There Are No Settled Arguments About Broadway

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Sitting in my upscale hotel room in Miami Beach, the 2010 Tony Awards looked very different than it usually does. The awards looked different enough, frankly, that the very thought of writing about it and jumping passionately into the fray didn’t interest me much. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ version of Send in the Clowns, directed by Eleonora Duse from beyond the grave? That was unfortunate. And no, folks, it wasn’t the version of the song, or of her performance, that I enjoyed so much when I saw A Little Night Music. Sometimes Dionysus is asleep at the switch. He does have a lot on his plate.

As for Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele performing — I mean, as for the Tonys capitalizing on the success of Glee — what was that? I love them both, I’m a total Glee-ster, but darlings, darlings! Where was Rob Lowe and Snow White? Was that a sop to Fox just in case CBS nixes the telecast? Was that indeed Michele’s audition for the revival of Funny Girl? I haven’t seen anything so naked since Michelangelo’s David. It was Dionysus on a morphine drip.

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Or was it just the Miami Beach heat going to my head?

But again, again, it all looked far away, removed, remote — not as earth-shatteringly important as the Gotham bubble might make it all seem to be. As it is, I suppose, to so much of the country, which remains one of the great challenges that the Great White Way faces. After all, millions of people visit New York each year and go to see a Broadway show, and I don’t think anyone questions whether the arts, and especially the live theater, is the lifeblood, after Wall Street, of the New York City economy. But also, each year, it feels as if the theater community — I’m being dangerously liberal here with the word — indulges in the same unending arguments about Broadway, too. It is what passes too often for the Sondheim and Shakespeare sets as deep, probing philosophy, the debates unfurl like a flag at a July 4 barbecue: Is it axiomatic and beyond debate that Broadway represents the pinnacle of achievement in the American theater? Or is it axiomatic and beyond debate that Broadway represents the pinnacle of achievement in the commercial theater — with a lucky few nonprofit producers, who are more and more sustaining Broadway, adding a bit of aesthetic sheen? Or is it axiomatic and beyond debate that Broadway represents the pinnacle of achievement along the blocks of Manhattan real estate that give Broadway branding and history and definition?

And, says a great deal of the nation, who the hell cares?

After all, most average people, if they choose to go to the live theater at all, just to be entertained, right? They don’t want to be burdened with garrulous moral symphonies about disenfranchised artists when unemployment is higher than Michele’s money note.

Meanwhile, who am I, but a mere blogger, to expect such unfurling to do anything other than once again unfurl?

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As my archenemy, Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News, trenchantly and correctly points out, insiders care! Indeed, we should all care about the fact that Broadway is not the be-all and end-all of the American stage — unless, of course, you are involved with Broadway.

This is also why Charles Isherwood’s bead-of-sweat fretting about the Broadway season just ended — and his diagnosis of the musical theater as suffering from laryngitis — is so wildly out of touch, like pretending only elephants are caged at the zoo.

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But if we’re to revisit arguments about Broadway that show no sign of being settled, I will side with Gerard, who at least put some real bite in his bark:

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If your show ran in one of the 40 designated Broadway theaters, you’re golden.

If not, you’re nobody.

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…it’s nonsense to suggest that the Tony brand automatically represents the best.

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In the past, the Broadway League — the cartel that co- presents the Tony Awards with the American Theatre Wing, a service organization that owns the name — argued that off- Broadway shows can’t accommodate the 700 to 800 Tony voters. Guess what? “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” ran for more than six months and was easily the most acclaimed show of the year. Because of a smart sponsorship deal with Time Warner, the tickets were $20.

Also this:

There would be no Broadway without the non-profit theaters, and yet this apartheid system survives. London’s top awards, the Oliviers, don’t make that distinction. Other local awards, such as the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, do include off-Broadway, but they lack the brand recognition of the Tonys, which producers count on to goose the box office.

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Off-Broadway has been playing the supporting role for way too long. It’s time for the Tony Awards to invite everyone into the tent and give real meaning to the phrase “outstanding achievement in the theater.”

So there. I’m in the fray. Thanks, Jeremy. At least we finally agree on something.

But let me add that the question of the health of Broadway, of what should and shouldn’t be Tony eligible, of whether Broadway is or isn’t more important than Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, regional theater or landing a man on the moon, isn’t new. So much of the country, blithely bathing in the Miami Beach heat just outside my upscale hotel room, doesn’t give a fig. That, with all due respect to Gerard, isn’t new either. But it worries me more than anything else.

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