Why Is Broadway So Unhip?

Dear Peter,

First of all, allow me to gush about how honored I am to correspond with you about the New York theater season—the Broadway part at least, since that’s the purview of the Tony awards. I’ve always been a keen theatergoer, but it’s only since moving to New York a couple of years ago that I’ve had the chance to get serious about it. Well, I thought I was hard-core with my twice-a-week habit; and then I discovered people like you, who go to the theater every single night. Of course, as a critic, it’s your job, but I happen to know that when there’s nothing on your professional schedule, you check out high-school plays and other “amateur” productions. That’s where duty shades into obsession.

Other than when I’m reading the always entertaining and often frightening Broadway bulletin board All That Chat, I rarely encounter anything like that level of passion for theater. I did a quick survey of Slate’s New York office staff and found that for the most part, theater just isn’t a core ingredient of the cultural diet of this hypereducated, au courant group of relatively affluent young people. They read prolifically, see all the new movies, and can identify the hip bands in four notes, but Broadway, or theater in general?—not so much. Accompanying out-of-town visitors seems to be the main reason for theatergoing. Otherwise, it’s too expensive, stuffy, and tragically unhip. Surely that’s a problem?

This season seemed especially geriatric. (By the way, why does the Broadway “season” run from June to June?) During one week in May, I saw two plays where the main characters sat in chairs for 95 percent of the performance. (I speak, of course, of 70-year-old Vanessa Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking, and 81-year-old Angela Lansbury and 78-year-old Marian Seldes in the appalling Deuce.) I realize that directorial decisions kept them seated—these amazing women are no doubt capable of more active performances—but it sure made them seem old. Elsewhere on the Great Gray Way, 68-year-old Brian Dennehy and 77-year-old Christopher Plummer are Inheriting the Wind, and 69-year-old Frank Langella is one half of Frost/Nixon. Of course, there are youthful shows, too—Spring Awakening comes to mind—but even in that crowd I felt relatively young, and I’m in my 40s.

Broadway is also hellishly expensive. As David Spade observed after Legally Blonde: The Musical hit Broadway: “It’s a can’t-miss for anyone who’d like to see the movie again for 200 bucks.” When I saw Spring Awakening—late enough into its run that the orchestra seats were all occupied—it was like being on an airplane. I was wedged into a too-small seat, next to a too-large neighbor, and I’d paid $120 for the pleasure. Worst of all, my view of the stage was obscured by the heads in front of me for much of the time.

I don’t mean to seem too gloomy, though. According to the League of American Theatres and Producers, Broadway grosses were up 8.9 percent in the 2006-07 season, and and 12.3 million people paid to see a Broadway show. But “straight” plays—and quirky, nontraditional musicals like Grey Gardens or Company—seem to have had a very tough time at the box office. There’s usually one “snob hit” play, to use William Goldman’s term, that does OK—earlier this season it was The Coast of Utopia; now it seems to be Frost/Nixon (though that show is well short of selling out). Of course, both originated in Britain. Am I wrong to be worried about American theater?

It’s pointless to argue about whether off-Broadway shows should be eligible for Tony consideration. They aren’t, and financially speaking, it would be impossible for off-Broadway houses to provide the hundreds of complimentary tickets that Tony-eligible shows are required to extend to voters. But, of the hundreds of shows you’ve seen this season, was Broadway the pinnacle of excellence? What were the productions and performances that most stand out for you—wherever you saw them? You’ve given us your predictions for Sunday’s winners, now tell us what and who you’d like to see take home a statuette. And what about the unlucky losers? I enjoyed the short-lived musical version of High Fidelity, which you smartly diagnosed as being about compromise. Were there any flops that you felt deserved to live longer?

For me, the toughest Tony contest is Special Theatrical Event, a battle between Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway and Jay Johnson: The Two and Only (clearly, having a colon in a show’s title is both “special” and “theatrical”). I loved them both. In my view, Kiki DuRane is the greatest living interpreter of the English-language songbook. Some people felt Kiki & Herb didn’t belong on Broadway—too downtown, too Vaudeville, whatever. All I know is that while seeing them at the Helen Hayes Theatre might have been more expensive than seeing them at their usual venues, it was surely more convenient—with no tiresome support acts to sit through, the show started on time and ended well before midnight. Similarly, ventriloquists may be inherently cheesy and more than a little creepy, but Johnson’s sweet, touching show moved me more than anything I saw in a Broadway theater this season. Then again, I’ve always been very sympathetic to the plight of wooden Americans.