“Hamilton” and the Democratization of Broadway

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Besides institutionally celebrating Hamilton, finally giving it the awards everyone said it had earned over a year ago, yesterday’s Tony Awards was a celebration of theater’s inclusiveness and diversity. Besides the near record-breaking wins by Hamilton which reinterprets the story of America’s founding through a primary cast of POC and hip-hop/R&B soundtrack written by the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Lin-Manuel Miranda; other big shows that shared the spotlight were the Broadway revival of Spring Awakening with deaf actors and simultaneous ASL translation, and featuring the first Broadway performer to use a wheelchair, Ali Stroker; a revival of The Color Purple, and the new plays School of Rock and Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed which also have casts made largely of POC. For the first time in Tony Awards history, all four musical acting awards went to people of color. And the entire show was dedicated to the victims of that morning’s terror attack/hate crime in Orlando, many (if not all) of whom were lgbtq+ Latin@s. Broadway, and theater more generally, is a proven home for inclusiveness and diversity in every aspect…except for the audience.

I don’t think there can be any debate that Broadway isn’t an activity almost exclusively for the well-to-do. Most obviously is the price of tickets, the average of which, this year passed $100 for the first time; and is higher for more popular shows like Hamilton or anything else that took home this year’s Tonys. There’s also the issue of location. Even with nation-wide touring companies, the center for production, and consequently in this case, distribution of live theater remains a single avenue in New York City. That means in addition to expensive theater tickets, most people nation-wide who would like to see a Broadway show have to pay all the expenses associated with any sort of travel. This makes Broadway incredibly inaccessible to most of the people who would want to see, or could otherwise benefit from the enriching experiences this sort of live theater provides, especially many people who don’t see themselves represented in other forms of popular media that aren’t able to see themselves on Broadway for entirely different reasons.

And of course this isn’t to say that Broadway is the only distributor of live theater nation-wide. That’s ridiculous. There are tons of great avenues for live theater all around the country, and just as many opportunities to participate as there is to watch. But to say there is no difference between Broadway and other live theater is naive. Not being able to see Broadway productions is like not being able to watch movies owned by Disney: there is tons of incredible stuff out there, but it would be difficult to participate in the greater media-cultural zeitgeist.

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Obviously, I’m far from the first person to notice this problem, and Broadway has taken some steps to try and fix things. One that I’ve personally benefited from is that many Broadway shows sell tickets at a very steep discount to public schools. And as great as these programs are, they still limit the potential audience to schools, mainly in the tri-state area, that can also budget these sorts of field trips.

The other program in place for cheaper b’way tix are show lotteries which…well, as Jeffery Cranor pointed out on twitter, feels more like something out of a satire than a real solution. Other than that, getting a cheap ticket probably means waiting in line for hours just for a chance at a ticket that might not even be discounted, if there are any available at all.

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Frankly, the best way for Broadway to solve this problem of lack of access to its live shows is to expand distribution, even if that means sacrificing some of the “live” aspects.  This means streaming broadcasts of live shows, and eventually, the distribution of recordings.

The streaming precedent has already largely been set by Fathom Events, which streams live broadcasts of concerts, and even the Metropolitan Opera out of Lincoln Center (which is only just over mile away from the Richard Rodgers Theater, where Hamilton is) to movie theaters across the country. There are also the recent productions of Grease Live!, and Peter Pan Live! that prove the viability of broadcast live theater. Meanwhile, the fact that Broadway productions are rarely, if ever, professionally recorded and sold is simply archaic; if not just for purposes of distribution, then for archival and posterity.

People against these practices argue that streaming or recordings of live theater cheapens the experience for both the audience and the performers, but all those arguments are either gatekeeping or hand-wringing, pure and simple. While seeing a broadcast or a recording of a live event is never as good as actually being there, at least it’s something for anyone who couldn’t. And anyone who thinks their experience of a live production was cheapened by other people being able to see it needs to see a therapist about some self-esteem issues. Plus, it allows these productions to be witnessed by people who for issues of temporal displacement, as well as spatial, are unable to see the live production. And it isn’t like the artists behind the productions wouldn’t see a profit from this sort of thing. Broadway would see more money by selling recordings of their shows rather than trying to prevent people making and sharing bootlegs. And if you want to look at the music industry, recordings haven’t cheapened live shows – they’ve become advertisements for them. Nor would a recording at all cheapen efforts for other artists to interpret the work in their own productions; heck, the movie industry is all about remakes right now despite the originals existing only as recordings.

With media in general, it used to be that if someone is unable to experience something, it was because that media no longer exists. With modern technology, the biggest excuse media has for not being saved and shared is because somebody doesn’t want you to see it. And when those people don’t want someone to see a piece of media because they don’t “deserve” or haven’t “earned” it, those people are gatekeeping, and that is disgusting and wrong. It isn’t up to people to deserve seeing any given piece of media, it’s up to the media to deserve being seen.

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