Saturday, November 29, 2003

Saving Broadway?

One of the biggest debates in theatre scholarship is whether or not Broadway is dying, and if so, if it’s worth saving. In the past forty years, Broadway has gone from its glory as the icon of American theatre to near-death, only to be rescued by British imports, revivals of old standards, and the Walt Disney empire, which has drawn up plans to put Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, and Tarzan on the Great White Way, following in the footsteps (paw prints?) of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Traditionalists are concerned that Disney will somehow cheapen Broadway. (Given the fact that it costs a minimum of $10 million to mount a musical production on Broadway, “cheap” is not a word that comes readily to mind.)

Broadway has been never really been on the cutting edge of American theatre – it’s more a tourist draw than anything – so turning Broadway into Disneyland will, if anything, be good for it, at least in terms of selling tickets and exposing people to live theatre. The best theatre in America today is regional – cities such as Minneapolis, Dallas, Denver, even Los Angeles have fine theatre companies doing amazing productions of new plays, and some of the greatest dramas in American theatre history; The Glass Menagerie, Inherit the Wind, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (not to mention all the works of Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson) didn’t get their start on Broadway.

So, let Mary Poppins and her dancing penguins come to Broadway, and let them charge $100 a pop to see it. When the tourists go back home to Ohio, they might actually want to see live theatre again, and that’s where it all starts. That’s how they hooked me – I saw my first Broadway show, High Spirits, when I was in New York in 1964 to see the World’s Fair, and, well, the rest is theatre history…