Broadway League Confirms Great White Way Whiter Than Ever

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Hot on the spiky heels of the dispiriting National Endowment for the Arts’ report on public participation comes a new set of audience demographics from the Broadway League. To summarize the New York Times’ surprisingly sarcastic coverage of the document, during the 2008-09 season the Great White Way was a very apt name.

Specifically, reported the Times’ Patrick Healy, 2.4 percent of Broadway theatergoers were African-American last season, “down from 6.3 percent in the 2007-08 Broadway season and 6.7 percent in 2006-07.”

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You can almost hear Charlotte St. Martin saying, "Broadway audiences are diversifying -- except for the black people!"
You can almost hear Charlotte St. Martin saying to the press, "Broadway audiences are diversifying -- except for the black people!"

Strangely, I think it’s almost more eyebrow-raising to think of those numbers this way: During the 2008-09 Broadway season, 97.6 percent of ticket-holders were not African-American. Yes, this says the same thing. But somehow that 97.6 percent figure really drives home the, um, monochromaticism of Broadway.

Healy also reported that the household income of the average Broadway attendee last season was $195,700, thereby “underscoring that Broadway is one of the most popular leisure destinations in New York City for the affluent.”

This is news? It’s not as if the household income of the average Broadway attendee was $75,000 a few years ago.

It’s also not as if the racial composition of the Broadway audience was 20 percent or 30 percent African-American two or three or five years ago.

Indeed, 6.7 percent African-American looks almost like progress by comparison.

Checking back with the Broadway League’s own statistics, meanwhile, the 2006-07 season had 35 new shows — the lowest figure over the last five years — and some of the highest attendance ever recorded. So more productions opened and fewer African-American found work of interest to them. Or perhaps they couldn’t afford it. Or perhaps there are still more barriers to entry that are glossed over by the Broadway League’s analysis.

And every year come the Tony broadcast, we hear the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League talk publicly about their efforts to bring young people to the theater — lowering age-related barriers to entry. Clearly, from the stastitics in the League’s report, they’re making progress. Just as clearly, however, one barrier is economic — yet with $150 ticket prices within view over the next five years, one must wonder why that barrier is rising instead of falling. Oh, that’s right: commercial producers will counter that there are myriad ways to obtain discounted tickets. All right, so much for that. But isn’t it — I’m going to use a strong word here — absolutely disgusting and basically unforgivable that if your skin color happens, 97.6 percent of the time, to be black, Broadway isn’t the place for you?

What, exactly, does the League plans to do about these numbers? Are we to infer from the executive summary, signed by League executive director Charlotte St. Martin, that the answer is not much?

Since when is “growth in the diversity of our audience” a euphenism for “as long as you’re not black”?

As one of the primary goals for The Broadway League is to make Broadway more accessible worldwide, it was good to see that the international segment of the audiences grew to 21%, which is the highest in recorded history. In addition, while still predominantly a Caucasian audience, we continue to see growth in the diversity of our audience. Another goal for us is to continue to bring in younger audiences to Broadway, and once again, the report for 2008-2009 reflected that we had the most growth in the 25-34 age group since the 1999-2000 season.