they get older and wiser.

You ask, “of the hundreds of shows you’ve seen this season,” (Want a number? 312) “was Broadway the pinnacle of excellence?” The answer is, as always, sometimes. I got that marvelous frisson during the opening of The Coast of Utopia, and plenty of times afterward. While I saw Radio Golf in its pre-Broadway tryout at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, I saw it again at the Cort and laughed just as hard at the intense wit delivered by Anthony Chisholm as I had the first time. I admired that the authors of Grey Gardens could take a 1975 documentary film and create a plausible back story as a first act before musicalizing the movie in the second act. I was thrilled to see that A Chorus Line is still wonderful. I mourned for Coram Boy’s financial defeat but was exhilarated during the time I was in the Imperial. I, too, enjoyed both Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway and Jay Johnson: The Two and Only, but I had no problem deciding that the latter would get my Tony vote. The miracle of that show is that I went in expecting a mere ventriloquism act and got an emotional experience where a man paid tribute to his mentor.

Sure, off-Broadway gave me equally pungent excitement, from Nilaja Sun’s telling me what it’s like to teach in an urban setting in No Child … . What a wonder to find that A.R. Gurney, a septuagenarian, just won’t stop writing and still writes astonishingly well in Indian Blood. Perhaps the best show I saw all year, though, was by the New Jersey Youth Theatre. A bunch of black and white kids did Ragtime and were utterly professional in every regard. I wept at how good it was. Now this is the way to get young people interested in the theater: Give them a masterpiece of a musical and let them see its wonders, either from onstage or from the audience.